From "Ocean Watch"

Susan Scott Photo
By Susan Scott
Monday, December 16, 1996

Those needlefish are not
totally harmless after all

Those pesky needlefish. Just when I convince myself that they can't possibly poke you with their beaks, I find out that a needlefish killed a child in Kauai.

It's not a common event, and it happened nearly 20 years ago, but still . . . The incident, reported in detail in a reputable medical journal, certainly got my attention. Needlefish, or 'aha, are common in Hawaii waters, which host at least four species.

Some of these fish prefer the outer reef or offshore waters. Others dwell near shore, often in shallow snorkeling areas.

As their name suggests, needlefish are long, narrow and silvery. The smaller common species reach about 15 inches long; the larger ones can grow to more than 3 feet. In all species, the fishes' needlelike beaks, filled with sharp teeth, merge with their bodies to form sleek, living spears.

It's easy to miss seeing these widespread fish while snorkeling because they hover so close to the water's surface. (Snorkelers usually move along looking down.) This same trait makes needlefish easy to spot from land. On a recent walk through the city, I saw one school in Honolulu Harbor near the Maritime Museum and another in Kewalo Basin.

At least I thought they were needlefish. These fish have some close relatives called halfbeaks which often swim with needlefish.

The two types can be hard to tell apart. Halfbeaks have a long lower jaw but the upper is short and stubby.

Needlefish have two long jaws, good for catching fish. A needlefish strikes at passing prey with a sideways movement of the head, then swallows it whole.

Like their other close relatives, the flyingfish (malolo), needlefish can leap from the water at up to 38 miles an hour, skimming the surface before falling back to the water. This is where needlefish and people can clash.

At night, lights sometimes attract and excite these fish, causing them to jump at speed. Needlefish beaks have penetrated the wooden hulls of outrigger canoes.

Tragically, one also penetrated the eye of a 10-year-old Kauai boy while he was night fishing in a small boat with his father. The fish beak penetrated the boy's brain, killing him.

In other parts of the Pacific, needlefish have punctured people in the chest, abdomen, arms, legs, head and neck.

People at greatest risk of needlefish punctures are night reef fishermen carrying lights in low boats. For many village fishermen in the Pacific, needlefish are a greater occupational hazard than sharks.

Although it's rare, swimmers and divers have been seriously injured by needlefish in Japan, New Zealand and the Red Sea.

No such injuries have been reported in Hawaii, but it's a possibility. To prevent such an incident, night divers should leave lights off until well submerged. Fishermen in small boats should be aware of the potential danger of carrying lights at night.

Millions of people, including me, have snorkeled near, dived around and paddled into schools of needlefish countless times without any trouble at all.

These lovely, interesting fish aren't out to get you and injuries are indeed rare.

Still, it's good to know the facts. Now, when someone asks me if those skinny, silvery fish can hurt you, I won't say never. I'll say, almost never.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin . Contact her at