Saving Tasmania’s handfish

A fundraising appeal was launched in December aimed at supporting the work of researchers from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, CSIRO, and the University of Sydney in their effort to save Tasmania’s endangered handfish species from extinction.
The Tasmanian state government committed $10,000 towards the Handfish Conservation Project, to enable scientists to study and support the recovery of the Red, Spotted, and Ziebell’s handfish, all of which are federally listed as ‘threatened’.
Following the discovery of a new colony of red handfish last year, (The Veterinarian, December 2018) approximately 70-80 individuals are now believed to exist on just two patches of rocky reef, each less than 50m in diameter. There are thought to be at least 1000 remaining spotted handfish, but there has been no confirmed sighting of Ziebell’s handfish since 2007.
Rick Stuart-Smith, a research fellow with the Ecology and Biodiversity group at IMAS, and a board member of the Reef Life Survey Foundation, whose diving team discovered the new red handfish population, said learning more about the handfish was a critical first step towards saving them.
“With the known population of red handfish appearing to be less than 100 individuals, this is one of the rarest fish in the world. Like their close relatives, the spotted and Ziebell’s handfish, red handfish are perilously close to extinction, but at the moment we just don’t know enough about them to have a real go at saving them,” Stuart-Smith said.
The Handfish Conservation Project will focus on monitoring the two known populations of red handfish, gathering information on their genetic structure and their breeding habits, and working out how to better manage their habitat, which is under threat from a combination of nutrient pollution and an over-abundance of sea urchins.
Stuart-Smith said the appeal would complement the work already being undertaken by the National Handfish Recovery Team, but he also hopes the funding will assist in developing new ways to look for the handfish, and provide a better chance of finding out whether there are any other populations still to be discovered in south-eastern Tasmania.
“Government and research organisations are already supporting handfish research but if we’re to save this unique species, we also need help from the community as this could be our last chance to save the remaining red handfish in the wild,” he said.
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Anne Layton-Bennett

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