Not everyone would get excited about being gifted a 170-year-old fish, but when you are an ichthyologist it feels like Christmas.
John Pogonoski is one such fish scientist who manages a collection of 160,000 fish specimens, which includes the very old skate.
It was caught in Denmark in the 1850s and donated to the Australian National Fish Collection in 2002.
The collection, managed by the CSIRO, opened in Hobart in 1984, and holds most of its specimens in ethanol-filled jars and tubs.
“I guess it’s a bit like a library of fish … instead of a library of books,” Mr Pogonoski said.
He said that in the 13 years he had been working with the collection, it had become much more than a job.
“You wander around the collection and you get to know where everything is,” he said.
“Some groups get looked at a lot more than others and you’re always finding something new and interesting.”
‘Like stamp collecting’
A freshwater gudgeon collected from the Hunter River in New South Wales in 1901 is the oldest Australian specimen in the collection.
In one ethanol-filled tub, there are a number of sharks’ heads, including a white shark that was accidentally caught by a fisher in Stanley in Tasmania’s north-west five years ago.
Mr Pogonoski said they often need to chop up the fish so they can fit them into the tub.
“We don’t have the capacity to keep massive animals that are over 2 or 3 metres in length, so we have to make decisions on those animals about what’s the most important thing to keep,” he said.
“So often it’s the head, the jaws, sometimes the fins, so they can be compared to fins that might be taken in the shark-fin trade.”
The specimens come from a number of places, like CSIRO research vessels, Asian fish markets, donations from commercial land recreational fishers, and even other fish collections.
Mr Pogonoski said they swapped specimens with other fish collections, just like “stamp collecting”.
“For every specimen we bring in we have to decide on its value and whether we keep it or not. We don’t have unlimited space,” he said.
“We also get genetic samples before we put them in preservative so that we have DNA for purposes that we haven’t yet discovered that will no doubt appear as the 21st century moves on.”
Research Assistant Helen O’Neill said there were a number of reasons to have an archive of fish.
“We undertake active research … from describing new species, taking genetic samples and identifying fish that way and also doing some environmental DNA work,” she said.
“Another important reason for the collection is to study evolutionary history and how things have evolved such as the the saw fish and saw sharks, how they’ve both evolved these long rostrums with the teeth on.”
Possibly extinct handfish among specimens
The collection has specimens of the three types of handfish found in Tasmanian waters, one of which could be extinct.
The ziebell’s handfish specimen was collected in 1986, north of Fortescue Bay on the Tasman Peninsula.
“The ziebell’s handfish hasn’t been seen since 2007, that was the last time there was a confirmed ID of this species in the wild,” she said.
Ms O’Neill said overall, her job was fascinating.
“I do like some of the more unusual looking sharks, the hammer heads, the way that they’re so broad and the eyes on the back of their head,” she said.
“There’s huge diversity in all the different species, the different evolutionary traits that have been developed to cope with different environments and overcome different challenges they’ve experienced.”
“Whether they have light organs that attract prey or huge teeth, I find that really interesting, how they’ve evolved and all these different strategies nature has come up with.”
Whether flush with newlywed bliss, raising a young family, or in the twilight years of a long union, all married women in the Northern Territory decades ago had something in common.
- Cabinet documents are unsealed after 30 years
- Documents from 1989 reveal discussions about greenhouse gas and its feared impacts
- The Territory also overturned archaic laws about married women
When you tied the knot, you also technically signed away your rights to property and your independent legal capacity.
No, we’re not talking the turn of the century, the Depression era or even post-World War II. In the Northern Territory, this was the reality only 30 years ago.
The archaic legislation governing these matters was only rewritten by the Northern Territory Government in 1989, after an inquiry into de facto relationships discovered several ‘anomalies’ in the way Territory law treated married women.
Cabinet documents from that time, unsealed today, recognised how out of step the loopholes were with the reality of daily life in the late 1980s.
“The complex legislative provisions dealing with the capacity of a married woman are an historical anomaly and inconsistent with modern conditions,” the papers say.
During the 1989 parliamentary debate, the married politician Noel Padgham-Purich confessed she hadn’t known some of the rights she wasn’t entitled to.
“I had assumed that, in law, I had equality in all things with my husband. I am finding out now that I did not have complete equality,” she told the Legislative Assembly.
“I am therefore very pleased that the government has introduced this legislation to remedy the situation.”
The changes were quietly passed in 1989, but much more public battles were being fought that year.
The battle for Nitmiluk National Park
It was the year the area now known as Nitmiluk National Park was officially handed back to the Jawoyn, who then leased it back to the Northern Territory Government for 99 years — creating a highly successful co-management venture.
At the time, Ray Fordimail from the Nitmiluk Park Board reflected on the long and at times divisive battle for the area with some humour.
“Many people have worries that the Jawoyn were trying to take the (Katherine) Gorge away,” he told a celebration in 1989.
“I don’t know where we were supposed to take it; but that’s what they said. As you can see, it’s see there.”
The Tindal RAAF base was opened at an airfield outside Katherine, named after Wing Commander Archie Tindal, who was killed in action during the Japanese bombing raid on Darwin in 1942.
It was the first manned base established since World War II and drew dignitaries like then-prime minister Bob Hawke — seen in an ABC story at the time crowing over the value of the jets escorting his VIP plane.
“That’s $34 billion worth there,” Mr Hawke enthusiastically told the cameras as he leaned across a row of seats to watch the escort out the window.
A government-funded CSIRO climate study
Some of the issues are still familiar. The cabinet documents reveal internal discussions over a Northern Territory Government submission to a federal inquiry into the impact of greenhouse gases.
“International debate has confirmed there is irrefutable scientific evidence that the composition of the atmosphere has been, and continues to be, altered significantly by human activities,” the papers say.
“Changes that are likely to occur as a result cannot be established precisely. Scientists predict, however, that a warming of between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees centigrade will occur by the year 2030.”
Thirty years later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is warning that avoiding dangerous warming beyond 1.5 degrees will take a huge transformation, beyond just switching to renewable energy.
That same year the government funded a CSIRO study to try to learn more about the impact of climate change on the NT.