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Spotted handfish

Current status

[Photo of spotted handfish by Thor Carter, courtesy CSIRO Division of Fisheries]

The Spotted handfish (Brachionichths hirsutus) is listed as endangered in Tasmania's Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 and also under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Protection Act 1999.

What is the spotted handfish?

Spotted handfish are marine fish, endemic to Tasmania. They are only found on sandy sediments at the bottom of the Derwent estuary and adjoining bays. They 'walk' slowly on their pelvic and pectoral fins which look rather like hands.

Why are they critically endangered?

They are endangered because they have undergone a recent drastic decline in population. The cause for this decline is, as yet, unknown. However two factors are considered to be the most likely causes. Firstly, areas where the handfish were previously common have been invaded by the introduced seastar, Asterias amurensis. This seastar may be eating the egg masses or depleting the food supply of the handfish. Secondly, changed land practices over the longterm have increased soil runoff resulting in siltier sediments on the river beds. This has reduced the amount of natural sandy habitat of the fish.

In the 1980s they were common in their range. In 1994 the Tasmanian Museum surveyed much of the spotted handfish's range whilst studying the introduced seastar, yet only found it at one site. The CSIRO have specifically surveyed all known spotted handfish areas and only found a few specimens. This is not good news for the handfish.

What is being done?

The CSIRO and the Department of Primary Industries and Water are investigating possible biological controls and physical removal (via trapping) of the introduced seastar. They are also monitoring the existing spotted handfish population, especially over the spawning season, trialing captive husbandry and developng a recovery plan for these fish. A trial release of captive-bred fish was carried out in 1999.

The biggest threats to the spotted handfish are from illegal collectors, habitat disturbance by dredge or net fishing and from the introduced seastar.

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