Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Mr Blobby

Trent Dalton ‘The blobfish and other deep questions’ The Weekend Australian Magazine, 17 January 2015

Blobfish trawled during the NORFANZ expedition. Source: Australian Museum.

Blobfish trawled during the NORFANZ expedition. Source: Australian Museum.

Mr Blobby is what we humans call “a social media phenomenon”. This particular innocent and dead deep-sea fish, found in the Tasman Sea at a depth between 1013m and 1340m, has become a poster-blob for the grotesque since an unflattering 2003 photograph of Mr Blobby saw his species out-ugly, out-awful the ill­favoured likes of the Madagascan aye-aye lemur (the animal kingdom’s Phil Spector) and the naked mole rat (a walking cold-day penis with teeth) to become the mascot of the international Ugly Animal Preservation Society.

It was 4.41pm, June 3, 2003, when Mr Blobby was hauled aboard the Tangaroa research vessel during the historic NORFANZ Expedition, a fruitful four-week survey of two major submarine mountain ranges in the ­Tasman Sea, the Norfolk Ridge and the Lord Howe Rise. Three ichthyologists from the ­Australian Museum – Mark McGrouther, John Paxton and Parkinson – were working 16-hour days aboard the Tangaroa alongside more than 20 scientists from New Zealand, France and the US. More than 150 deep-sea net trawls were made on the NORFANZ jaunt, collecting fish specimens at depths up to 2km in some of the world’s most underexplored locations.

Mr Blobby was found on a bottom trawl, the net scraping the seabed in the high-pressure darkness of 1300m below. “A trawl comes up and it’s all hands on deck,” says Parkinson. “My job was photographing all the unique ­specimens that came up. The specimens get processed. They all have to be given a registration number and identified as far as we can. Because we were a collective of museum and research organisations on board the Tangaroa, we were dividing up the fish into different museums and where they were going to go”.

Herein is the real kicker, the ugly truth. “The blobfish is emblematic of our very limited knowledge of what’s really going on out there in the ocean,” says Jeff Leis, a 35-year veteran of the Australian Museum and honorary research professor at the Institute for Marine and ­Antarctic Studies. Australia’s exclusive economic zone extends 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline, a total marine area of around 10 million square kilometres. “In ­Australian waters there’s something in the order of 5000 species of fish, one of the largest fish faunas in the world, if not the largest,” says Leis. “We’ve been finding species that are new to Australian waters at the rate of about one per week over the last couple of decades. There’s no sign of that tapering off. And over that period of time, the number of people who are specialist fish taxonomists, that is, people who study, describe and classify fishes, employed by state and territory museums in Australia, have declined from 11 in the mid-1980s to only three now. Three ichthyologists employed at state and territory museums to do research on this sort of thing.”

In 2007, Leis published a paper about this phenomenon. It was titled Australian Fish ­Taxonomists – An Endangered Species. Australian Museum senior fellow Doug Hoese has spent 40 years identifying and studying the wondrous creatures in the museum’s fish collection. He puts the number of employed specialist fish ­taxonomists at a more optimistic five, but it’s hard to say in a scientific branch where full-time work is rare and highly qualified, with exceedingly knowledgeable experts working week-to-week on temporary contracts.

“Fifty fish species get added every year to the Australian fauna and there’s no indication of that slowing,” Hoese says. “Usually, you hit a point in science when the curve starts to flatten out. That’s not happening in Australia. That suggests we have a lot more fish left to discover. It’s a big coastline around Australia and a lot of it hasn’t been that well studied. There’s a lot we’ve still got to do and we’re running out of people to do it. It’s an issue for the country.

“Fish don’t respect political boundaries. Something turns up out there, you want to know whether it’s a threat. So you can eradicate it in a hurry. If you don’t have that workforce something can be established and spread before you can do anything about it.”

Leis retired in February and watched his position in scientific research, like so many before his, go unfilled. “I know many very good young marine scientists who have become very discouraged by very short-term contracts, or having to move from here to there to chase something for a couple of years, with no long-term prospects,” he says. “They’ve been discouraged and just left the field. It’s all too common.

“There’s no commonwealth organisation in Australia that does what the Natural History Museum does in England. That’s been left to the states and, quite honestly, many of the state politicians don’t see it as the role of the state to be funding research of this kind. It means we don’t know what’s out there. How can you ­manage something if you don’t even have an inventory of what’s there?”

Read the full article here (may involve paywall).

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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