Fish: they're just like us!

An aging copper rockfish with cataracts had his left eye surgically removed two years ago at the Vancouver Aquarium. Then, the bullying began.

Biologists at the aquarium suspected other fish started picking on the rockfish for only having one eye, so they gave it a prosthetic eye late last year.

"It's normal for there to be a certain level of aggression in any group of animals, fish included," said the aquarium’s head veterinarian, Martin Haulena. "There's always going to be vying-for-a-better-spot within any group of animals. As animals get weak, they can't keep up with the competition."

But this rockfish was particularly vulnerable, Haulena said; other fish noticed its missing left eye and attacked it from that angle. The rockfish was "starting to look a bit ragged and beaten up," Haulena said. It had loose scales and was keeping to the bottom of the massive tank where it lived.

Aquarium staff had a few options, including moving the rockfish to a new exhibit and hoping the new fish wouldn't notice the missing eye. Euthanasia was also a possibility. "You just don't want the fish to suffer," Haulena said.

Then, the aquarium team came up with an innovative idea: Outfitting the rockfish with the same kind of fake eye used by taxidermists.

Haulena said his mentor performed such a surgery on an expensive koi fish in the 1990s. In recent years, Seattle Aquarium’s head veterinarian, Lesanna Lahner, has been working on a new method to implant prosthetic eyes on rockfish. Lahner assisted Haulena with the surgery, which took place in Vancouver in late November.

The rockfish was given anesthesia as surgeons sewed the new eye to the rockfish's eye socket, using nylon sutures and titanium clips.

So how's the fish doing now? "Really well," Haulena said. The other fish seemed to be fooled by the fake eye, he said.

"When you look at the fish, he's up in the middle of the tank," Haulena said. "He's using the whole water column. He's moving around in a normal way and interacting, looking like a happy fish."

Certain species of rockfish can live for a very long time; in the wild, some can live to the age of 80 or even 100. As with any long-living animal, rockfish do get hit with all sorts of ailments that accompany old age, Haulena said.

This particular fish's ordeal isn't just over yet; the prosthetic may have to get replaced at some point, and the fish will probably need another surgery.

But Haulena said the solution the Vancouver Aquarium went with was the right one. "I couldn't be happier," he said of the surgery. "It's the first one we've done, and it certainly adds to our tools."