Upper Canada College’s Dr. Premek Hamr is acknowledged as a top-level science teacher and soccer coach, and is one of the world’s foremost experts on crayfish, but he can also be credited with saving a species of fish in Tasmania.
The Lake Pedder Galaxias is Australia’s most endangered freshwater fish. Its only habitat was flooded in 1972 and non-native trout and other fish species were introduced to Lake Pedder from other nearby lakes and streams and ate most of the small and shy Galaxias. As part of Hamr’s post-doctoral fellowship in inland fisheries at the University of Tasmania, he was the head biologist responsible for the recovery of the fish in 1989 after they started declining rapidly from Lake Pedder.
“We took the last 20 wild ones and I tried not very successfully to breed them in vitro in a lab by putting eggs and sperm together to try and get babies,” says Hamr. “And out of 300 eggs, I got 11 babies.
“In the end when things got desperate, I took the 11 babies and 20 wild fish and put them in an amazing lake called Lake Oberon, which is very remote up in the mountains. To get there you either have to climb for two days or take a helicopter.”
The fish did very little in Lake Oberon for several years and it was believed that they might have become the first freshwater fish to ever become extinct in Austraila. However, the population suddenly exploded in 1997 and now there are thousands of them.
Since all of the Galaxias had now disappeared from their natural habitat but thrived in the remote Lake Oberon, which contained no other type of fish, it was decided to relocate more of them to a man-made lake at a lower elevation where they would be easier to monitor in 2005. History repeated itself, as nothing happened with the Galaxias for about five years until they started to breed in large numbers and are now thriving in this new habitat.
“We’ve gone from 20 wild fish and 11 captive-bred fish, which I called my soccer team because I made them, and now they’re in the thousands in both of those lakes,” says Hamr.
The Galaxias are still critically endangered because they’re only in two places in the world, so now authorities are thinking of moving them to a third spot in the future to make them more secure. They need to be somewhere where they’re on their own to survive because they’re not strong enough to compete with larger species.
“Basically where there are trout (which were introduced to the Australian island state in the 1800s), there are no native fish in Tasmania,” says Hamr.
“There are very few places where they can co-exist because the trout eat them and the trout grow to a very large size. These fish are only about 20 centimetres at maximum size.”
No-one had studied the Galaxias before, so there was no data on how long it would take them to breed. Hamr was the first person to try, but it was difficult because there were so few of them to research and he was forced to look at museum samples to try and figure out how big they’d grow at maturity and about their breeding patterns.
“They’re not studying them intensively so no-one’s done any biology studies on them since I finished in 1992,” says Hamr. “My study was the only biology study. Now they’re just counting them and looking at their sizes.”
Tasmania’s Inland Fisheries Service, which is responsible for the Galaxias, only goes to Lake Oberon once every five years to check on them because it’s expensive and dangerous to take a helicopter there because of hazardous terrain and weather conditions. The more accessible artificial inland reservoir is visited once a year, and Hamr was there during the March break and was quite excited to see so many fish.
Hamr helped put down 17 traps and counted and measured the more than 200 fish that came out of them, which enabled them to calculate an approximate number of fish in the lake. They didn’t find any other species of fish either, which was good news.
“I’d never seen more than 20 in a bucket,” says Hamr, who’s proud and excited about what he’s been a major part of with the Galaxias.
“You hardly ever get to save a species that’s down to 20 individuals.”