Ultra rare, grumpy fish gets a hand in extinction fight

Tracey Ferrier |

Scientists believe there are only 50 to 100 red handfish left on the planet.
Scientists believe there are only 50 to 100 red handfish left on the planet.

Scientists have staged a high stakes rescue off Tasmania to conserve an ultra rare, grumpy-faced, fin-walking fish that’s in danger of extinction.

It’s believed there are just 50 to 100 red handfish left on the planet.

But threats, including ocean heat and an invasion of hungry urchins, are mounting at two tiny patches of reef where they’re still found.

Late in 2023, the difficult decision was made to take some of the precious population from the wild and temporarily hold them in captivity.

Earlier in January, 25 individuals were successfully plucked from the sea and are doing well under the constant care of experts at a facility south of Hobart.

Jemina Stuart-Smith is the co-leader of the red handfish research and conservation program at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

She says the charismatic fish is facing severe habitat loss and degradation, primarily driven by native urchins overgrazing its habitat. But there are other threats too.

“It’s close to urban areas and is impacted by runoff, direct disturbance through boating and anchoring, and of course climate change impacts.”

A diver collects a red handfish
Twenty-five of the ultra rare fish are now in captivity after they were collected off Tasmania. (HANDOUT/UNIVERSITY OF TASMANIA INSTITUTE FOR MARINE AND ANTARCTIC STUDIES)

Scientists raised the alarm in the face of a predicted marine heatwave which, coupled with high atmospheric temperatures this summer, could be a serious threat to the survival of the species.

“Habitat degradation means there’s a loss of refuges and microhabitats, creating a disconnected habitat that makes it increasingly difficult for the handfish to adjust to water temperature stress,” Dr Stuart-Smith says.

Andrew Trotter leads the marine institute’s conservation breeding project for red handfish and says the relocation effort isn’t without risk but so far it’s going well.

“The relocation from sea to aquariums was quite seamless, and they settled into their new homes very nicely.

“They were feeding very well within a day, and our aim now is to keep them healthy and content until it’s safe to return them. We don’t want to keep them any longer than necessary – they’re wild animals and belong in the sea.”

Temperature data from the reef sites shows this summer has well exceeded previous temperature maximums. 

“It is experiencing unprecedented high temperatures, so we can only assume that this additional stressor will impact the already fragile population,” Dr Stuart-Smith says.

IMAS scientists plan to hold the red handfish in captivity until winter, but their release will depend on conditions being suitable for their return.

“As well as keeping them safe until then, we’re very focused on habitat restoration and management at red handfish sites.”