Te Papa Press’ publicist Elizabeth Heritage must have been cursing the richness of New Zealand’s fish fauna as she carried the 2000- page, four-volume, 11-kilogram back-breaker The Fishes of New Zealand up the six flights of stairs leading to New Zealand Geographic’s Britomart loft.
The four-volume title catalogues all 1262 of New Zealand’s described fish species—only the second descriptive catalogue of our fish fauna. The first was compiled by Frederick Hutton and James Hector in 1872 and ran to just 148 (mostly coastal) species. This fact alone indicates the extraordinary scientific effort conducted in Aotearoa’s aquatic realm over the intervening 143 years.
And yet it’s not complete, and will probably never be complete. For the sake of practicality, the cut-off date for inclusion in the book was June 2013, and since then, at least 14 new species have been discovered, while more than half of our four million-square-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone remains unsampled. So this is a mile- stone, a summary of our knowledge to date from the minds of 44 specialist authors and generations of scientists.
Together they surveyed the fish spectrum, from writhing hagfish to dainty triplefins, basking sharks to blobfish, cut-throat eels to sunfish—a myriad of bizarre body plans and bewildering life cycles. They were hauled out of swamps and scooped into sampling sleds in the abyssal deep, and many of these first holotypes are under the scientific gaze still, preserved in formaldehyde or printed in one of these volumes, with diagrams, distribution maps and biological notes, for the next generation of scientists eager to explore the remaining half of our liquid realm.