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Documenting Change

Martin Gomon

Crowns Land building 1854
Harlequin fish Othos dentex.
Source: Museum Victoria, Icthyology Collection
Photographer: John Broomfield

Natural history collections in museums provide an indisputable means of documenting the occurrence of a particular species at a particular place and time. In the case of Port Phillip Bay, although there is little doubt that human practices in and around Melbourne have had an impact on the water quality, the nature of their effect on marine life in the estuary has, until relatively recently, remained mostly anecdotal.

One example is the harlequin fish (Othos dentex), which, according to literature prior to the early 1990s, is found only in South Australia and Western Australia. Our understanding of the distribution of this species changed when several adult individuals, collected in Port Phillip Bay in the late 1800s, were discovered in Museum Victoria's fish collection. As this fish grows to be a large and spectacular fish, there is little doubt that it no longer lives in the Bay. Given its preference for high-quality coastal waters, the present silt-laden estuarine conditions here no longer suit it.

Another species, the grey nurse shark (Carcharias taurus), was included by Professor McCoy in his Prodromus, under the name 'long-toothed bull shark', yet a recent search for records of the species anywhere in Victoria proved mostly futile. This might be interpreted as a misidentification, especially as it was said to have occurred in such numbers as to be a nuisance to fishermen, were it not for the presence of a spectacular set of jaws of this species in the Museum Victoria collection, registered as coming from 'Hobsons Bay'. Rather than misidentification, it is more likely that the grey nurse shark fell victim to early fishing pressure encouraged by government bounties.

Conversely, E. D Gill, Curator of Fossils, maintained that the blood cockle (Anadara trapezia) was extinct in Port Phillip Bay and large shells collected in Hobsons Bay were Holocene fossils. All Museum specimens were so classified, until a large number of living specimens collected in Corio Bay during the first Port Phillip Bay Survey, and later in Hobsons Bay as part of the environmental survey that preceded the construction of the Newport Power Station, revealed that the species has managed to survive the changing conditions so far.

Dr Martin Gomon, Senior Curator, Ichthyology, has been with the Museum since 1979. As the museum's first curator with a primary focus on research and curation of fishes, he was responsible for reorganising and expanding the fish collection to the point where it is the world's best with regard to Victorian species. His research has concentrated on furthering our understanding of the diversity, identity and interrelationships of Australian marine fishes.

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