There have been any number of failed attempts to name things here in honor of President Barack Obama, the most high-profile of which was Sandy Beach a couple of years ago.
But that futile record for recognizing the state’s most famous native son has finally come to a close.
Say hello to Tosanoides obama, a small pink-and-yellow fish discovered in June during a research expedition to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Scientists from Bishop Museum, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Association of Marine Exploration on Wednesday published a description of the new species of coral reef fish in the scientific journal ZooKeys.
“It was a fish we weren’t expecting to find by any means,” said Richard Pyle, Bishop
Museum scientist and lead author of the study.
Pyle said he and his colleagues decided to name the fish for Obama after he expanded the Papahanaumokuakea monument in August to more than four times its previous size, creating a sanctuary twice the area of Texas, the world’s largest permanent marine protected area.
Pyle said the name was a fitting tribute because the expansion offers a new layer of protection to “one of the last great wilderness areas on Earth.”
Also, Pyle said, the spot on the fin of the male of the species bears a similarity to the Obama campaign logo, with stripes across a circle.
What does Obama think?
“I am deeply honored to have this fish named after me,” Obama told ocean explorer Sylvia Earle during a Sept. 1 presentation on Midway Island that was arranged and filmed by National Geographic.
The president was given a picture of the fish during a lighthearted exchange that will be featured in the National Geographic film “Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures,” scheduled for release Jan. 15.
“This is a nice-looking fish,” Obama remarked.
It is actually the second fish named for the Hawaii-
born president. According to NOAA, the list of creatures named for Obama includes a speckled freshwater darter fish, a trapdoor spider and an extinct lizard.
The Obama fish is a kind of basslet, a colorful group of fish favored in the aquarium trade. There are two other species in the genus Tosanoides, both from the tropical northwestern Pacific, including southern Japan.
What’s unusual about the Obama fish, Pyle said, is that it’s the only known species of coral reef fish found only in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. All other reef fish within the monument are found either in the main Hawaiian Islands or Japan.
Pyle, a veteran diver and marine biologist who has helped to discover at least 24 fish species, was the first to spot the marine creature during the morning dive of June 5 at Kure Atoll, the northernmost outpost of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands 1,200 miles from Honolulu. No other coral atoll can be found at a higher latitude.
Pyle was diving deep below the ocean’s surface at 300 feet in an area known as the coral reef twilight zone, using advanced scuba gear with a mixed-gas system known as a closed-circuit rebreather. The water is dark and cold at that depth, so he was armed with a powerful flashlight.
When he first spotted the creature he thought it was an already known species and that the spot on the fin was nothing more than a parasite.
On closer inspection, however, the spot turned out to be part of the fin, which told him this was likely a species never previously identified. He shot some video of the fish, collected a male and brought it to the ship.
When NOAA scientist Randall Kosaki, chief scientist of the research cruise and co-author of the study, saw the fish, he was scratching his head.
“I was thinking, ‘What the heck is that? I’ve never seen anything like that before,’” he said.
That afternoon, marine biologist and study co-author Brian D. Greene searched the Kure reef for the new fish but could not find it. But the next day at Pearl and Hermes Reef 155 miles away he spotted three of them at about the same depth of 300 feet and collected a female.
The scientists tried to keep the fishes alive for the trip back to Honolulu, but they couldn’t keep the water cold enough. Next time, Pyle said, they’ll bring the right equipment to keep the water at the appropriate temperature.
The scientists said they suspect the main population of the Obama fish is at even greater depths, which they hope to explore in future expeditions.
June’s discovery occurred while U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Native Hawaiian leaders, conservationists and many marine scientists were campaigning in the islands to persuade Obama to expand the Papahanaumokuakea monument.
Pyle and Kosaki said the trio of scientists decided they would name the fish after Obama if, and only if, he pulled the trigger on expansion. They said they were happy he did.
But, as with most creatures in Hawaii, it will get a second name. Kosoki said NOAA’s Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group will be considering giving a Hawaiian name in the coming months.