19 Nov 2015

Fishes of New Zealand

From Our Changing World, 9:46 pm on 19 November 2015

“I’ve never met a fish I didn’t like.”
Andrew Stewart, collection manager and fish expert, Te Papa

It weighs 11 kilograms, comes in four fat volumes, and includes descriptions of every one of New Zealand’s more-than 1250 marine and freshwater fish, ranging from rock pool favourites to mysterious deep sea creatures known from just a single specimen.

Andrew Stewart, Clive Roberts and Carl Struthers, editors of The Fishes of New Zealand, holding up the four volumes of the book

Andrew Stewart, Clive Roberts and Carl Struthers, editors of The Fishes of New Zealand, holding up the four volumes which collectively weigh 11 kilograms. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Twenty years in the making, The Fishes of New Zealand, published by Te Papa Press (2015), is a big, scholarly work that will also have huge public appeal for everyone who is passionate about fishing or just curious about the natural world.

Andrew Stewart holds a daggertooth from the Te Papa fish collection.

Andrew Stewart holds a daggertooth from the Te Papa fish collection. This deep water fish is notable for its bird-like mouth with forward-facing teeth, and a snake-like appearance. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

The smallest fish in the book is a clingfish, while the largest is the whale shark, which is an occasional summer visitor in warmer northern waters and can reach more than 12 metres in length.

It involved 44 authors from New Zealand and overseas, and was edited by Te Papa vertebrate curator Clive Roberts, collection manager Andrew Stewart, and research and technical officer Carl Struthers.

“Over 20 per cent of the fish fauna is native to New Zealand, unique to our waters,” says Clive Roberts.

Eighty per cent of the fishes found here are found elsewhere as well, and one of the challenges of the book was to ensure that the naming of fish in book agreed with fish names from other places.

“There’s a lot of ocean that hasn’t been explored,” explains Andrew Stewart. “More than half of our EEZ [exclusive economic zone] is deeper than 2000 metres and … we only have a handful of specimens from below 2000 metres. And so this area is just a great white page to us. What’s there? We don’t really know.”

Each species in the book has a page that includes either a photograph or an illustration, and a description, notes about names and a brief description about the biology.

Carl Struthers with a prickly dogfish

Carl Struthers with a prickly dogfish. This small deep sea shark is flattened on its underside, and hunts for small critters living in the sediment of the ocean floor. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

While primarily a reference book that ensures the correct naming of all known fish species, the editors hope that the book will have wider appeal.

The editors had to impose a cut-off date of 2013 for the book, and since then 14 new fish species have been discovered in New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which is the area covered in the book.

Carl Struthers says the thrill of discovering new species never wears off, whether that’s a new specimen coming into the museum from one of the many people who collect fish for the Te Papa collection, or from recognising that an existing specimen in the collection is not what was previously thought.

There are more than 300,000 specimens in the Te Papa collection that have been named, and Andrew estimates there are still a further 100,000 specimens that need to be worked on.

The Fishes of New Zealand has been published with financial support from Te Papa, the Foundation for Science and Technology, and NIWA.

While there have been other books covering various groups of fishes, this is the first definitive guide to New Zealand fish since the 1872 book written by Frederick Hutton and James Hector.

Title page and page of illustrations from the first guide to the fishes of New Zealand, which was published in 1872 by Frederick Hutton and James Hector.

The first guide to the fishes of New Zealand was published in 1872 by Frederick Hutton and James Hector. The 2015 Fishes of New Zealand is only the second definitive guide to New Zealand fish. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

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