Fishes of Iraq: Aspius Vorax

No, American soldiers in Iraq don’t spend all of their time bird watching. They also fish.

Plus, there’s the whole building democracy in the face of terror thing. That takes up some time as well; I’m given to understand.

iraqifishThat’s SPC Mauro above. He’s holding what is essentially a great big minnow. More on that in a minute. Here’s the story on how it was caught, courtesy of our Iraqi avifaunal, LTC Bob.

You’ve also seen all the lakes around here. They aren’t that deep really, probably 6-8 feet at the most. There is a pump station somewhere that pumps water from the Tigris into the canal system. There are lots of birds and stuff to look at – gulls, coots, cormorants, a neat blue kingfisher. Lots of the boys are always trying to fish as well.

I had never seen anyone catch anything, not even the big fat carp, until this afternoon. I was out on the back deck doing some dips and some easy weights, when SPC Mauro, who was casting a little jig from our back deck, says – “SIR – GET THE NET!!”

I did. And I broke the net getting his fish up onto the deck. It is some kind of bass, looks like to me. Has a mouth like a bass, and the smell of a bass. Definitely not a carp. And a pretty good sized fish too. We took pictures and put her back. Mauro was happy, as you can see.

LTC Bob sent the picture off to an army ichthyologist he knew….yes, the army needs ichthyologists, don’t be so provincial. Some of them work here, in fact, including the one who knew a guy who knew the guy who eventually identified the fish.

I did a little more checking around and were positive the fish was Aspius vorax; the other members of the genus have larger scales, A. vorax has 93-105 (A. aspius from Europe has 64-76 lateral-line scales; the fish in the photo has about 95). The common name for this fish is “shelej, shalaj, sholge, or sholgeh.” They should also have a weak knob at the tip of the lower jaw that fits into a notch in the upper jaw (the photo doesn’t show that, but it’s not a good angle). They’re apparently commercially fished in some areas.

There’s an ichthyologist after my own heart. How many people do you think have the patience to count one line of fish scales from head to tail? From a photo, no less, not even a real fish, though admittedly, the original is a fair bit bigger than the one above. As with many of the Birds of Iraq, there’s not a lot known about A. vorax, which is why specimens are desperately desired.

If you can keep a fish or two, we’d love to have the skeletons for study- just fillet them like you were going to cook them (a spoon works great for scraping any remaining flesh off of the bones), then gut them (leave the gills in place), carefully pull the eyes out, dry the carcass with a rag, and either pack them in table salt or put them in a container with rubbing alcohol for a couple of days. They can be shipped in salt, but you would probably want to drain off alcohol before shipping.

There’s something for the Post Office to look forward to.

The best resource on the net for Aspius vorax prior to the Iraqi campaign was one run by a Canadian Ichthyologist, [have a fish beer, eh?–ed] who was eventually pulled in to verify the id of SPC Mauro’s fish. It’s a member of the Cyprinidae family, the parent family of minnows and carp. Prior to the war, about the best representation of the species was this one, based on an over 100-year-old sketch. Now, as the waters around the Al Faw palace are apparently full of them, they’re popping up all over the place.

One even appears to have taken first prize what has got to be a fairly rare event in Iraq, even in the Green Zone, a fishing tournament.

To hearken back to one of our earliest themes; You’ll know we’ll have won the War On Terror when ESPN presents “Fishing Al-Faw with Bill Dance.”