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A Fish Gets A New Eye And An Edge In The Tank

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nothing worse than being bullied in school, especially if you're a fish.

A copper rockfish with a bad eye was tormented by its classmates, who'd sneak up on the poor fellow and steal his food. But Dr. Martin Haulena from the Vancouver Aquarium performed surgery on the rockfish and implanted a prosthetic eye. Dr. Haulena joins us from the studios of the CBC in Vancouver.

Doctor, thanks for being with us.

DR. MARTIN HAULENA: Thank you.

SIMON: I'm sure it was just a tiny minority of ill-mannered rockfish, but still. What did the other rockfish start doing to him?

HAULENA: Well, I think, you know, aggression is very, very normal in many, many species. And for fish in particular, you know, it's sort of normal for them to be vying for the best spots. And unfortunately, this rockfish became more of a disadvantage than most because of that one side where he couldn't see. And I think more so that he couldn't see, but the other rockfish can figure out that he couldn't see because the eye wasn't there. And that seems to be sort of a spot that they'd kind of key on. And a lot of species do that. In fact, some species even have, you know, artificial eyes themselves on their back end to make it look like they're looking at a predator coming at them, et cetera. So I think they took a little too much advantage of him. And we started noticing in the last few months - the aquarists, the biologists noticed - that he was spending a lot more time on the bottom of his exhibit, his fin razor frayed-up, and he was getting quite beaten-up.

SIMON: So you gave him a fake eye. Do you operate under water? I mean, what do you do?

HAULENA: (Laughter). Yeah. No, fish surgery and anesthesia has come a long way, for sure. But over the last 20 years, what we do is bring the fish out of water and we put them on a kind of a circulating system. We use an anesthetic drug that's dissolved in the water and then that water is flowed over the gills through a tube that's placed in the mouth of the fish. And we sort of irrigate the surface of the fish. But we can keep them out of water for hours and do fairly complex procedures.

SIMON: So the surgery went well, I gather.

HAULENA: He's doing amazing. You know, he's, you know, right up in the water column now using a lot more of his exhibit, reacting a lot more normally towards other fish, kind of blending-in with the other fish. His prosthetic eye is quite obvious, and we did that with some purpose because it was the first one for us. You know, we wanted to keep - well, I've been using this pun a lot lately, but - keep an eye on the eye there, and monitor him as closely as we could. So if you're looking for him, he's quite visible. And there he is, and his fin rays are out and his lesions have healed and, yeah, he looks good.

SIMON: Do the other fish leave him alone, let him be?

HAULENA: Well, (laughter), everyone's still aggressive to everyone, but now it's a little bit more manageable. And they don't sort of take advantage of that perceived weakness on that one side. I think that very visible prosthetic eye keeps them thinking that he can see them, so they don't go after him as much as they did, which is very important.

SIMON: Dr. Haulena, I hope you will take a question in a kind spirit, but, after an operation like that can you ever eat rockfish when you see it on a menu?

HAULENA: You know, it's - this is the bane of the veterinary existence. And that is that sometimes our patients also become our meals. And you know, the sort of important part is once an animal is entrusted to your care - as in our case, it's part of the collection of animals at the Vancouver Aquarium, part of our, I guess, family - you do your very best. It's not that I don't support fishing and not that I don't think there's, you know, great responsible fishing out there - and I think there is, but, yeah, in our case, this particular rockfish, he is not for the plate.

SIMON: Dr. Martin Haulena is head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Thanks so much for being with us.

HAULENA: Thank you very, very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.