Aquarium breeds endangered handfish

A critically endangered fish that uses "hands" to crawl along the sea floor have been bred at a Melbourne aquarium for the first time.

In what's being touted as a major step towards conserving the spotted handfish, every step from fertilisation to egg hatching has been happening at Sea Life Melbourne.

The number of spotted handfish in the wild has declined since the 1980s due to pollution, habitat degradation and the introduction of other animals.

They are found in Tasmania's Derwent Estuary and use hand-like fins to walk along the sea floor rather than swim.

The babies hatched in late January 2022 and were carefully monitored over the past year.

The aquarium is part of the the Handfish Conservation Project which also includes the CSIRO, National Environmental Science Program and other organisations.

"This is an incredible step forward for the program and a major achievement for our team," according to lead aquarist Sam Fawke.

"Previously, handfish eggs have been collected from the wild then hatched in aquariums, but this is the first time the entire process of fertilisation, egg laying and hatching has taken place in human care."

Aquarium staff have been working with the animals for five years and replicated conditions in the wild to encourage breeding, including lighting, temperature and the level of saline in the water.

It's hoped aquarium-bred spotted handfish will be released into the Derwent Estuary in the future to help boost the population, along with other efforts to preserve their habitat.