Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish)

Advice to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) on a public nomination for a species listing on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)

1. Scientific name, common name (where appropriate), major taxon group.

  • Brachionichthys politus (Red Handfish)

2. National Context

The Red Handfish is a small (80mm), brilliant red coloured benthic fish that is a member of the endemic Australian Brachionichthyidae family. The species is only found in Tasmania. The fish of the Brachionichthyidae family are characterised by their peculiar appearance and for using their pectoral fins in an unusual manner to walk over the sea bottom. The species is one of only eight recognised species of handfish, all of which occur in benthic habitats of inshore and shelf waters to around 200m depth.

Brachionichthys politus is confined to south east Tasmania where it has a very restricted and fragmented distribution. The species inhabits mixed sand and rocky reef habitats from the Port Arthur region to Marion Bay at depths of between 2-20m. The largest known population, estimated at about 12 individuals, occurs inshore in Frederick Henry Bay near Hobart, where it is in close proximity to coastal settlements. This same population is being targeted for collection because of its accessibility. However, all other Red Handfish populations are also at risk of illegal take.

3. How judged by TSSC in relation to the EPBC Act criteria.

TSSC judges the Red Handfish, Brachionichthys politus to be eligible for listing as vulnerable under the EPBC Act. The justification against the criteria is as follows:

Criterion 1 - Decline in numbers

There have been no population assessments undertaken for this species.

There is no quantitative data available against this criterion.

Criterion 2 - Geographic distribution

Brachionichthys politus is confined to less than 10 sites in south-eastern Tasmanian waters with a total area of no more than a few hundred square kilometres. It has a very restricted distribution and is uncommon within its range. It is known to have a low reproductive rate and very low rates of dispersal. Eggs are laid in masses of only 100's (which is extremely low compared with most teleosts). The egg masses are attached to ascidians or algae in shallow reef areas. Once hatched, larvae have been observed to settle immediately within the vicinity of the egg mass, with very low dispersal observed. These factors make the species naturally rare and limit its capacity for inhabiting a larger range or re-populating disturbed areas.

Therefore, the species is eligible for listing as vulnerable under this criterion.

Criterion 3 - Population size and decline in numbers or distribution

Anecdotal information suggests that the total number of individuals is very low, however, there have been no population surveys to quantify the population to date.

There is no quantitative data available against this criterion.

Criterion 4 - Population size

Brachionichthys politus is confined to less than 10 sites in south-eastern Tasmanian waters. The largest known population, estimated at about 12 individuals, occurs inshore in Frederick Henry Bay near Hobart. These factors make it unlikely that the overall population of the species exceeds 1000 in the wild.

The population is under pressure from habitat degradation and collection. Collection is regarded by scientists as a threat to the Red Handfish species because of the ease with which the species can be taken. This factor, combined with its low reproduction rate and highly restricted distribution could potentially lead to a rapid and unsustainable population decline. There have been anecdotal reports that the Red Handfish is one of several Tasmanian handfish species subject to small scale collecting and illegal trade. The species is of interest to private and commercial aquaria collectors.

Therefore, the species is eligible for listing as vulnerable under this criterion.

Criterion 5 - Probability of extinction in the wild

There is no quantitative data available against this criterion.

4. Conclusion

The Red Handfish has a very small and fragmented population and appears confined to highly specific habitat niches within its geographic range. The species is under pressure from habitat degradation and collection. Low dispersal rates and low egg production limit the capacity of the species to occupy a larger range, and make it vulnerable to localised population extinction.

Therefore the species is eligible for listing as vulnerable under criteria 2 and 4.

5. Recommendation

TSSC recommends that the list referred to in section 178 of the EPBC Act be amended by including in the list in the vulnerable category:

  • Brachionichthys politus Red Handfish

Publications used to assess the nomination

Edgar, G 1997 Australian Marine Life.

Pogonoski, J.J., Pollard, D.A., and Paxton, J.R. 2001. Conservation overview and action plan for Australian threatened and potentially threatened marine and estuarine fishes. Environment Australia, Canberra.

Conservation advice

The Red Handfish is only found in south eastern Tasmania from the Port Arthur region to Marion Bay including Frederick Henry Bay near Hobart (South Tasmania NRM region). It occurs in the benthic habitat of inshore and shelf waters, mixed sand and rocky reef habitats, to a depth between 2-20 metres, and is naturally very restricted.

The key threat to the Red Handfish is collection and illegal take.

The priority recovery and threat abatement actions required for this species are:

  • prevent illegal take of the Red Handfish from the wild; and
  • protect species' habitat.

This list does not encompass all actions that may be of benefit to this species, but highlights those that are considered to be of the highest priority at the time of listing. Longer term issues that should be considered in broader landscape, regional and or recovery planning include an investigation of the suitability of designating habitat areas as Marine Protected Areas.

No Recovery Plan is currently in place for the Red Handfish.

Priority for the development of recovery plan: Medium