Elusive scaly gurnard photographed in Wellington harbour

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A scaly gurnard photographed in Wellington harbour.
Photo: Delivered

An elusive native fish has been photographed in Wellington Harbour, one of the few times the species has been captured on camera in its natural habitat.

Dr. Valerio Micaroni, a marine biologist at Victoria University of Wellington, took the picture from a research project with colleague Francesca Strano, exploring and identifying areas of the marine environment around Wellington’s coast in need of protection.

The scaly gurnard was a reddish color and grew to about 8 inches (20 cm), Micaroni said. It was already known to live around Wellington, but sightings were rare.

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“There is very little information about the location and composition of the animal-dominated habitats in Wellington’s waters, so the aim of our research is to describe these areas and identify places in need of protection or restoration,” he said.

Five locations in the harbor had been mapped so far, and the rare fish wasn’t the only exciting discovery.

“At Shark Bay and Shelly Bay on the Miramar Peninsula, there is a diverse underwater garden of sea sponges,” Micaroni said.

“Horse mussels and brachiopods — ancient animals that live on the sea floor — are also abundant.”

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Sponge gardens, usually found close to shore at depths of seven to fifteen metres, had also been spotted in Evans Bay, Kaiwharawhara and west Petone, although they were heavily affected by high levels of sedimentation.

Another sponge garden and a bed of red algae were found in Mahanga Bay.

The areas were initially explored using a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), followed by a closer search and some samples collected by diving at the sites, Strano said.

“So far we’ve sent the ROV on 52 dives. That has given us a lot of valuable data about these ecosystems and the threats they face,” she said.

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“A lot of people have looked at the seaweed and kelp-dominated areas in the harbor, but there’s little data on the animal-dominated ecosystems, so this project aims to find out where they are.”

The research was funded by the Greater Wellington Regional Council and the George Mason Charitable Trust, and the data collected would be used to inform the council’s marine policy and planning processes.