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The baby boom that is giving nature a helping hand

Red handfish

Efforts to save the world’s rarest fish from extinction have been bolstered by a baby boom in a Hobart aquarium.

Fifty newborn red handfish hatched at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) last month. Scientists had collected two egg masses at one of only two locations in southern Tasmania where the fish are known to live.

Fewer than 100 adult redhand fish are thought to exist in the wild and scientists hope that a conservation strategy known as ‘headstarting’ could help bring them back from the brink.

IMAS researcher Dr Jemina Stuart-Smith said it involved keeping the juveniles in a safe environment during their vulnerable early stages. Raising them in a controlled environment and protecting them from predators and environmental risks would improve their chances of surviving to maturity and eventually reproducing.

“These juvenile red handfish will play a vital role in ensuring the species continues to survive in the wild,” Dr Stuart-Smith said.

“We plan to release them back into their remaining habitat when they are around one-year-old, to help rebuild the population at one of the two known sites that have been compromised by range of impacts, including habitat loss.”

IMAS PhD student Tyson Bessell said handfish lay eggs on upright stalks of vegetation on the seafloor and the mother stays with them until they hatch.

“The fish at IMAS were just 3-4mm long when they hatched and would be almost impossible to find and study in the wild, where they shelter under seaweed on shallow reefs,” Mr Bessell said.

Dr Stuart-Smith said little was known about red handfish biology, reproduction and early growth.

“These juveniles will also allow critical research that can help us to ensure this is not the last generation of their species.”

This is the second group of red handfish that have hatched in captivity after a similar egg mass was collected in 2018 and hatched at CSIRO. The 16 juveniles will soon be released after surviving their crucial first year at Seahorse World near Launceston, where they are currently on public display.

IMAS research into the red handfish is being carried out in collaboration with the CSIRO under the auspices of the National Handfish Recovery Team, which has successfully brought the spotted handfish back from the brink of extinction.

To help raise funds to support the research, people are being encouraged to name a red handfish, so far 17 individuals and organisations have donated $1,000 each for the opportunity.

Published on: 09 Dec 2019 2:18pm