SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
August 04, 1969
In his search for new kinds of seafood, Harvey Bullis, the world's No. 1 fish snoop, hauls In some very strange prizes from the depths
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August 04, 1969

Oddballs Of The Deep Sea

In his search for new kinds of seafood, Harvey Bullis, the world's No. 1 fish snoop, hauls In some very strange prizes from the depths

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Until quite recently the fish and all the queer creatures of the deep sea lived according to their own ways, abiding by a simple law of eat or be eaten. They enjoyed a privacy that was seldom violated, until shortly after World War II when specialists of all kinds began probing the depths. Of all the intruders now in the sea, certainly one of the busiest bodies is a fishery biologist named Harvey Bullis of Pascagoula, Miss. Bullis has been prying into the personal affairs of fish since 1950 and has relished every intimate moment. Indeed, such is his zest for it that he seems to get nosier with each passing year.

In depths of 1,000 to 1,500 feet on the continental slope of North America, there are vast colonies of royal red shrimp. Before Harvey Bullis began making underwater forays these big, delectable shrimp lived in comfortable seclusion beyond the easy grasp of man. But now, as the big shrimp frisk about, an aluminum submarine looms above them, its lights turning their dim world into garish day. Harvey Bullis, the snoop from Pascagoula, peers through the port of the submarine. He has come down among the royal red shrimp to find out exactly how they walk and swim and feed and burrow.

On the continental shelf off the Florida east coast, life has not been the same for calico scallops since Bullis began sleuthing around their area. As if invasion by submarine were not enough, Bullis is now sending a robot sea sled equipped with a video-tape camera down among the scallops. In his famous churchyard elegy, the 18th-century poet Thomas Gray claimed there were bright gems of the sea beyond the reach of the human eye. But in the year 1969, thanks to Bullis, even drab scallops in mud beds are getting television time.

Although Bullis spends most of his time aboard a boat, dragging a trawl to sample the bottom, he sometimes uses a plane to spy on fish. From a mile up he not only can locate fish schools (as commercial spotters do) but also, by using a spectrographic analyzer, he is learning to tell one species from another by the quality of light reflecting from their bodies. Even at night there is no sure way for fish to elude Bullis. In the darkness he searches the sea with a scope that boosts the intensity of light more than 50,000 times. The fish do not show brightly enough to be detected, but from the phosphorescence swirling around them Bullis knows where they are.

Despite the sinister regard that fish understandably might have for him, when measured by human standards Bullis turns out to be nothing more than a large, affable, 45-year-old native of Wisconsin—a freshwater transplant who fell in love with the sea at first sight. As an employee of the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, he now spends much of his time wandering the high seas investigating fish. Although in the process he picks up many fascinating and useless facts, his basic mission is most practical. In simplest terms, Bullis' job is to find fish for people to eat.

Where Bullis goes, commercial fishermen usually follow. To cite a specific example, in the late 1950s Bullis spent about $100,000 of the taxpayers' money hunting for concentrations of brown shrimp off the South American coast. Today on the South American grounds that Bullis found, more than 200 U.S. trawlers are at work, taking about $20 million worth of shrimp annually. Many of the big royal red shrimp whose territory Bullis recently investigated later ended up in commercial trawls (and eventually, of course, in cocktail sauce on someone's dinner table). Similarly, many of the scallops now being televised probably will make their final public appearance in some restaurant.

Bullis is by no means a lone operator; his territory is far too diverse and large. In his present capacity as director of the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Pascagoula, he is, in effect, the mastermind of an organization of biologists, skilled fishermen and noodlers who not only hunt for concentrations of edible fish but also devise better ways to harvest them. Bullis and the fish experts who work with him at Pascagoula and at a substation in Brunswick, Ga. are responsible for four million square miles of the sea. Their domain encompasses the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the western Atlantic from Cape Hatteras southeasterly to the big muddy mouth of the Amazon. For more than 100 years scientists have been dragging trawls in this same expanse, but few of these explorers have done more than scratch the bottom compared to the efforts of Bullis and his crews.

Since 1950 Bullis and his colleagues have dragged trawls more than 60,000 miles across the sea floor. Although on each exploratory drag they usually have a particular fish or shellfish in mind, they are never sure what will turn up in the net. They often haul in a mixed bag, a hodgepodge of common and rare species and occasionally a creature or two that has never been seen before. This past May Bullis and a crew spent 10 days off the South American coast searching for colonies of the scarlet prawn, a giant shrimp that lives 1,800 to 3,000 feet below and tastes like Maine lobster. In each of the 18 drags they made, Bullis and his crew recovered anywhere from 10 to 400 pounds of the giant shrimp. In most of the hauls there were also marine specters of the kind commonly encountered in nightmares: flabby hagfish and large spidery crabs, runty black sharks and deep-sea squid, armored isopods the size of terrapins, chimaerids with squidlike beaks and winglike fins, eels that look like snakes and fish that look like eels, misshapen fish with catlike eyes and the tails of rats and still uglier fish with dragon teeth and flesh of jelly.

When each netload of fish spills onto the afterdeck, Bullis and his crew wade into the slithery heap, sorting out the edible specimens, then searching the refuse for super oddities. Over the years they have netted some very queer prizes. In 1959, in one load of abyssal fish that they brought up from a depth of 7,000 feet in the Gulf of Mexico, they found an unopened can of Falstaff beer. That same year, while dragging the bottom of the Caribbean 70 miles north of Trinidad, Bullis and his crew hauled in a six-wheel General Motors truck. (The truck apparently had been driven by a little old mermaid from Pasadena. There were only 17 miles on the speedometer, and the tires were like new.) In 1961, in 1,800 feet of water 100 miles east of the Mississippi delta, one of Bullis' crew brought up a dinner plate with an odd U-shaped break in it—an unusual recovery considering that one of the crewmen had thrown it over the side six years earlier. During a search for a hard-shelled shrimp called Sicyonia brevirostris south of Cape Hatteras, the crew of the exploratory vessel Combat, while winching in its net, picked up a World War II mine. Although the mine luckily exploded while still 300 yards astern, the concussion was enough to knock Fisherman Ernest Williams off his feet and rouse Warren Rathjen, the expedition leader, from his afternoon siesta.

While hunting for marketable seafood, Bullis and Co. have also served the profitless world of pure science. In museums and research labs around the world today there are more than a million specimens of fish, crustaceans and mollusks—including some 300 new species—that were collected and preserved by Bullis and the exploratory crews under his command. Of all the rare fish that Bullis has run across in 19 years the strangest has not yet been given a thorough going-over by any taxonomist or systematics expert. One night while dragging a midwater trawl at a depth of 300 feet in the Gulf of Mexico, Bullis picked up a four-foot-long, pencil-thin creature that looks like an eel but structurally is quite different from any known species. Bullis' un-eely eel has more than 500 vertebrae in its sinuous spine and a peculiar mouth, with a midsection that remains open even when the jaws are fully closed. Its respiratory system is stranger still. Whereas even the most unsymmetrical of bony fishes—the flounders, flukes and other flatfish—have functional gills on both sides of their bodies, Bullis' oddball eel has a gill system on the left side but not even a vestige of one on the right. Bullis is reluctant to turn his rare, unsymmetrical find over to experts until he finds another specimen or two like it. For the time being it sits in his office in a jar of Formalin—a freak that seems to have little connection with any other fish of the past or present.

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