Native fish for Otago Museum aquarium

Photo courtesy of Stella McQueen.

Photo courtesy of Stella McQueen.

Native fish are taking centre stage in Otago Museum’s updated aquarium, replacing the tropical habitat that used to greet visitors outside the Nature galleries.

During the first week of November a group of giant kōkopu, each approximately 15–20cm long, will be introduced into the aquarium, which has been outfitted to mimic their native New Zealand stream habitat.

Giant kōkopu are one of five species that make up the whitebait catch and are of great interest to sustainable aquaculture and conservation researchers. They are threatened by a variety of factors, including habitat degradation and water nutrient pollution.

Matt Wylie, now a Zoology PhD student at the University of Otago, bred these particular giant kōkopu as part of his master’s thesis, after receiving a Foundation for Research, Science and Technology Te Tipu Putaiao Fellowship. Under the supervision of Dr Mark Lokman and Associate Professor Gerry Closs (University of Otago) he aimed to gather information on their breeding biology and suitability for use in whitebait farming.

The aquarium revamp is a result of a collaboration between Wylie, Otago Museum’s Living Environments Coordinator, Alishea Woodhead, the Department of Conservation and the Working Waterways Trust. After finishing his Masters, Wylie wanted to raise public awareness of this taonga species, and others that make up the whitebait fishery.

Lan Pham, founder of the Working Waterways Trust, put him in contact with Woodhead, who had kept the idea of a native fish tank in the back of her mind since she’d started working at the Museum.

“So many people don’t realize that New Zealand has native fish,” says Alishea.

“We wanted to do something that spread the word about these fish and about all the things we can do to improve their future. Matt’s giant kōkopu were the perfect opportunity for us to create an aquarium that fits with the museum’s ethos of educating people about southern New Zealand’s culture and ecosystem.”

Giant kōkopu have no scales, but instead have a slick, leathery skin with golden patterns that are unique to each fish, like a set of fingerprints.

Since adult giant kōkopu tend to be secretive and hard to spot, many people only see the immature fish as a meal on a plate and don’t realise how big they can grow.

“I’m excited to show off our native fish,” Alishea says.
“They’re bigger, prettier and more interesting than most people think, and it’s important that we protect them and promote their survival.”

To celebrate the introduction of the giant kōkopu – and Conservation Week – the Otago Museum will be hosting a storytelling session featuring The Whitebait Wriggle by Amber McEwan, on 9 November.