Four men needed to haul in 350-pound sunfish ‘from Mars’ caught near Seattle

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SEATTLE — The warm ocean currents that drift north every summer off the Washington coast can bring along some bizarre nonnative fish.

The latest unusual fish to show up didn’t occur in the ocean, but way inside Puget Sound right in front of the downtown Seattle skyline.

On Tuesday night, Todd LaClair, a Muckleshoot tribal fisherman, got his gill net tangled into something huge in Elliott Bay off Harbor Island.

“I was fishing at about 100 feet deep, and as I pulled in the net I could feel that it was big,” LaClair said. “When it first came up, it startled me and looked like something that came from Mars.”

LaClair soon discovered that it was a giant sunfish — also known as a mola — which he estimated at 325 to 350 pounds. The fish was so large that he asked for assistance from a larger vessel, and with the help of three other people managed to bring the fish aboard.

Michael Vassiliou, owner of Sunfish Fish & Chips on Alki Avenue Southwest, got a call Wednesday from LaClair, who brought the giant fish to Vassiliou’s eponymous eatery.

“At first when he called me, I thought he was kidding,” Vassiliou said.

“I used to commercially fish for salmon back in the 1970s and early 1980s off the coast and saw a lot of sunfish out there, but I had never heard about anything like this around here,” Vassiliou said. “It is an amazing-sized and beautiful fish, and it is too bad there is no way to preserve it.”

The big fish generated a big crowd of curious onlookers.

The mola is a bony fish that has a rather round-shaped body with a large dorsal and lower body fin, and a very rough skin texture with numerous skin parasites.

They can grow very large and weigh up to 5,000 pounds, and feed mainly on jellyfish, zooplankton and algae.

“There have been lots of weird fish showing up in Puget Sound this year,” said Mark Baltzell, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Olympia. “There was a sunfish seen by a sport angler at Boston Harbor in Budd Inlet in southern Puget Sound, and a Pacific mackerel caught in Commencement Bay.”

On Aug. 31, Rick Shapland, of Molalla, Ore., caught a 28.8-pound opah during a two-day fishing trip out of Westport, Grays Harbor County.

Other weird fish showed up off the coast this summer, including two Atka mackerel caught off Westport and Ilwaco, Pacific County, and a dorado hooked near Ilwaco on Aug. 1.

And earlier this summer, two striped bass — a famed sport fish on the Atlantic coast — were caught in the Columbia River.

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