Biodiversity

Species Profile and Threats Database


For information to assist proponents in referral, environmental assessments and compliance issues, refer to the Policy Statements and Guidelines (where available), the Conservation Advice (where available) or the Listing Advice (where available).
 
In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.

EPBC Act Listing Status Listed as Critically Endangered as Thymichthys politus
Listing and Conservation Advices Commonwealth Conservation Advice on Thymichthys politus (Red Handfish) (Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC), 2012bu) [Conservation Advice].
 
Commonwealth Listing Advice on Thymichthys politus (Red Handfish) (Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC), 2012bv) [Listing Advice].
 
Recovery Plan Decision Recovery Plan required, this species had a recovery plan in force at the time the legislation provided for the Minister to decide whether or not to have a recovery plan (19/2/2007).
 
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans Recovery Plan for four species of handfish (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005v) [Recovery Plan] as Brachionichthys politus.
 
Policy Statements and Guidelines Survey guidelines for Australia's threatened fish. EPBC Act survey guidelines 6.4 (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2011i) [Admin Guideline].
 
Federal Register of
    Legislative Instruments
Inclusion of species in the list of threatened species under section 178 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (19/02/2004) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2004f) [Legislative Instrument] as Brachionichthys politus.
 
Amendment to the list of threatened species under section 178 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (125) (01/08/2011) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2011d) [Legislative Instrument] as Thymichthys politus.
 
Amendment to the list of threatened species under section 178 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (123) (20/09/2012) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012f) [Legislative Instrument] as Thymichthys politus.
 
Scientific name Thymichthys politus [83756]
Family Brachionichthyidae:Lophiiformes:Actinopterygii:Chordata:Animalia
Species author (Richardson, 1844)
Infraspecies author  
Reference Last, P.R. & Gledhill, D. C. 2009. A revision of the Australian handfishes (Lophiiformes: Brachionichthyidae), with descriptions of three new genera and nine new species Zootaxa 2252: 59-63
Other names Brachionichthys politus [66709]
Distribution map Species Distribution Map

This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.

Illustrations Google Images
http://www.agpix.com/view_caption.php?image_id=1005

The Red Handfish is conventionally accepted as Thymichthys politus (Richardson 1844).

The Red Handfish has previously been known as:

  • Cheironectes politus Richardson, 1844: 133-134; holotype whereabouts unknown; from Port Arthur, Tasmania [original description].
  • Chironectes politus: Günther, 1861: 183 [amendment of generic name].
  • Brachionichthys politus: Johnston, 1883: 121 [new combination].
  • Sympterichthys politus: Paxton et al., 2006: 648 [new combination].

Red Handfish are small, slow moving benthic fish that are mostly red in colour. The species grows to at least 136 mm total length and has a relatively elongate and moderately compressed body that tapers towards the tail. The skin is covered in small, close-set, flattened warts. Unlike the Spotted Handfish, most scales and the associated spines of this species are fully embedded in the skin (Last and Gledhill, 2009).

There are two primary colour morphs, both dominated by reddish tones. One morph is a uniform vivid red over the body and fin bases with the outer parts of the fins bluish and white; the second morph is a less strikingly mottled pink with extensive reddish patches and spots over the body and (usually) also the fins (Last and Gledhill, 2009).

The Red Handfish was first collected near Port Arthur in the 19th Century and was rediscovered at a small reef near the Actaeon Islands in the 1980's (Last et al. 1983). A few specimens were also found at Port Arthur and off the Forestier Peninsula during the 1980's, and one additional specimen was collected off Bridport (Bass Strait) in 1950 (Last and Gledhill 2009). The largest known population was found at Primrose Sands Reef in Frederick Henry Bay during the 1990's (Last and Gledhill 2009) and 15 sightings of at least 10 individuals were reported by Bruce et al. (1997) during 1996, with additional specimens sighted on deeper soft substrate in the bay in 1999 (Gledhill and Green, unpublished). Red Handfish have not been seen at Primrose Sands Reef since an infestation of native sea urchin destroyed the seaweed habitat (Last and Gledhill 2009). No Red Handfish were observed on the sediments in the bay during surveys in 2005 (Gledhill and Green, unpublished). No other locations are known where Red Handfish can currently be found (Gledhill and Green, unpublished) with only two reported observations from the Port Arthur area since the 1980's (Gowlett-Holmes pers. comm. in Last and Gledhill 2009).

There have been no dedicated systematic, quantitative or spatial surveys to census population parameters of Red Handfish. The largest known population, was located in the late 1990s on an inshore reef at Primrose Sands in Frederick Henry Bay. A density of approximately 7 individuals per hectare. Red Handfish was recorded in an area off this reef on the sediments in the bay during Spotted Handfish surveys in 1999, further supporting that this was an important location for Red Handfish (Gledhill and Green, unpublished). Red Handfish have disappeared from or become considerably less abundant at Primrose Sands. In the mid-2000s, these factors were found to indicate the overall population of the species was unlikely to exceed one thousand individuals (DEH 2004j).

Due to the lack of survey information, it has been difficult to quantify Red Handfish populations since the late 1990s (Bruce et al. 1999). Incidental observations during surveys for Spotted Handfish, and a number of reported observations by divers, suggest that this species has undergone a decline. Historical data identifies the species in disjunct populations. This includes records from the eastern Bass Strait in northern Tasmania, and the Forestier Peninsula and the Actaeon Islands in the south (Last and Gledhill 2009). The species has not been recorded from Bass Strait since the 1950's and Last and Gledhill (2009) report a possible major, and recent, decline off the Forestier Peninsula. Similarly, the loss of the Primrose Sands Reef population is evidence that there has been a recent decline and possible local extinction at this site. Recent attempts by recreational divers to locate specimens at locations of previous sightings have failed (Gledhill and Green, unpublished). The lack of better information about distribution and a systematic survey of the species hampers the determination of any longer-term population trend.

During observations made at Primrose Sands Reef in 1996, Red Handfish were found in a variety of locations, such as on the top of rocks, amongst macro-algae and in sandy areas between rocks and the reef-sand interface (Bruce et al. 1997). A few years later in 1999 they were also found to have shared habitat with Spotted Handfish on sediments with weed clumps near these reefs (Gledhill and Green, unpublished). Last and Gledhill (2009) report a depth distribution of 1 - 20 metres.

The green alga (Caulerpa simpliciuscula) was observed to be the preferred spawning substrate of Red Handfish at Primrose Sands Reef and appears to be critical to spawning success. Unlike Spotted Handfish bred in captivity, Red Handfish did not use the artificial spawning substrate provided but they did have access to and use Caulerpa spp. in the aquaria (Bruce et al. 1997). The recent loss of seaweed habitat from Primrose Sands Reef is likely to have contributed to the apparent local extinction at this site. The absence of Red Handfish on the sediments adjoining the reef in 2005, despite there being abundant spawning habitat, C. simpliciuscula (Green 2005), suggests an undetected threatening process in operation (Gledhill and Green, unpublished).

Due to their limited and disjunct distribution, all of the areas within which Red Handfish have been found are considered important habitat.

As per the most recent information (Bruce et al. 1997) there has been no research conducted on the age-growth relationship of Red Handfish. Observations made at the Primrose Sands reef site in 1996 recorded specimens that ranged in size from 50 - 80 mm in length (Bruce et al. 1997). Three of the four pairs observed differed markedly in size, with the difference in size of specimens being between 6 - 30 mm (Bruce et al. 1997). These observations suggest there may be sexual dimorphism in this species, with males being smaller than females and having dark markings between the rays of the first dorsal and pectoral fin (Bruce et al. 1997).

During the surveys conducted in 1996, egg masses were observed in late October and early November (Bruce et al. 1997). The egg masses varied in size from an estimated 30 - 60 eggs. The egg structure was similar to those of the Spotted Handfish, with eggs contained in transparent 'flasks' connected by tubules and bound together by associated threads (Bruce et al. 1997). All of the egg masses observed in the field were guarded by an adult Red Handfish and were attached to the green alga Caulerpa simpliciuscula(Bruce et al. 1997).

Around this time, the act of spawning was also observed in aquaria and was found to take over nine hours (Bruce et al. 1997). Observations on captive Red Handfish suggest that females guard the eggs until hatching, with newly emerged hatchlings looking similar to adults, but are yellow/orange in colour. Some hatchling specimens were noted to have a pattern of black and white markings on their pectoral fins (Bruce et al. 1997).

Anecdotal reports and observations of wild fish and fish in aquaria in the mid 2000s confirm that the Red Handfish has a low reproductive rate and a very low rate of dispersal. Once hatched, juveniles have been observed to settle immediately in the vicinity of the egg mass (DEH 2004j).

Key biological attributes for this species include (DEH 2005u):

  • they move by using their hands-like fins to crawl across the bottom
  • they depend upon vertical structures for spawning substrate
  • they have a low rate of dispersal
  • females remain with eggs until hatching
  • when eggs hatch, fully formed young emerge.

In the 1980s, the Red Handfish were found to feed on small crustaceans and worms (Edgar et al. 1982).

Key threats to handfish habitat, and specifically spawning substrate include (DEH 2005u):

  • pollution from industrial storm water and sewage that may deplete spawning substrate
  • siltation of key estuarine habitat caused by land clearing
  • coastal developments, particularly those that involve dredging, as the Red Handfish lives in shallow coastal environments in close proximity to major urban and industrial areas.

Habitat Degradation

The recent loss of habitat and apparent local extinction of Red Handfish at Primrose Sands is a significant loss for the species. This is of particular concern as no other populations of this apparent size have been recorded, and recent expeditions to locate the species at other key sites have failed to locate even a single specimen (Gledhill and Green, unpublished).

Environmental Threats

The loss of critical habitat and the effect of environmental pollutants are also potential threats (Gledhill and Green, unpublished).

There may also be local environmental effects such as high water temperature that contribute to the threatening process; water temperatures of approximately 20 ºC were noted at Primrose sands during 2000/01 summer (Gledhill and Green, unpublished). Handfish held in aquaria appeared distressed at temperatures above 18 ºC (Gledhill and Green, unpublished).

Collection

The species is also of interest to private and commercial aquarium collectors because of its unusual appearance, and there have been anecdotal reports that the Red Handfish is one of several Tasmanian handfish species subject to small scale collection for illegal trade (DEH 2004j). Scientists regard collection as a threat to the Red Handfish because of the ease with which this species can be taken (DEH 2004j). The threat of collection, combined with the species' low reproductive rate and highly restricted distribution, has the potential to cause a rapid and unsustainable population decline (DEH 2004j).

Captive breeding

Breeding Red Handfish in captivity was attempted once without success, as the egg masses spawned by two females were not fertilised by the males in their respective tanks (Bruce et al. 1997). Reasons for the failure are unknown, but no courtship behaviour was observed, possibly indicating that the males used were immature and unable to fertilise the eggs or perhaps not males at all (Bruce et al. 1997). Captive breeding using similar protocols to those developed for Spotted Handfish (Green and Bruce 2000, 2001, 2002) might be successful if applied to Red Handfish.

Collection

Collection of any Handfish is an offence in Tasmania unless a permit has been issued under the Living Marine Resources Management Act 1995.

Urchin Control

Last and Gledhill (2009) name an infestation of the native sea urchin, Heliocidaris erythrogramma, as the cause of habitat loss at Primrose Sands reef. Barrett et al. (2009) found strong declines in H. erythrogramma in Tasmanian Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) where crayfish (rock lobster) were protected.

The Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and Environment released a discussion paper in 2009 listing 'increasing urchin barrens' as a management issue for the Tasmanian Rock Lobster Fishery (DPIPWE 2009b). While referring specifically to infestations of the long-spined sea urchin (Centrostephanus rogersii) this paper states "preliminary research indicates large rock lobsters may have a role to play in addressing the spread of urchin barrens" and lists maximum size limits as a potential management tool to minimise urchin barren formation.

The Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute had initiated some controlled experiments, in 2009, to examine the value of importing large crayfish to control urchin densities (TAFI 2009). These methods may be of future value to managing Red Handfish habitat, provided some remaining populations can be located, particularly if they are located in an area that is currently, or listed to become, an MPA.

Management documentation for the Red Handfish includes:

  • Recovery Plan for Four Species of Handfish (DEH 2005v).
  • Issues Paper: Population status of an threats to four handfish species listed as threatened under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (DEH 2005u).
  • Survey Guidelines for Australia's threatened fish (draft) (SEWPaC in prep).

The following table lists known and perceived threats to this species. Threats are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) threat classification version 1.1.

Threat Class Threatening Species References
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Illegal take Listing Advice - Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish) (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2004j) [Internet].
Ecosystem/Community Stresses:Ecosystem Degradation:Decline in habitat quality Listing Advice - Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish) (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2004j) [Internet].
Ecosystem/Community Stresses:Indirect Ecosystem Effects:Loss and/or fragmentation of habitat and/or subpopulations Listing Advice - Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish) (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2004j) [Internet].
Species Stresses:Indirect Species Effects:Low fecundity, reproductive rate and/or poor recruitment Listing Advice - Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish) (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2004j) [Internet].
Species Stresses:Indirect Species Effects:Low numbers of individuals Listing Advice - Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish) (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2004j) [Internet].

Barrett, N. S., C. D. Buxton, and G. J. Edgar (2009). Changes in invertebrate and macroalgal populations in Tasmanian marine reserves in the decade following protection. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 370:104119.

Bruce, B.D., M.A. Green & P.R. Last (1999). Aspects of the biology of the endangered Spotted Handfish Brachionichthys hirsutus (Lophiiformes: Brachionichthyidae) off southern Australia. In: Seret, B. & J.Y. Sire, eds. Proceedings of the 5th Indo Pacific Fish Conference, Noumea 1997. Page(s) 369-380. Societe Francaise d'Ichthyologie, Paris.

Bruce, B.D., M.A.P. Green & P.R. Last (1997). Developing Husbandry Techniques for Spotted Handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) and Monitoring the 1996 Spawning Season. Environment Australia, Canberra.

Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) (2009b). Discussion Paper on a Strategic Policy Framework for the Tasmanian Rock Lobster Fishery. [Online]. Available from: http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/Attachments/LBUN-7YA2UV/$FILE/DiscussionPape%20RLStrategicPolicyDec09.pdf.

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) (2011i). Survey guidelines for Australia's threatened fish. EPBC Act survey guidelines 6.4 . [Online]. EPBC Act policy statement. Canberra, ACT: DSEWPAC. Available from: http://www.environment.gov.au/epbc/publications/threatened-fish.html.

Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH) (2004j). Listing Advice - Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish). [Online]. Available from: http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/species/red-handfish.html.

Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH) (2005u). Issues Paper: Population status of an threats to four handfish species listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. [Online]. Canberra. Available from: http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/recovery/4-handfish/pubs/4-handfish-issues-paper.pdf.

Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH) (2005v). Recovery Plan for four species of handfish. [Online]. Available from: http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/recovery/4-handfish/index.html.

Edgar, G.J., P.R. Last & M.W. Wells (1982). Coastal Fishes of Tasmania and Bass Strait. Page(s) 176. Tasmanian Underwater Photographic Society.

Günther, A. (1861). Catalogue of the acanthopterygian fishes in the collection of the British Museum. 3. Gobiidae, Discoboli, Pediculati, Blenniidae, Labyrinthici, Mugilidae, Notacanthi. i-xxv, 1-586, i-x pp.

Gledhill & Green (unpubl.). Issues paper: Population status of, and threats to, three handfish species listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Green, M. (2005). Marine habitat and threatened fish investigation: Report to Biodiversity Conservation branch DPIWE. DPIWE, Tasmania.

Green, M. A. P. and B. D. Bruce (2002). Spotted Handfish Recovery Plan 1999-2001: Year 3. Environment Australia, Canberra.

Green, M.A. & B.D. Bruce (2000). Spotted Handfish Recovery Plan: Final Report: Year 1 (1999). Environment Australia, Canberra.

Green, M.A. & B.D. Bruce (2001). Spotted Handfish Recovery Plan 1999-2001: Progress Report, End of Year 2 (2000). Environment Australia, Canberra.

Johnston, R.M. (1883). General and critical observations on the fishes of Tasmania. Papers and proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania. 1882:51-143.

Last, P.R. & D.C. Gledhill (2009). A revision of the Australian handfishes (Lophiiformes: Brachionichthyidae), with descriptions of three new genera and nine new species. Zootaxa. 2252:1-77.

Last, P.R., E.O.G. Scott, & F.H. Talbot (1983). Fishes of Tasmania. Hobart: Tasmania Fisheries Development Authority.

Paxton, J., J.E. Gates & D.F. Hoese (2006). Brachionichthyidae (209). Zoological Catalogue of Australia. 35:647-649. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Richardson, J. (1844). Description of Australian Fish. (Part 2). Transactions of the Zoological Society of London. 3:133-185.

Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute (2009). Managing the invasion of the long-spined sea urchin. [Online]. Available from: http://www.zoo.utas.edu.au/urchin/lobster.html.

Threatened Species Scientific Committee (2004a). Commonwealth Listing Advice on Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish). [Online]. Available from: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/species/red-handfish.html.

Threatened Species Scientific Committee (2004l). NON-APPROVED Conservation Advice on Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish). [Online]. Available from: http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/species/red-handfish.html#conservation.

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This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.

Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Thymichthys politus in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: http://www.environment.gov.au/sprat. Accessed Fri, 25 Apr 2014 00:30:57 +1000.