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All-out effort to capture and save critically endangered Tasmanian ‘finger’ fish

Notice the finger-like extensions that give the critically endangered red hand fish its name.

Notice the finger-like extensions that give the critically endangered red hand fish its name. Photo: Reef Life

Marine scientists are mounting a frantic, last-minute bid to save one of the most remarkable fish found in Australian waters from extinction.

It is estimated there are only about 100 red handfish left in the wild, with the prospect of warmer than average summer water temperatures in the species’ home waters off Tasmania posing a critical threat to the species’ survival

The scientists will capture breeding pairs and transfer them to breeding facilities to shield it from marine heatwaves expected to hit Tasmania’s waters this summer.

The population has declined over recent years due to the environmental degradation of the seaweed habitat it needs to breed.

It is thought there are no more than 100 red handfish left in the wild, with grimmer estimates putting the surviving population at only half that number.

Tasmanian acting environment minister Nic Street said the remaining handfish population faced devastation unless action was taken.

‘Extreme warming is predicted’

“Extreme warming is predicted in the localised area the red handfish inhabits, with experts predicting population decline as high as 75-99 per cent during the forecast conditions,” Mr Street said.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has issued approval in the national interest for scientists to collect up to 25 red handfish over the coming weeks.

The Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, which will take the initial collection,  successfully bred and released several red handfish back into the wild in 2022.

Scientists will monitor the remaining wild red handfish — so called because of the finger-like extensions to the front fins — for signs of stress over the summer and collect and relocate them if necessary.

Once the threat of marine heatwaves has passed, the fish are expected to be returned to the wild.

The federal government this week invested an additional $200,000 to improve the species’ wild habitat on top of the $600,000 previously allocated for red handfish captive breeding and habitat restoration.

“This intervention is critical to save Tasmania’s red handfish,” Ms Plibersek said.

The ultra-rare species gets its name from using its over-sized fins to walk across the sea floor rather than swim.

-with AAP

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