Handfish monitoring with Helen O'Neill (CSIRO)

January 16, 2020

We caught up with Helen O'Neill - a research assistant at CSIRO. Helen is involved in a number of projects including the Australian National Fish Collection, developing and populating fishIDER (a bilingual web-based fish identification tool to improve fish identification skills and monitoring capacity in Indonesia), and, of course - Spotted Handfish monitoring.

Background: tell us about yourself!

I grew up in Surrey in the UK, I always had a love and interest in animals and the great outdoors, including a fascination with fish, and remember admiring my mother’s goldfish tank when I was growing up. At 8 or 9, I remember winning a diseased (unbeknownst to me) goldfish at the local fair and bringing it home, much to my mother’s annoyance. The fish keeping hobby later continued more successfully and progressed to me working in a retail aquarium shop. After a year or so I needed a change so embarked on a year’s backpacking trip around Australia.

After returning to the UK I got another retail aquarium job, and it was here, caring for all the beautiful fish with their myriad designs and colours, that I wanted to take my passion further and decided that a career with fish and science was the future for me. Upon this realisation I enrolled at Bangor University in North Wales and completed a degree in Applied Marine Biology in 2016.

Later that same year I moved to Hobart and began working at CSIRO as a volunteer in the Australian National Fish Collection looking at the morphology of shark egg cases. In February 2017 I secured a position administrating the development of a fish identification website, fishIDER (www.fishider.org), which aims to assist and improve the fish identification skills of fisheries staff in Indonesia, with the overarching aim to improve fisheries management there.

Handfish work

In mid-2018 I had the opportunity to begin working with the Handfish Recovery Team on the Handfish Recovery Plan (through the Marine Biodiversity Hub). Being a keen diver, passionate about fish and marine conservation – I jumped at the opportunity!

The two aspects of the Handfish Recovery Plan I participate in are the Handfish monitoring program, including the direct conservation action of deploying Artificial Spawning Habitats and the experimental trial of Environmentally sensitive mooring (ES-mooring), as both a diver and boat skipper.

The aim of the ES-mooring project is to compare the changes of the benthic communities, including infauna (animals living in the sediment), epifauna (animals living on the sediment), and demersal fish (including spotted handfish) before and after the deployment of an ES-mooring against traditional swing moorings. This project will help us better understand the effects moorings have on the benthic community, allowing for better conservation and protection of handfish and their habitat. This work is being completed as a Ph.D. project by Lincoln Wong. The handfish monitoring program aims to improve knowledge on the distribution, abundance, population trends, habitat preferences and threats of handfish to better understand this species for improved conservation, as well as to increase their spawning success.

A typical day in the field...

Fieldwork for these projects involves a lot of prior planning and organisation. Safety while on and under water is paramount and the team all work together to make sure everyone stays safe. Suitable weather is essential for diving and it needs to be continually monitored throughout the day. A surface attendant is always on hand to help the dive team enter and exit the water and to ensure conditions above water are safe.

A typical day in the field working usually involves a team of four comprising of divers, a dive coordinator and if required, a qualified Coxswain to skipper the vessel. The team will meet in the morning to load our previously prepared dive gear and field equipment onto the vessel. A lot of equipment is required for scientific diving, in addition to the usual scuba diving equipment consisting of Buoyancy Control Device’s, dry suits, regulators, mask, fins, weights etc. we also dive with, tape measure, calipers, slate for writing data, underwater camera with strobes, coring equipment, a reel attached to a safety float holding a GPS and dive flag, shark deterrent, and additional gear if required. Once at the dive location the divers will gear up and enter the water to begin the work.

Diving for the ES-mooring project involves a pair of divers tasked with collecting sediment samples and completing a visual survey, complemented with photographs, of the sea floor. These tasks are undertaken along a ~10 meter transects radiating out from the mooring anchor and repeated in a north, south, east and westerly direction. The main challenge of these dives is the limited visibility caused when the fine, soft sediment is disturbed, causing a sediment cloud which, in and low current conditions may take a long time to settle. In some cases, the visibility becomes so bad we must abort dives and complete them later once visibility has improved.

Spotted handfish monitoring

Spotted Handfish monitoring surveys consist of a pair of divers who swim along a transects searching for handfish, for approximately 30 minutes between 3–12 meters depth. If we are lucky enough to come across a handfish we take photos from both the left and the right-hand side of the fish for identification purposes. These photos also provide a time stamp which is matched to a GPS towed by one of the divers allowing us to pinpoint the fish’s exact location. To provide more comprehensive data on the population, we also record the depth the handfish is located at, its length, and record a general observation of its behaviour.

Of the two projects the handfish monitoring surveys are my preferred dives, you get to cover a bit more ground and have a higher chance of seeing some other marine life such as skate, stingarees and invertebrates while searching for the handfish. Plus, you have a higher change of seeing the handfish themselves, which is always a special moment.

I would say the number one challenge with diving work in Tasmania is the weather! It is frequently too windy or too murky to dive and you can guarantee that it is always cold, with water temperatures dropping to 11 degrees in winter. I wear a drysuit year-round while diving in Tassie, but with dives lasting up to 70 minutes, you can still lose a lot of body heat during that time. During winter I will have up to 5 layers of clothing and thermals on underneath the drysuit so I don’t get too cold during a dive. Working on the Handfish Recovery Plan and having an opportunity to get up close and personal with wild handfish makes the cold waters and poor visibility of the Derwent worth it!

More information/articles:

Figure 1. Helen O'Neill and Carlie Devine Entering the waters of the Derwent to begin a handfish monitoring survey

Figure 2. Lots of equipment is required to perform scientific diving operations.

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