Tasmania's red handfish is the rarest fish on earth and researchers from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies have made a significant breakthrough in the ongoing effort to ensure the fish survives into the future.
Endemic to South-East Tasmania, the red handfish is listed as critically endangered under the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
It's estimated fewer than 100 adult red handfish remain at two separate sites at Frederick Henry Bay on Hobart's eastern shore.
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But scientists have overseen the hatching of 50 newborn red handfish at an IMAS aquarium this month, providing a much needed boost to the population.
It comes on the tail of a survey last year which unearthed eight new handfish, prompting researchers to revise their population estimates.
The recently hatched fish came from two egg masses collected at one of the last remaining sites where the fish survives.
IMAS researcher Jemina Stuart-Smith said it was crucial that juveniles were kept in a safe environment in the vulnerable early stages of their lives because it would protect them from environmental risks and predators.
"These juvenile red handfish will play a vital role in ensuring the species continues to survive in the wild," Dr Stuart-Smith said. "We plan to release them back into their remaining habitat when they are around one-year-old, to help rebuild the population at one of the two known sites that have been compromised by a range of impacts, including habitat loss."
"Raising them in a controlled environment is a conservation strategy known as headstarting, designed to improve their chances of surviving to maturity and eventually reproducing.
"Little is known about red handfish biology, reproduction and early growth, and these juveniles will also allow critical research that can help us to ensure this is not the last generation of their species."
IMAS PhD student Tyson Bessell said the fish at the IMAS aquarium were less than 4 millimetres long when they hatched.
"This is the second group of red handfish that have hatched in captivity after a similar egg mass was collected last year and hatched at CSIRO," Mr Bessell said.
"The 2018 batch of 16 juveniles has provided important insights and will soon be released after surviving their crucial first year at Seahorse World near Launceston, where they are currently on public display."
Mr Bessell said red handfish laid their eggs on upright stalks of vegetation on the seafloor and that the mother remained with them until they hatched.
IMAS's research is the result of a collaboration with the CSIRO, under the banner of the National Handfish Recovery Team.
The Handfish Conservation Project has raised more than $17,000 so far, donated in large part by 17 individuals and organisations.
Members of the public also have the option of sponsoring and naming the surviving fish.