3-ton sunfish discovered in Atlantic is heaviest bony fish ever

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A team of scientists in Portugal say they have discovered the world’s heaviest bony fish in the Azores archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean.

The giant sunfish, weighing just over 3 tonnes, was discovered dead in the water on Faial Island in the Azores by a fisherman last December, researchers said. A team from the Atlantic Naturalist Association, a Portuguese ocean conservation organization, helped bring the huge creature back to earth.

“Of course we realized it was a huge sunfish…we had the perception that day that it should be a world record,” said José Nuno Gomes -Pereira, researcher at the Atlantic Naturalist Association.

Gomes-Pereira and his team used a forklift to weigh and measure the fish.

It was 10.6 feet long and weighed about 6,050 pounds, according to the research paper published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Fish Biology. It became the heaviest bony fish ever documented, breaking the record set in 1996 by a bluegill of the same species, Mola alexandrini. This one was discovered in Japanese waters, according to the research paper, and weighed around 2.5 tons.

There are two types of fish, cartilaginous and bony. Bony fish make up the majority of fish, according to Gomes-Pereira — think carp, salmon and bass. Cartilaginous fish have skeletons made of cartilage and include species like sharks and stingrays.

While the sunfish found in Portugal is the heaviest bony fish ever discovered, it is far from the heaviest ocean creature.

Whale sharks, which are cartilaginous, weigh around 11 tons, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The largest animal in the ocean (and the world) is the blue whale, a mammal that can weigh up to 200 tons and span nearly 100 feet, according to the WWF. It’s also the largest animal in the world, period.

Gomes-Pereira told USA TODAY on Friday that the sunfish discovery was partly encouraging because it showed the ocean can still support some of the largest fish on the planet. The sea bass is listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Precise population estimates for the Mola alexandrini species are rare, Gomes-Pereira said. He thinks the number could be in the low thousands based on the frequency of sightings by fishermen.

But the historic discovery also highlighted a huge threat to large ocean wildlife.

“It’s also a warning – because we found the animal dead – that more management should be done regarding boat traffic,” Gomes-Pereira said. A large depression on the sunfish indicated that it had probably been killed by a collision with a ship.

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Gomes-Pereira said large cargo ships that sail near oceanic islands, such as the Azores, pose a threat to the rich marine biodiversity.

The researchers said they needed the help of a forklift to weigh the creature.

“It’s where turtles, sharks and whales breed…it’s an international problem,” Gomes-Pereira said.

The phenomenon has been particularly severe in the Pacific Ocean, where at least 80 whales are killed each year in collisions with cargo ships, with the worst years on record being in 2018, 2019 and 2021, USA TODAY reported.

“We can all do a little better in this aspect,” Gomes-Pereira said. “It’s international law in some cases, it’s not easy. I therefore hope that this discovery can contribute a little to the discussion.

The scientists also took samples of the fish’s skin and analyzed its stomach contents to learn more about this particular species of sunfish.

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