RLS discovers new population of Red handfish (Thymichthys politus)

Jan 30, 2018

A team of Reef Life Survey divers has discovered a new population of  critically endangered Red handfish (Thymichthys politus) in southeastern Tasmania.

The new population was found after a tip off from the public sparked the search of the new area by RLS divers Toni Cooper, Rick Stuart-Smith, Carolina Garcia, Louise De Beuzeville, Martin Puchert, Ondine Pontier & Nelson Roberts. On the Tuesday, the team had undertaken monitoring of what has been believed to be the last known population of the species in Frederick Henry Bay, and had found and photographed eight individuals there. This alone was incredible news, as only between 1 and 5 individuals have been seen in any year of monitoring over the last 7 years or so, and there has been just too little data to be able to make any estimate of the population size.

This year, the Sargassum cover was sparse, and although it may not be good for the handfish, it made them easier to find, and provided an opportunity for the team to undertake a more thorough census of the site than has previously been possible. It was estimated that only 20-40 individuals may have been on this patch of reef, making the species one of the rarest known fishes in the world.
After another day of unsuccessful searching for ziebells handfish on the Tasman Peninsula, the team investigated the lead for the new site on thursday. Two and a half hours of searching by the seven divers had still not turned up any signs of a handfish, and the team was almost ready to pack it in. Then Toni found one, “half-heartedly flicking algae around”, right on the spot the google earth pin had indicated! At the same time, Ondine and Nelson had found another individual about 50 m away. With a renewed sense of purpose, the team continued their search and eventually found six more individuals in between these two. Once again, the red handfish were in a small aggregation of about 50 m x 20 m, in an area with the same species of Sargassum, but quite different bottom type and other algal species present.  
This new population, also thought to contain somewhere in the vicinity of 20-40 individuals, essentially doubles the estimated number of Red handfish left on the planet. The new information allows better management plans to be targeted to the different sites, and most importantly, provides a renewed sense of hope that more populations of Red handfish may still exist in SE Tasmania.
Since news of our exciting discovery went public last week, the story has been covered by major Australian and International publications including National Geographic, the BBC & the Guardian UK, and has been widely reported by news outlets in Australia, Europe, Asia, and North and South America.

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