July 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Crafting a ceramic habitat for a handfish

By Nicole Gill
Illustration
Hobart artist Jane Bamford is helping a critically endangered fish to spawn

Not far from Hobart’s Salamanca Market, with its vendors hawking the usual arts and crafts, ceramicist Jane Bamford is creating something extraordinary.

Bamford has just commenced her three-month Art/Science residency at the University of Tasmania’s School of Creative Arts. The white walls of her orderly studio at the Hunter Street campus are decorated with maps of the nearby Derwent River, as well as newspaper articles profiling the spotted handfish and its underwater realm. Bamford, who grew up south of Hobart in Kingston and spent much of her youth exploring Tasmania’s east coast, is working with scientists from CSIRO to painstakingly handcraft a key piece of habitat for this threatened species.

The spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) was one of the first fish documented in Australian waters, appearing in William Buelow Gould’s Sketchbook of Fishes in 1832. Rather than swim, the fist-sized creature “walks” on modified pectoral fins; its bulky body, forward-jutting dorsal fin and perpetually downturned mouth give it the slightly comical air of a miniature aquatic bouncer. It was relatively abundant in the Derwent River system until the 1980s, when numbers plummeted after the arrival of the Northern Pacific seastar. This invasive species made its way to Tasmania in ballast water from visiting ships.

The seastar doesn’t feed on the handfish directly. Rather, it eats the stalked ascidians (sea squirts) that the handfish generally lays its eggs on. While the handfish can lay eggs on other seafloor features, such as seagrasses and sponges, without the ascidians it has struggled to breed successfully. Today, the spotted handfish persists in only a handful of populations in the Derwent River system, and was listed as critically endangered in 1996.

Fortunately, these odd little fish have proven to be quite adaptable: many have taken refuge in “bottle reefs” formed by beer and rum bottles turfed overboard by sailors for the past hundred or more years. And recent CSIRO studies show that, in the absence of a natural breeding habitat, handfish will lay their eggs on specially designed plastic sticks of a similar size to the sea squirts. Scientists and volunteer divers have planted some 6000 of these in the Derwent over the past couple of years, and the handfish appear to have accepted them as tolerable homes for their eggs.

Bamford’s project takes this initial experiment a step further. She is crafting 3000 porcelain spindles – known as ceramic artificial spawning habitats – for the handfish to use. While the plastic spindles have been adequate so far, CSIRO is keen to find a less-polluting option for the handfish to breed on.

Each artificial spawning habitat consists of two parts: a biscuit-sized disc with a small hole punched in the centre, through which a long thin spindle about the size of a drinking straw is threaded. “Even though it looks like a really simple thing, just a stalk that goes through a disc,” says Bamford, “in ceramics, you’ve got movement in the kiln, you’ve got shrinkage rates.” She hands me one from the initial batch. The spindle slots snugly into the ceramic disc. “That’s actually quite precise for a ceramic artist.” When installed, the disc sits towards the base of the spindle, buried slightly in the sediment to provide stability.

Bamford points at the middle of the stalk. “This little area here is where the handfish will lay her egg mass. The female dances around the stalk, and lays her eggs, then the male comes and fertilises them. She will stay with her eggs and protect them.” Many fish pass through an intermediate larval stage after spawning, but handfish hatch as tiny perfect replicas of their parents.

Bamford forms her artificial habitats from an exceptionally pure white clay known as Southern Ice Porcelain, developed at UTAS in the ’90s by leading ceramicist Les Blakebrough. Once the artificial habitats emerge fired and glass-hard from the kiln, they seem almost too clean to be installed in the murky depths of the Derwent.

“I wanted to work with a white porcelain because I was given this image.” Bamford hands me a photo of one of the stalked ascidians. “It’s got this beautiful stalk, which is quite white. I chose the clay to try to match that.” She shows me some fancy artificial habitats she’s made, formed with whimsical topknots and decorative indentations. “I can’t help being a little bit artsy!” she admits, laughing. While these more elaborate artificial habitats won’t be installed in the wild, they did attract the interest of courting handfish in one of the captive breeding tanks. A female handfish laid her eggs on one of Bamford’s creations. “Oh, it was just fabulous,” she says. “It was like, ‘One of my clients is happy!’”

“I’ve done a lot of work in the past that’s quite interpretive,” says Bamford, “but this project is amazing because my work is actually going into the environment to support a threatened species. It’s a fabulous thing to be involved in.”

Bamford walks past the massive slab roller where thick slices of raw clay are thrown down and flattened out like fresh pasta, and past the kilns that will fire the artificial habitats at 1280 degrees Celsius. She ends up at the extruder, a battered metal tube topped with a long lever, mounted on the wall.

“This has come out of the industrial revolution,” says Bamford as she slaps some clay into a lump and shoves it into the extruder. She pulls on the metal lever, ratcheting it to force the clay through a round aperture at its base. The clay streams out like toothpaste – perfect 7-millimetre-diameter cylinders that Bamford breaks off and places on a tray for fine-tuning.

It’s not enough to just cut the spindles to the correct length – clay has a memory, and if not rolled out by human hand, these stalks will bow in the kiln.

“If I roll them, it just gives the clay that little bit of compression, so I can have them straight, which is great for the design, and also for packing, delivering and deployment into the Derwent,” says Bamford. “If you’re handling these things underwater, with gloves, in scuba material, you want it to be as easy as possible. It’s not just designing something that I want to make – it’s got to actually work in the field. Every one of these pieces is bespoke, handmade.”

It’s the artist’s touch, the rolling and rounding of the individual pieces that gives the artificial habitats their final integrity. Her smoothing of burrs from the edges of every unfired disc allows the pieces to slot neatly together to form an elegant whole. One that will, hopefully, catch a passing handfish’s eye.

Nicole Gill

Nicole Gill is a Tasmanian environmental writer.  Her nonfiction book, Animal Eco-Warriors, was released in June 2017.

@tasbiophiliac

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