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Original Issue


In his search for new kinds of seafood, Harvey Bullis, the world's No. 1 fish snoop, hauls In some very strange prizes from the depths

Until quite recently the fish and all the queer creatures of the deep sea lived according to their own ways, abiding by a simple law of eat or be eaten. They enjoyed a privacy that was seldom violated, until shortly after World War II when specialists of all kinds began probing the depths. Of all the intruders now in the sea, certainly one of the busiest bodies is a fishery biologist named Harvey Bullis of Pascagoula, Miss. Bullis has been prying into the personal affairs of fish since 1950 and has relished every intimate moment. Indeed, such is his zest for it that he seems to get nosier with each passing year.

In depths of 1,000 to 1,500 feet on the continental slope of North America, there are vast colonies of royal red shrimp. Before Harvey Bullis began making underwater forays these big, delectable shrimp lived in comfortable seclusion beyond the easy grasp of man. But now, as the big shrimp frisk about, an aluminum submarine looms above them, its lights turning their dim world into garish day. Harvey Bullis, the snoop from Pascagoula, peers through the port of the submarine. He has come down among the royal red shrimp to find out exactly how they walk and swim and feed and burrow.

On the continental shelf off the Florida east coast, life has not been the same for calico scallops since Bullis began sleuthing around their area. As if invasion by submarine were not enough, Bullis is now sending a robot sea sled equipped with a video-tape camera down among the scallops. In his famous churchyard elegy, the 18th-century poet Thomas Gray claimed there were bright gems of the sea beyond the reach of the human eye. But in the year 1969, thanks to Bullis, even drab scallops in mud beds are getting television time.

Although Bullis spends most of his time aboard a boat, dragging a trawl to sample the bottom, he sometimes uses a plane to spy on fish. From a mile up he not only can locate fish schools (as commercial spotters do) but also, by using a spectrographic analyzer, he is learning to tell one species from another by the quality of light reflecting from their bodies. Even at night there is no sure way for fish to elude Bullis. In the darkness he searches the sea with a scope that boosts the intensity of light more than 50,000 times. The fish do not show brightly enough to be detected, but from the phosphorescence swirling around them Bullis knows where they are.

Despite the sinister regard that fish understandably might have for him, when measured by human standards Bullis turns out to be nothing more than a large, affable, 45-year-old native of Wisconsin—a freshwater transplant who fell in love with the sea at first sight. As an employee of the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, he now spends much of his time wandering the high seas investigating fish. Although in the process he picks up many fascinating and useless facts, his basic mission is most practical. In simplest terms, Bullis' job is to find fish for people to eat.

Where Bullis goes, commercial fishermen usually follow. To cite a specific example, in the late 1950s Bullis spent about $100,000 of the taxpayers' money hunting for concentrations of brown shrimp off the South American coast. Today on the South American grounds that Bullis found, more than 200 U.S. trawlers are at work, taking about $20 million worth of shrimp annually. Many of the big royal red shrimp whose territory Bullis recently investigated later ended up in commercial trawls (and eventually, of course, in cocktail sauce on someone's dinner table). Similarly, many of the scallops now being televised probably will make their final public appearance in some restaurant.

Bullis is by no means a lone operator; his territory is far too diverse and large. In his present capacity as director of the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Pascagoula, he is, in effect, the mastermind of an organization of biologists, skilled fishermen and noodlers who not only hunt for concentrations of edible fish but also devise better ways to harvest them. Bullis and the fish experts who work with him at Pascagoula and at a substation in Brunswick, Ga. are responsible for four million square miles of the sea. Their domain encompasses the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the western Atlantic from Cape Hatteras southeasterly to the big muddy mouth of the Amazon. For more than 100 years scientists have been dragging trawls in this same expanse, but few of these explorers have done more than scratch the bottom compared to the efforts of Bullis and his crews.

Since 1950 Bullis and his colleagues have dragged trawls more than 60,000 miles across the sea floor. Although on each exploratory drag they usually have a particular fish or shellfish in mind, they are never sure what will turn up in the net. They often haul in a mixed bag, a hodgepodge of common and rare species and occasionally a creature or two that has never been seen before. This past May Bullis and a crew spent 10 days off the South American coast searching for colonies of the scarlet prawn, a giant shrimp that lives 1,800 to 3,000 feet below and tastes like Maine lobster. In each of the 18 drags they made, Bullis and his crew recovered anywhere from 10 to 400 pounds of the giant shrimp. In most of the hauls there were also marine specters of the kind commonly encountered in nightmares: flabby hagfish and large spidery crabs, runty black sharks and deep-sea squid, armored isopods the size of terrapins, chimaerids with squidlike beaks and winglike fins, eels that look like snakes and fish that look like eels, misshapen fish with catlike eyes and the tails of rats and still uglier fish with dragon teeth and flesh of jelly.

When each netload of fish spills onto the afterdeck, Bullis and his crew wade into the slithery heap, sorting out the edible specimens, then searching the refuse for super oddities. Over the years they have netted some very queer prizes. In 1959, in one load of abyssal fish that they brought up from a depth of 7,000 feet in the Gulf of Mexico, they found an unopened can of Falstaff beer. That same year, while dragging the bottom of the Caribbean 70 miles north of Trinidad, Bullis and his crew hauled in a six-wheel General Motors truck. (The truck apparently had been driven by a little old mermaid from Pasadena. There were only 17 miles on the speedometer, and the tires were like new.) In 1961, in 1,800 feet of water 100 miles east of the Mississippi delta, one of Bullis' crew brought up a dinner plate with an odd U-shaped break in it—an unusual recovery considering that one of the crewmen had thrown it over the side six years earlier. During a search for a hard-shelled shrimp called Sicyonia brevirostris south of Cape Hatteras, the crew of the exploratory vessel Combat, while winching in its net, picked up a World War II mine. Although the mine luckily exploded while still 300 yards astern, the concussion was enough to knock Fisherman Ernest Williams off his feet and rouse Warren Rathjen, the expedition leader, from his afternoon siesta.

While hunting for marketable seafood, Bullis and Co. have also served the profitless world of pure science. In museums and research labs around the world today there are more than a million specimens of fish, crustaceans and mollusks—including some 300 new species—that were collected and preserved by Bullis and the exploratory crews under his command. Of all the rare fish that Bullis has run across in 19 years the strangest has not yet been given a thorough going-over by any taxonomist or systematics expert. One night while dragging a midwater trawl at a depth of 300 feet in the Gulf of Mexico, Bullis picked up a four-foot-long, pencil-thin creature that looks like an eel but structurally is quite different from any known species. Bullis' un-eely eel has more than 500 vertebrae in its sinuous spine and a peculiar mouth, with a midsection that remains open even when the jaws are fully closed. Its respiratory system is stranger still. Whereas even the most unsymmetrical of bony fishes—the flounders, flukes and other flatfish—have functional gills on both sides of their bodies, Bullis' oddball eel has a gill system on the left side but not even a vestige of one on the right. Bullis is reluctant to turn his rare, unsymmetrical find over to experts until he finds another specimen or two like it. For the time being it sits in his office in a jar of Formalin—a freak that seems to have little connection with any other fish of the past or present.

Out of respect for the massive contribution he has made to its cause, the scientific community has bestowed a number of honors on Bullis, including one or two he could have done as well without. Some years back, when the wives of a dozen zoologists in the Gulf Coast area held a squid-pickling contest, their husbands insisted that Bullis, and only Bullis, was qualified to judge the entries. Largely to satisfy his own curiosity, Bullis has eaten the flesh of quite a few unappealing sea creatures, notably the giant marine pill bug Bathynomus giganteus, the benthic spider crab Geryon quinquedens, and the etiolated rattail fish Nezumia bairdi. Despite his penchant for seafood oddities, before he had sampled all the squid in the competition he became too ill to pick a winner.

In recognition of his collecting prowess, several marine species have been named for Bullis. The most aptly named is the species bullisi of the family Alepocephalidae—a primitive, slick-headed, deep-dwelling fish akin to the salmon and herring. All species of the Alepocephalidae were considered rarities until 1963 when, as a result of one astonishing haul off the coast of Surinam, Bullis ended up literally knee-deep in them. As he recalls the occasion: "The net came up packed almost solid with alepocephalids—more than 1½ tons of slimy critters covered with mucus. When that load swung aboard a ton and a half of goo hit the deck. The boat was rolling in swells so that all the fish and slime kept going from one side to the other. On every roll, streams of rare fish were squirting out of the scuppers back into the water. Meanwhile we were staggering around the deck trying to save the rest of them. When you are on a rolling boat, wading around in 3,000 pounds of alepocephalids, it's hard to take a step without landing on your butt."

A large number of the alepocephalids from the record haul off Surinam were preserved and shipped to Dr. Albert Parr, the former director of the American Museum of Natural History, who has been working on a definitive study of the alepocephalids since the late '30s (and might well have finished by now except for the glut of specimens that Bullis unloaded on him). "We shipped hundreds and hundreds of specimens to Dr. Parr," Bullis recalls. "We kept sending them until I ran into him at a meeting in Miami and he asked me please to stop because they were crowding him out of his office."

Measured against other men, Bullis himself is a rather unusual creature in one respect. Today, when many workers of the world are singing tunes of discontent, Bullis goes around publicly announcing that he loves his job. Recently, while rummaging through memories of his Wisconsin boyhood, he declared, "I still get the same kick out of collecting things that I did as a kid. I always liked to hunt and fish and swim, but my earliest memories are of collecting things—cats and dogs and frogs and jars full of bumblebees and roly-poly bugs. I had the most wonderful parents in the world. When I brought home 10 or 20 grass snakes my mother would scream, 'Get those things out of here!' But she would let me keep them.

"I went out for sports in high school. but I must have had a low threshold of pain or something. Every time I got on a field I either damn near broke my neck or was knocked silly. The first time I put on boxing gloves my opponent connected after I had taken one or two swings and I saw bright lights. Freshman year in high school I made a beautiful catch of a kickoff with the football coach watching. Then someone hit me. I came to in the school nurse's office. So I said to hell with that stuff. Most boys in my day had heroes like Babe Ruth, but to me Babe Ruth was a candy bar. My heroes were Frank Buck, Martin Johnson and Admiral Byrd."

In World War II Bullis applied for flight training, but before he was even through the preliminaries the Air Corps was so overstocked with pilots that they made him into a radio operator. "I didn't really care if I was a pilot or what," Bullis says. "I would have joined up as the front landing wheel on a B-25 if they had offered me the job. I just wanted to get into the air in the worst way." Bullis got his wish, in spades. He ended up in the Air Transport Command based at Jorhat in the highlands of North India. Before the war was done he had flown the Himalayan hump between India and China 120 times.

It was during an unusual nightlong vigil on the way to India that Bullis began his lifelong commitment to the sea. En route to Jorhat, his transport crew laid over for a day in Natal, Brazil, where Bullis went to the beach and got too much sun. The crew next stopped overnight at Ascension Island, one of the sea mounts of lost Atlantis that has somehow managed to keep its head above water. When they landed on Ascension, Bullis' sunburn was so painful that he could not lie down, much less sleep. He spent the night wandering the edge of the sea. In the bleak light of the moon he found spiny lobsters and watched large turtles lumber out of the water to lay their eggs. He caught fish on hooks he fashioned out of steel wire, and he scrounged the waterline for shells, crabs and other odd bits of biota. "That night on Ascension Island," he says, "was a fantastic experience. The whole time one thought kept running through my mind: How could I get a job that would let me live in such a world?"

Scientists who have collaborated with him conclude that one of the prime traits that Bullis has going for him in his commercial fisheries work is an unshaken, almost childlike faith that there can always be a braver, newer world. And for sure, if there was ever an industry that needed faith in the future, commercial fishing is it. As Bullis himself appraises the situation: "There is probably no more traditional, rock-ribbed, do-it-as-your-father-did group in the U.S. than commercial fishermen. It's time we got down to the nitty-gritty and realized that the days of the rugged individual, the Captains Courageous, are gone. In Pascagoula, what we are mainly trying to do is develop new concepts that will stretch the imaginations of fishermen and make them part of the 20th century."

Bullis envisions the day when schooling fish of the open sea will be harvested by automated barges requiring only supervisory and maintenance personnel. The barges will incorporate all the equipment necessary both to harvest and process the fish. In the Lesser Antilles, Bullis and Bob Cummins, the chief of the exploratory substation in Brunswick, Ga., have already experimented with a barge that attracts schooling fish with lights and sucks them up through a pipe. In the course of their experiments they discovered a curious reaction by some of the industrially valuable school fish. When the intensity of the light was maintained at a constant level, the schooling fish eventually began to drift away, seeming, in effect, to lose interest. To offset this, Bullis and Cummins tried dimming the lights, searching, as it were, for an appealing level that might hold the fish. One night Bullis accidentally hit the switch and turned the light suddenly up to peak intensity. The school instantly fled into the surrounding darkness. Then, incredibly, in about 15 seconds, the school rushed back and crowded so densely around the suction pipe that some of the fish were forced up out of the water on the backs of the rest of the school.

To guarantee that there will be concentrations of fish in the general area of the beguiling lights of a suction barge. Bullis has several tricks in mind, the simplest being merely an arrangement of outlying floats. Since many species of schooling fish tend to gather under and around such surface shelters in the daytime, if such floats are placed strategically there would be an increased likelihood of concentrations in the general area when night came. Bullis is also toying with a trickier means of bringing fish in: the use of electricity. For some time now scientists have known that by means of an electrical current fish can be made to swim back to point A. At the Pascagoula research base, one of Bullis' assistants, Biologist Ed Klima, has electrically motivated croakers, mackerel and herring doing 20 laps in a test pool. (Any fish fancier who considers exercising his aquarium pets electrically is hereby warned. Electrifying fish is a fairly exact business that involves a number of variables, including even the size of the fish. If you give a fish of certain size too little current, you get no response. Give him too much and you end up with a dead fish.)

While such harvesting schemes may seem too fanciful and Tom Swifty ever to be practical, one such system is already in use. In the Gulf and Caribbean there are two nocturnal species of shrimp called pinks and browns that burrow by day, thus escaping the net when it passes across the bottom. In the daytime pink and brown shrimp are now jumping out of their burrows and into an electrical trawl devised by Bullis and his Pascagoula noodlers.

In the 1950s James Higman, a research student at the Miami Institute of Marine Science, found that a pulse of electrical current caused shrimp to contract their abdominal muscles. Taking up where Higman left off, the experimenters at Pascagoula tested thousands of shrimp individually to find just what voltage and pulse rate were best to make shrimp jump consistently six inches out of their burrows. They then devised a trawl with a series of electrical lines preceding the foot of the net in such a way that shrimp would get electrical pulses at the proper rate. In comparison tests on a good mud bottom the electric trawl caught the same quantity of nocturnal shrimp by day that ordinary trawls do at night. To convince doubting Thomases, Bullis and his crew transported pink shrimp from the Gulf 400 miles to clear Bahamian waters off the island of Eleuthera. Scuba divers took 200 of the shrimp down and spaced them about six feet apart on the bottom, placing an orange-painted scallop shell beside each burrowed shrimp. The exploratory trawler used to harvest this man-made shrimp ground also towed a sled, with underwater cameramen just ahead of the net. In the movies taken by the divers, as the electrical system passes over each orange scallop shell, right on cue a shrimp pops out of the bottom and into the net. Last year an electrical shrimp trawl patterned after the prototype developed by Bullis and his crew was put on the market by the Electro Products, Inc. of Pensacola and is now being used in the Gulf and Caribbean and also off the west coast of Africa.

Six years ago David Causey, an invertebrate biologist at the University of Arkansas, described Bullis, the visionary fish snoop, in a way that needs no updating. "Thus far I've resisted all invitations to go with Bullis on a trip," Causey observed. "He is the sort of person who would take you out to see a sunset and bring you back three months later. I don't know much about his habits, but I suspect that after the day's work is done he puts a pair of forceps and vials in his pocket, lights a cigar and drops overboard for a quiet walk on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.... All I'm sure about him is that when he has a dreamy, faraway look in his eyes...thinking, no doubt, about oceanographic work on the far side of the moon, I'm in for trouble. He has no respect for age or gray hairs."