Texas A&M Galveston Study to Discover and Identify New Fish Species

Thousands of species of fish live in the Gulf of Mexico, so many that no one knows how many are really out there. A Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher hopes to solve at least part of the puzzle.

Max Weber, a graduate student in marine biology at the Galveston campus, is heading a project to find at least 15 individual specimens of 500 known deep-sea Gulf fish species, with the goal to know more about them and how they live in their deep environment. The project is funded by GOMRI (Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative) and won't be finished until late 2017.

Weber and his team will use a computerized net system in which the fish are caught in a series of six nets that have trap doors to snare the fish. "We are targeting fish that live from 0 to more than 4,000 feet deep," Weber explains. "They live in what we call the 'Pelagic Zone,' which means the open sea, so we need to go where they live, and that means deep down."

The team has made several cruises so far to collect fish, leaving from Gulfport, Miss., to areas about 200 miles off shore to deep waters of the Gulf. Each cruise lasts about 2-3 weeks. There are about 15,000 known species of fish in the oceans, but scientists believe there are many more out there to be discovered. About 60 new species are discovered every year.

"The chance that we will discover some new species that we never knew existed is very real," Weber says. "That's part of the thrill of this - we hope to find some new species and there's a good chance we will.

"Deep-sea fish are known for being different," he adds. Many of them have unusual shapes and some are kind of scary looking, with a mouth full of teeth and heads that don't resemble other fishes. We never know what the nets will bring up, so it's exciting when we see what we've caught. We don't know what we've got until the fish are in the boat."

Taxonomic experts on board can sometimes quickly reveal a fish as being something new. "We can confirm this back in the lab using genetic techniques, he adds. "Also, many of the fish contain luminescence scales, which means they glow in the dark at deep depths. It is a common and fascinating adaptation to life deep in the ocean."