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Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies - Red Handfish Discovery

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Tags: Fish Farms, Huon Aquaculture, Handfish, Environment Protection Authority, IMAS

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for Planning for reminding us and recording in Hansard that indeed the Greens have concerns with some corrupted planning processes that have been used around the Cambria Green development.

I am here today to talk about the team of divers from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies and the citizen's science project called Reef Life Survey, who discovered a new population of what is believed to be the world's rarest fish earlier in January this year, the red handfish as it is known, or Brachionicthys politus.

It was not easy to find those tiny fish. Seven divers spent three-and-a-half hours and when they were on their way back, feeling dejected as though they had failed, one diver was half-heartedly fiddling with a stray piece of algae when she spotted something red in the water. Later she said, 'Lo and behold, it was a red handfish. It was so exciting'. It allowed them to narrow down their search to a smaller area and they subsequently found a stretch of reef about the size of a badminton court, which is only 6 metres by 14 metres, and a total of eight newly found red handfish. This is a second population grouping. Previously the only other known population of the red handfish, 20-40 of them, were living on a stretch of reef near Frederick Henry Bay in the south-east of Tasmania.

These beautiful, incredible fish are ocean dwellers that crawl on the sea floor with their limbs on their hands. They are incredibly small, between 5 centimetres and 12 centimetres, and they come in two wild colour variations. One is a bright red, and I encourage anyone to go online and have a look at the IMAS website to see photos of this amazing characterful little fish. The other type has red embellishments - red hand, red feet, red gills.

This newly discovered colony of rare red handfish could double the total population number to 80 individuals, which is fantastic. The point is that the IMAS scientists realise there could be other undiscovered populations and it has given them and everyone who loves this little Tasmanian treasure hope that indeed there may be more. They also understood that the habitat of this second population was different to the ones that they understood they lived in before.

Handfish lay their eggs at the base of pieces of seaweed so it is easy for those eggs to get jostled or knocked off by swimmers and boats. They reproduce slowly and they also move slowly on their hands because they are confined to small areas, and it is believed that they live in sociable family groups.

Why am I talking about this little treasure? It is because Huon Aquaculture's move into Norfolk Bay is close by, if not on top of, a possible red handfish colony, and it is definitely now conclusively understood to be close to suitable red handfish habitat. Huon Aquaculture's activities in Norfolk Bay and their move into a lease which was approved by the EPA about a week ago was done without the full assessment of the EPA board and against the EPA's own draft regulations about how licences should be provided for leases in this situation. It is a lease which has been dormant for more than 10 years and three months. It has never had finfish in Norfolk Bay and that licence application is the subject of an EPBC Act referral by Environment Tasmania.

How can the Director of the EPA grant a licence to Huon Aquaculture when this matter has been referred to the federal Environment minister? We are still waiting to see whether it will be subject to an assessment process by the EPBC Act processes. How can it be that the Director of the EPA has allowed Huon Aquaculture to undertake operations that will involve sinking concrete mooring blocks under the seabed? It will involve penning fish there that will produce excrement that will fall to the seabed, the benthic floor, that red handfish may possibly live within. How can that approval have allowed the large boat, the Captain Bill, to tether itself for most days of the week, Sundays to Thursdays, operating six hours a day, churning up the water, harvesting fish and potentially threatening the eggs of red handfish that may be on algae and other seagrasses nearby?

There is so much we do not know about this beautiful fish and it is really concerning that we have a government that is clearly incapable of regulating the salmon industry to protect these wild and endangered species.

Huon Aquaculture has responded incredibly poorly to the questions that were put by the EPA and it is clear that for whatever reason, the EPA is not holding them to account. Huon Aquaculture's report for the baseline environmental assessment refers to concerns that were raised such as that the area is a shark nursery. They do not deny it is a shark nursery but they say that sharks are drawn to dead fish and because they will be using a mort lift-up system, interactions with sharks are considered to be very unlikely. They say it was brought to Huon Aquaculture's attention that the area is used by humpback and southern right whales -

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