Fish That Wander

Unexpected visitors have been visiting British waters. Ice age monsters and travellers from the tropics are among the recent catches from amazed anglers.

We’ve been finding out what happens when anglers come face to face with rare or exotic fish. Check out these tales of fish that wandered – and got lost.

Brilliant billfish

dead swordfish on beach

A Welsh whopper
Image source:

In 2009 a dead Broad-billed Swordfish was hauled in at Barry Island beach after a fin was spotted poking out the water. But a massive swordfish isn’t the only aquatic monster to have appeared on Welsh beaches in recent years. History teacher John’s early morning stroll along a Welsh beach was interrupted when his dog discovered an Atlantic blue marlin weighing a whopping 200 pounds. John recalls:

I should have stood there with a fishing rod and blagged it as the biggest fish caught in Fresh East this century and had a photo taken – I would have been pinched by all the local fishing clubs!

Is global warming the cause? Doug Herdson of the National Marine aquarium in Plymouth reckons the jury’s out, as the marlin could have been caught by the strong currents of the Gulf Stream:

Unusual big-game fish have been visiting Britain on and off for the past century… if the seas do continue to get gradually warmer, then more billfish may venture up to the Bay of Biscay and further afield and we’ll see numbers of visiting fish, rather than just the odd straggler.

The Welsh coast is a long way from home for both Marlin and Swordfish who normally live in in the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean.

Amazed by a Mola Mola

The mola mola is the heaviest of all bony fish species. Also known as the ocean sunfish, it’s about the size of a dustbin lid. Some impressively clear footage of a mola mola was taken this summer by diver, Ian Hope-Inglis, from Devon. He spotted the fish on a reef as it was being cleaned by a group of smaller fish:

We were diving not far from the harbour entrance at the Mewstone when my diving buddy gestured for me to come and see something – I thought it would be a lobster. I turned around and the fish was there; I have rarely seen the fish in a book let alone in real life.

Ian’s close encounter with the fish is a rare occurrence, as any disturbance normally sends them swimming away at top speed. Wildlife Trust blogger, Joan Edwards, wasn’t quite as fortunate as Ian when she first encountered a mola mola while diving off the Plymouth breakwater 20 years ago:

We didn’t have digital cameras then and, by the time I had got my light meter sorted, it had vanished off into the gloom.

In the winter of 2015, several sunfish were washed up onto Norfolk and Lincolnshire beaches. It’s likely that they, too had followed the Gulf Stream, feeding on swarms of jellyfish.

Unlucky lamprey landing

mouth of lamprey fish

This prehistoric horror has razor sharp teeth
Image source: Sean McSeveny

Fishing Tails blogger, Sean McSeveny, was salmon fishing on the river Frome when he hooked into something weightier than the brown trout he’d caught earlier:

The fish headed upstream, taking line from my reel. It didn’t take me long to get it under control and heading back towards me. It was at this stage that I thought I may have hooked an eel, then as it got closer I found to my horror that it was a Lamprey.

This eel-like creature has a circular mouth packed with razor sharp teeth, and can grow to over a metre in length. Sean continues:

I shouted David to come over as I landed it. To say that neither of us were eager to handle it was an understatement. Even more so when I was taking a picture of it, and it rolled over to reveal the most terrifying set of razor sharp teeth you could imagine.

Once a favoured Viking meal, the lamprey predates the dinosaurs by over 200 million years. Cleaner waters and the removal of barriers to their spawning migrations mean that this rare fish is making a return to the UK.

Pink Salmon Surprise

head of pink salmon

Look out for those teeth
Image source: Spey fishery board

The Environment agency need your help! Have you spotted any pink salmon, otherwise known as Oncorhynchus gorbuscha? This species isn’t native, as it’s typically found in the North Pacific basin and surrounding areas. But in August 2015, two anglers caught a number of these fish in North East England. One was also spied in Scotland’s River Spey, where Brian Shaw of the Spey Fishery Board saw the salmon first hand:

The fish weighed 2.5lb, typical of this small species of salmon. The distinctive spots on the tail aid identification. This looks to be a female as the males develop a distinctive hump on the back at spawning time. It is spawning season now for pink salmon and judging by the colouration it looks to be quite mature.

tail of pink salmon

Distinctive spotty tail
Image source: Spey Fishery Board

If you’re unsure about identifying this fish, look out for its spotty tail and impressive mouthful of teeth. And if you come across one, contact the EA’s Richard Jenkins on 0800 807060: with a date, location and if possible a photograph, which would really help us identify them and build up a picture of where they are.

Poisonous Puffer Fish

dead puffer fish on beach

Puffer fish – unpuffed
Image source: Liam Faisey

Richard Fabbri from Weymouth Watersports was on his daily beachcombing trip when he came across an oceanic puffer fish on Chesil Beach:

I saw this weird fish and initially I thought it could be a cuttlefish because of the strange shape and size. But as I got nearer I had a rough idea that it looked more like a pufferfish, so I took a few photos and took it down to the Chesil Beach Centre to their wildlife experts there.

Pufferfish only make very occasional visits to the south-west coast of England in late summer, but Cornish angler Liam Faisey suggests that this could be changing:

The oceanic pufferfish is a very rare visitor to UK waters, preferring warmer waters, with only a small number having ever been recorded before. It appears that the warmer summer and subsequent higher water temperatures has brought them into UK waters.

Pufferfish usually inhabit the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and can grow up to 61cm. They’re famed for their ability to inflate themselves with water or air to keep predators at bay. As an added deterrent, they covered in tiny spines which lodge in other animals’ throats if they try to eat the fish. This explains why only expert chefs are able to cook them, as they have to remove the poisonous parts of the flesh with extreme care, to avoid contaminating the rest.

Tropical Atlantic Tripletail

Dead Tripletail fish

Did this tripletail travel via the Gulf Stream?
Image source: Museum of Wales

In 2006, an Atlantic Tripletail (Lobotes surinamensis) was caught in a fisherman’s net in the Bristol Channel. As the fisherman didn’t recognize the 60cm specimen, he took it to the Museum of Wales for identification. Research fellow, Graham Oliver, who works for the museum says:

We know that these fish like muddy estuaries, which may be part of the reason it was in the Bristol Channel. They are semi-migratory, often associating themselves with floating debris, and it is possible it travelled here via the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

Tripletails usually live in tropical and subtropical waters, and this fish was another first for UK waters.

Almaco Jack aperitif

fisherman with almaco jack fish

Scott and his Almaco Jack
Image source:

It’s tricky to identify juvenile Almaco Jacks, and fisherman Mark Cook found that out the hard way. When he landed an electric blue Jack, he figured he’d just about hit lunchtime. He’d already gutted and filleted the fish when a local expert pointed out that he was about to cook an extremely rare catch! Scott Shepherd wasn’t so hasty (or hungry) when he caught an Almaco Jack off North Devon, his weighed in at 1 lb 14 oz and was returned to sea.

Almaco Jacks are normally found in the balmy waters of the Caribbean but between July and September 2007, six were found along the south and west coasts of Britain, doubling the number of sightings since the first in 1984. Could the sightings of these fish be related to climate change? Lucy Brzoska, writing at the Natural history of Britain website, reports that there’s speculation as to whether there’s a colony becoming established in the Bristol Channel.

What’s the cause?

fish and chips on the beach

Have native fish had their chips?
Image source: Shutterstock

Why are we finding so many non native species in our waters? The general consensus is that climate change is to blame. As the air temperature rises, the ocean absorbs some of this heat and becomes warmer. Robert McSweeney of Carbon Brief notes:

North sea temperatures have risen by 1.3C over the last 30 years and are predicted to rise by a further 1.8C over the next 50 years.

The increase in sea temperature may be attracting Mediterranean and tropical species to our shores, but it also forces cold-loving species further north. The plankton that young cod rely on prefer cool water, so as the sea warms up they head north. The problem with this is that the young cod won’t follow them because the water in the north is too deep. This has led to a decline in cod population.

With chip shop favourites becoming scarcer, we’ll need to develop a taste for hake, gurnard, mullet, and the other warm water lovers coming our way. Professor Stephen Simpson of Exeter University, quoted in the Guardian, said in 2014 that these are the fish in our waters today, and to prevent us from having to import huge amounts of fish, we should be eating them. Anyone for John Dory and chips?

If you have any out of place fish stories, head over to our Facebook page and share your experiences.