Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Feeding Flounders

The starry flounder wouldn’t eat. Over the preceding week, I’d tried nearly everything. He turned up his nose at krill, herring, clams, shrimp, and geoduck. If he didn’t eat soon, I was going to have to release him back into the wild. This starry flounder is about a foot long, with the sassy expression and bugged out eyes that only a flatfish can master. He’d only been in the exhibit for two weeks but I was already pretty attached to him.

I decided to play my picky-eater trump card. I went outside with a net and caught a few small grass shrimp off some kelp. I dropped one into the tank — the flounder either didn’t see it or didn’t care. The next one I held carefully by the tail and inched closer to the mouth of my new friend. He was uninterested until the shrimp wiggled wildly. The flounder slid closer and then snapped up the shrimp! Success! “Good boy!” I said. “Good fish!”
Serving as the Marine Exhibit Educator AmeriCorps Member at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center is full of small puzzles like the Flounder Dilemma. Each one has to be tackled with care and speed because there are many different individuals from every imaginable phylum counting on me. The starry flounder needs to eat so that he can stay healthy and strong in the exhibit. But he also needs to eat so that he can be a vibrant and interesting ambassador of his species. On an ideal day, I don’t teach people about the fish — the fish themselves are interesting enough to teach the visitors.

Me cheesin' with the starry flounder (in the water directly below me).
A few days later, the starry flounder had developed a prodigious appetite. Now he eats everything offered to him, although he still greatly prefers to be hand-fed grass shrimp (how luxurious). On public feeding days, he swims around his tank vivaciously and children ask, “what kind of fish is that? How does he swim? Why are his eyes on one side?” We talk about the spotty patterns on his back, not unlike the night sky, his nearly symmetrical dorsal and anal fins, and the fascinating transformation he went through as a larva that shifted both of his eyes onto his right side. As often happens in the Marine Exhibit, these answers beget more questions and a day of learning and exploring begins.

As a Washington Service Corps Member, my mission is the same as that of the organization at which I serve: to inspire conservation of the Salish Sea. The work that feeds into this mission can be dirty; some days I leave the office covered in herring guts or rotten whale slime or muck from inside the pipes. But each of these messy projects supports the education and outreach programs we tackle every day. I take the time to look after our starry flounder; to clean his tank, monitor his behavior, and figure out his favorite food. Now, as a team, we will teach hundreds of people about his species, his habitat and the sea on which his life depends.

REBECCA MOSTOW is the Marine Exhibit Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

The Marine Exhibit is open for Summer Hours! Come say hello to the resident animals, and get ready to meet some brand-new critters! The exhibits are open every day from 11 am -5 pm, except Tuesdays.


  1. Dear Ms. Mostow, Thank you for your lovely description of your work and that of Ambassador Starry Flounder. As an off-grid resident of the Discovery Islands, I am grateful for the sacrifices you two make to inspire conservation of the Salish Sea. For me, a fisherman, another Flounder Dilema Dilema occurs: How often do you release the honorable ASF, as well as fellow co-workers,
    back into open waters, home?

    1. Thanks for you kind words and great question! We try to treat the animals in the exhibits as temporary ambassadors, not long term residents. Most of the fish are collected in the spring and released the following fall. Some of our more sedentary invertebrates do very well in captivity so we keep them as long as they are healthy.

  2. I loved this story! What a lucky flounder to choose PTMSC as a home, where such a caring person would investigate exactly what he craved. Thank you, Rebecca!

  3. Keep up the good work. Our grand kids and great-granddaughter have enjoyed the sea creatures and feeding times over the years.


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