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SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium lends a helping hand to a critically endangered fish

  • Tuesday 23rd March 2021
  • Spotted Handfish, Conservation

SLMA Spotted Handfish 3

The team is one step closer to breeding the rare spotted handfish.

SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium is playing its part to protect the future of a critically endangered fish that uses its hands, otherwise known as pectoral fins, to walk along the ocean floor.


The rare spotted handfish, a bottom dwelling species endemic to Tasmania’s Derwent Estuary, is under threat from habitat degradation with wild populations dwindling. We are part of a committed group of scientists working to conserve the spotted handfish, protect its habitat and breed the unique species with the aim of releasing fish into the wild to bolster populations and safeguard their future.


We are now one step closer to breeding the spotted handfish after successfully determining the sex of the five creatures currently under the team’s care. One of the main challenges to the breeding program thus far has been the fact there is no simple way to distinguish between male and female handfish.


To overcome this obstacle, we've brought in The Unusual Pet Vets, with their special ultrasound machine, to scan each fish to determine whether they had the internal organs of a male or female.


“We were pleased to discover that we have one male and four female handfish, which means that we definitely have a chance of being able to breed them and further contribute to the conservation of the species – before we were just guessing. Not only is it a fundamental part of any breeding program to be able to distinguish the sex of the creatures, we were also able to collect valuable information that will be critical to future breeding programs,” said Paul Hale, Head of Curatorial at SEA LIFE Melbourne.


“Our goal is to contribute to a head-start program. This would involve us breeding the handfish and raising the juveniles at the Aquarium. When they are large enough, we would release the young fish into their natural habitat in the Derwent Estuary. This program increases their chance of survival as the fish would complete the most vulnerable stages of their life at the Aquarium and can then go on to breed and continue the circle of life in the wild,” continued Paul.  


At the end of 2020, while our team were busy carefully replicating the native habitat of the handfish in terms of seasonal changes in temperature, lighting and the levels of salinity in the water, they were rewarded with the discovery that two of the females had laid eggs. It was another positive step forward for the breeding program, but unfortunately the eggs were not fertile with the male apparently showing no interest. The adults have continued to fare well, leading the team to be hopeful that this year will bring further successes.


The breeding program is one potential piece of the puzzle when it comes the protection of the spotted handfish. The program will be implemented in conjunction with habitat protection measures to give this species the best chance at recovery.  


“We’re proud to work with the CSIRO, Seahorse World and all the other members of the Handfish Conservation Project to help save this rare Australian fish. Handfish are fascinating and iconic creatures for Tasmania and we are happy to be able to support their populations while also raising awareness of their plight,” said Paul.


Visit SEA LIFE Melbourne to see the rare spotted handfish on display!