Stranded Greenling Raises Eternal Question: To Assist or Not Assist?

Last week, thanks to a good low tide, I got to explore a stand of Ahnfeltiopsis. The surf was bigger than I wished, but the grove was upon me, and my attention was on the sand-loving red algae people call forked seaweed.

While I was solving seaweeds, the swash left a 75 mm prize flopping in the sand. Greenling, even juveniles, don’t often find themselves stranded on wet sand. How did it come to this? A wave may have swept it from shelter; maybe a gull plucked it then lost it; maybe it was me – intruder in the Ahnfeltiopsis.

Cast up in the swash, you can’t say the outlook was promising
A cleaned up version
Released into a low tide pool, it’s a nice looking fish

In hopes of getting ideas about identification, I posted photos on the TOS Facebook page. I got some ideas for which I am grateful. And I got a question I didn’t expect. Did I help it get to deeper water? The answer is, I released it in a low tide pool where I took the photo above. It could rest and with the rise of tide, find its way to deeper water. Does that sound like a good choice?

Stranded animal choices are hard because they involve tradeoffs; here are mine. A specimen would have simplified a tricky identification problem, but on this day I didn’t have the stomach for pickling. Ignoring it, letting nature take its course, would have been a reasonable choice, but I wanted a photo. Releasing it in deeper water was an option, but the surge was strong and it didn’t seem right to leave an exhausted fish to the swash. The alternative I chose was perfect. Or was it? At 75 mm, my greenling was the largest predator in the pool. I wonder what happened to the tiny tidepool sculpins already living there. Oops.

What would you have done?

Thanks to the way I handled tradeoffs, I have no specimen to show for my efforts and I haven’t been able to identify the fish featured here to species, or even genus. I think it’s a juvenile greenling, maybe Hexagrammos. If you can confirm my guess or have ideas about what species it is, please let me know.

To see some fishes I’ve caught or found washed up on northern Oregon beaches check out my Fishes Other Than Surfperches page. For surfperches, go here.



  1. Great post, Steve! If I were a betting man, I would guess kelp greenling, Hexagrammos decagrammus, or maybe rock greenling, H. lagocephalus. But I think you are too far south for the whitespotted greenling, H. stelleri.

    1. I’ve got to start paying attention tide tide pool fishes. I didn’t have a clue when I first picked this one off the sand. It was amazing how many other small fishes, mostly sculpins, were in the pool I put it in. Thanks for your kelp greenling idea. Fb leaned to kelp greenling too.

    1. It seemed like a no brainer at the time. Guess there was a lot going on just under the surface. And I didn’t even think about the fate of the baby sculpins ’til the question was posed days later.

    1. Thanks for sending sea star link. Coincidentally, the morning I found the little greenling, I was hoping to look for baby sea stars. The tide as low enough but the surf was big, which prevented me from getting out to where most the babies live. I wasn’t able to see any baby Pisaster. Scanning the rocks I noticed a few few adults, but not many. There is a lot of real estate available for those babies.

  2. I really like your anecdotes – you’re a good storyteller. I would have looked at the fish flapping about on the sand, felt pity, and, if it wasn’t too wriggly and I had a tool to pick it up with (in case it was poisonous), I would have put it back in the water.

  3. Nice post. I’m with you… I always put these wave-tossed fish back into the sea, in some sheltered spot if possible. And yes, find a good tidepool and then just sit and watch, Small fish seem to materialize out of nothing.

  4. I guess I’m going to buck the trend here and say that I would have left it on the sand. No doubt if I came across it, my son would have been with me. I would have used it as a learning moment to teach my son that death is natural and that the life of the little fish will help countless other lives just because it got stranded. I would remind him that by interfering with nature, we change the natural course and can do more harm than good. A lot of the time we make a change to nature and then react to that change with another change and that causes cascading events. Look at the potential of that little pool you released that greenling into.

    My wife, undoubtedly, would have asked me to help it and I would have by chucking it into the rip. That would have at least given it a fighting chance by getting it out of the smashing surf and into deeper water where it would have a chance to survive and not affect a smaller ecosystem.

    To quote Teddy:
    “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The second best thing you can do is the wrong thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”

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