Art lends a helping hand
Art is the latest weapon in the fight to save one of Tasmania’s most unique creatures – the critically endangered spotted handfish.
With the CSIRO deploying the talents of leading Tasmanian ceramist, Jane Bamford, the worlds of art and science have combined to protect this much-loved little fish.
Bamford is crafting by hand, thousands of artificial spawning habitats made from porcelain.
These narrow, straw-like spindles, will then be embedded into the River Derwent seabed by divers, giving the handfish a place to lay eggs – vital for their survival.
“This really is a case of art and science coming together in a bid to help save this amazing little fish,” Bamford said.
“It is an absolute privilege to be involved, and to use art not just in an interpretative way, but in a practical way to make a difference to the environment by helping to support a threatened species.”
This unusual creature captures imaginations.
Rather than swimming, it ‘walks’ along the seabed on modified fins. Endemic to south-east Tasmania, it was also one of the first fish in Australian waters to be documented, featuring in William Gould’s celebrated 1832 Sketchbook of Fishes.
The spotted handfish was once a common sight in Hobart’s River Derwent, but scientists fear there could be as few as 1,000 left. These are surviving in nine sheltered sites in the Derwent, including Battery Point, Sandy Bay, Bellerive and Howrah, and at the mouth of the Huon River in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
The beginning of their decline in numbers began in the 1980s, with the arrival of the Northern Pacific sea star in the ballast of visiting ships. This introduced pest fed on ascidians – the stalk-like invertebrates – where the handfish lay their eggs.
As the ascidians began to vanish, so too did the handfish. They were listed as critically endangered in 1996.
“In a way the spotted handfish has become a metaphor for what is happening to our marine environment,” Bamford explains.
“The way so many people from all walks of life are all pulling together to save this one little fish is incredible.”
Bamford is one of them.
Made to replicate an ascidian in the wild, these artificial habitats consist of two parts: a biscuit sized disc, punctured with a tiny hole through which a narrow straw-sized spindle is inserted.
The disc is embedded just under the seabed to hold the spindle in place, in the hope that the handfish will spawn around them.
“The female handfish dances around the stalk of an ascidian before laying her eggs which are attached to the base. The male will then come along and fertilize the eggs,” Bamford explains.
“But what is really incredible is that the mother will stay with her eggs, protecting them, until they hatch.”
Bamford’s work is part of the CSIRO’s spotted handfish conservation program, led by Dr Tim Lynch.
The creation of artificial spawning habitats has been central to this research, and over the past 20 years 6000 of them have been placed in the River Derwent. These, however, have all been made of plastic – and that comes with problems.
As well as the obvious concerns of introducing plastic into the marine environment, they are also flimsy and fall over.
Hopes are high for Bamford’s ceramic version, which are much sturdier.
“The work Jane is doing is really important. We need these artificial habitats to last and be maintained over the long-term, and porcelain could be the answer,” Dr Lynch says.
“But there are still a lot of variables. Will the fish prefer the ceramic artificial habitats over the plastic ones? And even if they do prefer ceramic, will the eggs survive on them?
“Only time will tell.”
Divers have just finished installing Bamford’s 3,000 artificial spawning habitats – together with another 2,000 plastic ones – just in time for September spawning.
And it won’t be long until scientists start seeing the results.
However, the fact that handfish couple – ‘Harley and Rose’ – recently spawned around one of Bamford’s porcelain ‘ascidians’ at Seahorse World in Beauty Point, instils great confidence.
“These are not a naturally rare fish, there should be millions of them. Spotted handfish used to be found right up the East Coast – as far as Coles Bay – and down south as far as Dover,” Dr Lynch adds.
“But, the good news is that these fish are hardy little buggers and they are really hanging on – all they are missing is something to breed on.”
In the meantime, Bamford’s work with the spotted handfish represents the continuation of a life-long passion for Tasmania’s underwater wonderland.
She spent a childhood exploring the seas around Hobart and the East Coast and has passed on this passion to her teenage children.
The family lives a stone’s throw from the River Derwent at Kingston, south of Hobart, and often head down the road for a quick snorkel.
“It is astonishing what you see just off the beach,” she remarks.
“We all hear about the tropical reefs, but the southern reefs, such as the ones around Tasmania, are just as remarkable.
“It is so important that we preserve our incredible marine environment, and helping to save this unique little fish is such an important part of that.”
Image Courtesy of ABC News
Watch the video below to see ceramic artist Jane Bamford create her artificial spawning habitats for the critically endangered spotted handfish:
12 September 2018, Edition 198