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Ocean Sunfish swimming offshore
Ocean sunfish swimming right side up.

Learning about Ocean Sunfish, Mola mola, off New England

OCEAN SUNFISH STRANDINGS: Late August and early September starts our ocean sunfish season in New England. This is the time of year that we start to see ocean sunfish on a regular basis offshore in the waters of Cape Cod Bay and Massachusetts Bay. This is also the start of the stranding season for ocean sunfish as many will strand live and dead along our New England shores. 

We want to make everyone aware of the occurrence of ocean sunfish in our New England waters and the fact that strandings of ocean sunfish are common in the fall and early winter. 

Please keep a look out for this unusual fish and report sightings of:
  • live ocean sunfish observed offshore to NEBShark, our community-sighting network for ocean sunfish and basking sharks (
  • carcasses observed on a beach directly to Krill Carson via her cell at 508-566-0009. 
 If you see a live ocean sunfish in the process of stranding, please call Krill immediately.

NECWA has focused on learning more about ocean sunfish in our New England waters since 2005. Last year, we helped to rescue 2 ocean sunfish and necropsied 18 carcasses that had washed ashore on Cape Cod beaches.

This season, we necropsied our first ocean sunfish of the year in Rye, NH. This animal had been hit by a boat and died before it stranded. You can read more about this necropsy and view photos by visiting our NECWA News blog or clicking HERE.

DONATIONS: Thank you for all your help and support. NECWA is currently looking for funds to support our ocean sunfish research and rescue efforts. Please go to our website and donate via our "Just Give" button. Or send NECWA a check to the mailing address below. NECWA is a volunteer nonprofit, and therefore, all donations are used to purchase requisite equipment and supplies.

NEWS FROM THE FALL 2011 SEASON: This season and with the help of our good friends David Clapp and Sam McGee, we are making a portable weighing structure (tripod) that can be used to collect an accurate weight of dead ocean sunfish that have washed ashore. This is a very important piece of field equipment since we have not been able to collect weight measurements for the majority of the carcasses that we have examined. Materials to make this portable weighting apparatus will cost close to $1,000. Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. 

Best in Nature, 
Krill Carson
Marine Biologist and President, NECWA
Ugly Fish! We think not!
ocean sunfish left side up.
Ocean sunfish left side up.
The ocean sunfish, Mola mola, is a very unusual and odd looking fish that migrates each summer and fall to feed in the coastal waters of New England. Many people call them "Ugly Fish" but they are truly a beautiful fish and a long-distance migrator that moves from wintering grounds in tropical waters to summer feeding grounds in more northern waters. They are classified as the heaviest bony fish in the world with adults reaching lengths of up to 8 to 10 feet and weighing close to 1 to 2 tons. 
Ocean sunfish that feed off New England are probably juveniles, given their small size when compared to adults. We assume that these young animals are attracted to our cold, productive waters to feed on jellyfish, ctenophores and other gelatinous critters which are very abundant off New England in late summer and early fall.
Why ocean sunfish strand each fall remains a mystery, but many individuals observed in the process of stranding appear to be healthy animals that are unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many are feeding close to shore and in tidal areas as the tide ebbs, or goes out. This is a dangerous situation for an ocean sunfish for they can easily get pushed closer to shore and into shallow areas by offshore winds and high waves. 
What we have found through our efforts to study and save this fish is that ocean sunfish are harmless and can be safely handled in order to float them into deeper water. Even though individuals observed off New England are typically 5 to 6 feet in length, their disc-like body allows them to be floated and moved in as little as a few inches of water.
However, the skin of the ocean sunfish is abrasive and this species produces copious amounts of mucous in order to deter external parasites from attaching. Therefore, always best to wear gloves or some type of hand protection whenever touching or handling this fish. Once an individual strands on a beach or on a mudflat, these large and heavy fish are difficult, if not impossible, to move unless you have 3 or 4 able bodies ready to assist. 
Last month, Jan Albaum and Harry Cerino rescued an ocean sunfish that was in the process of stranding off their beach in Wellfleet. You can read more about this amazing rescue by visiting our NECWA News Blog by clicking HERE. We want to thank them for their efforts on that animal's behalf. Their quick actions allowed them to safely get this animal back into deeper water and out of harms way. 

So please keep an eye out for any live or dead animals, especially those in need of assistance. Feel free to contact Krill via her cell phone (508-566-0009) at any time.  
Dorsal fin of an ocean sunfish
Live ocean sunfish, left side up, with dorsal fin raised as it skulls.

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