Jul 2020

Goodbye Smooth Handfish

By Elena Vivaldo

How destructive fishing practices and loss of habitat led to the demise of the smooth handfish, the first marine fish do disappear from our planet in modern times.

If there is one thing that we divers know, is the privilege of seeing first-hand the beauty of our oceans. But all too often, we see the consequences of poor fishing practices and pollution through tell-tell signs like plastic debris and coral bleaching.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a silver lining. In just a few weeks, we saw how nature is thriving, and animals are prospering. The lull in human activities seems to bring some environmental hope, making us revalue our relationship with Mother Nature.

But sadly, the lockdown on human movements came too late for some animals. The smooth handfish, the first marine fish of modern times, has officially been declared extinct on the IUCN RedList.

The diving community and ocean lovers join together to pay tribute to this distinctive-looking sea animal and to learn what little information there is about it, and to prevent other species of handfish to follow suit.

What Is the Smooth Handfish?

Found in Australian waters, the smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis) was one of 14 species of handfish.

These creatures, each with their unique shape, colour and size, don’t have a swim bladder that helps them control their buoyancy. So they live on the seabed and use their highly modified pectoral and pelvic fins to “walk” on the ocean floor. It’s no surprise that they’re also often referred to as the Australian walking fish.

red handfish

Why Did the Smooth Handfish Go Extinct?

At one time, the smooth handfish thrived in South-Eastern Australia.

But shockingly, there is only one documented case. This dates back to the 1800s, when, during a scientific expedition that French naturalist, François Péron, collected a smooth handfish in the shallow waters of Tasmania. Today, this specimen can be found in the Australian National Fish Collection, CSIRO.

Having there been no sightings since, in 2020, the IUCN officially declared it extinct. Making the smooth handfish the first marine species of our times to go extinct.

But why did the smooth handfish disappear?

There are a few factors that contributed to the smooth handfish’ extinction:

  1. Reproduction

Unlike many other sea animals that give birth to larvae and dispel them into the water, so they can spread across great distances, smooth handfish gave birth to fully developed baby smooth handfish directly onto the seabed.

You can then imagine that these delicate creatures live only in specific areas, which can easily be destroyed by overfishing, invasive species, or other external factors. If on top of this, our humans’ destructive fishing practices, then we have a recipe for disaster.

  1. Harmful fishing practices

One of the main factors that contributed to the smooth handfish’ extinction is the damaging overfishing practices of the 60s. During this time, the region of Tasmania had a harmful scallop fishing industry. The smooth handfish was nothing more than a victim of circumstances, where the destructive fishing practices 1. destroyed its habitat and 2. caught it as bycatch. Even if the smooth handfish wasn’t targeted specifically, it still got collected along with scallops.

What About Other Species of Handfish?

The future doesn’t look too good for the remaining 13 species of handfish either. So much so, that they’re almost all threatened with extinction.

Four handfish species are considered endangered, including the cockatoo handfish (Pezichthys amplispinus), narrowbody handfish (Pezichthys compressus), pink handfish (Brachiopsilus dianthus), and the Moulton’s handfish (Sympterichthys moultoni).

Other three are critically endangered. These are the spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus), red handfish (Thymichthys politus), and the Ziebell’s handfish (Brachiopsilus ziebelli).

spotted handfish

Unfortunately, there is insufficient data on the other five species of handfish to accurately assess their conservation status.

The sad part is, only four of the abovementioned species have been spotted in the past 20 years! Could it be that some have already gone extinct?

Ziebells handfish

The only species of handfish that is in the least concern category, is the Australian Handfish (Brachionichthys australis).

What the Future Holds for the Australian Walking Fish?

Scientists did not get the chance time to study this creature or to find out more what their role was in the ecosystem and its importance in its evolutionary history. Therefore, we will never know the intrinsic value of the smooth handfish in the grand scheme of marine biodiversity, but we should be concerned about its extinction.

While conservation organization are tirelessly working together to protect all species of handfish, we have to see the depressing news of the smooth handfish extinction as a wake-up call to realize that we need to change our actions.

What Can We Do About the Smooth Handfish Extinction?

For a start, we need to implement strict fishing guidelines to protect the seabed from dredging activities. By scientifically monitoring, regionally managing, and legally enforcing sustainable fishing and seafood production, we can still have plenty of fish in the sea without harming marine biodiversity. This would include:

  • Preventing overfishing.
  • Minimizing bycatch and interactions with protected species.
  • Identifying and conserving delicate fish habitats

The fact that the preventive measure to ensure sustainable seafood production came too late for the smooth handfish, should give us all the more reason to implement them.

Read more about how to choose sustainable seafood.

Also, we must continue to enforce eco-friendly habits, like reducing the use of plastics, disposables and single-use plastic. There are plenty of other things we can do to, like taking part in beach and underwater clean-ups, volunteer at a marine conservation project and buy eco-friendly gifts.

The point is, it doesn’t matter to what extent you decide to protect our oceans. Even small day-to-day actions are sure to go a long way. Not only are you limiting your own impact on the environment, but you’re also setting an example for those around you. Way to go buddy!

One more thing. Although it might be stating the obvious, don’t touch any marine life! Be a responsible diver and admire all the sea creatures responsibly.

Conclusion: It All Leads Back to The Ocean

Each marine species it unique and contributes, in one way or another to maintain healthy marine biodiversity. Protecting the environment is essential not only for aesthetic reasons but for the survival of a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Time and time again, research has shown that the ocean is our support system, regulating our climate, providing us with oxygen, giving us a source of food, and creating job opportunities.

The ocean is part of who we are, it supports and inspires us – let’s protect it. When we do, it’s sure to be both a rewarding and humbling experience.

Have you ever seen a handfish? What do you do to protect marine life? Share your tips in the comments below!


Photo credit (s): mongabay.com, Rick Stuart-Smith, Antonia Cooper.

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Elena Vivaldo

One thing's for sure, I slowly drifted into becoming a PADI instructor.
I took my first breath underwater when I was 10 while on holiday in Turkey, and got my open water certification at 16, in Thailand.

Initially, diving was simply something I enjoyed doing while on holiday, but at some point, I decided to up my game and to make something out of it. I've always loved travelling, and diving gave me the freedom to travel and work at the same time. So I took my first step towards becoming a PADI pro, and I did my divemaster internship in Tenerife. I worked on the island for a few months before heading to India to further hone my diving skills.

Years later, and with many dives under my weight belt, I've had the great opportunity to introduce people to the underwater world and to explore many exciting dive destinations. There is nothing I like more than seeing new dive sites around the world (my weakness).

When not teaching, I continue to share my love for diving by writing about it. As a copywriter, I can blend my diving and writing skills to create insightful content. But more importantly, I've found a way to stay connected to the world beneath the waves even when I'm out of the water.

Diving Qualifications:
- PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor
- PADI Speciality Instructor: deep, wreck, night, enriched air, O2
- EFR Instructor
- Scubapro Level 1 Technician

Dream Diving Destinations:
- Palau
- Cenotes, Mexico
- Galapagos
- Vancouver Island, Canada
- Sardine Run, South Africa
- Mass coral spawning, Great Barrier Reef