Sustainability status
Sustainable

Catch limit
0 tonnes
for the 2017-18 season
Elephant fish are funny-looking fish that use their snout to probe the bottom for small fishes and invertebrates.

Biology

Scientific name: Callorhinchus milii, Harriotta haeckeli, H. raleighana

Family: Callorhinchidae (C. milii), Rhinochimaeridae (H. haeckeli, H. raleighana)

Other names:

  • C. milii: Ghost shark, elephant shark, whitefish, plownose chimaera
  • H. haeckeli: Spookfish, smallspine spookfish
  • H. raleighana: Spookfish, narrownose chimaera, longnosed chimaera, bigspine spookfish, bentnose rabbitfish

Description: Elephant fish are a funny-looking fish with an almost entirely scaleless elongated body. They have large pectoral fins and two dorsal fins. The first dorsal fin is preceded by a large spine. Elephant fish have a single gill opening immediately in front of the pectoral fin on each side of the fish. The snout is covered in pores that sense movement and weak electrical fields, which are used in detecting prey.

  • Ghost sharks are silvery with dark markings, with a hoe-shaped proboscis-like snout. The eyes are relatively large and set high on the head. The tail fin is divided into 2 lobes, with the top one being larger than the bottom one.
  • Spookfish have dark brown or blackish bodies, with dark markings and paler bellies. The snout is long, tapered and flattened. Males have longer snouts than females. The dorsal fins of haeckeli are similar in size. The first dorsal fin is over twice the height of the second dorsal fin in H. raleighana. The tail is long and filamentous.

Size (length and weight): Up to about 1.2 metres in length and 7 kg. Females grow larger than males.

Life span: Up to about 15 years for ghost sharks. Unknown for spookfish.

Habitat: Elephant fish are a demersal species.

  • Ghost sharks are often found in shallow bays and large estuaries, but also to depths of 200 metres on the continental shelf. Juveniles inhabit shallow coastal waters for about three years and gradually move into deeper water as they mature. Ghost sharks appear to school by gender.
  • Spookfish are a deepwater species that occurs on the continental slope. They can be found in depths of 380‑2600 metres. haeckeli are generally found in deeper water than H. raleighana. Little is known about the habitat of spookfish. Adults and juveniles probably occupy different habitats.

Prey: Fish, shellfish and molluscs.

Predators: Larger fish and sharks.

Reproduction: Ghost sharks mature relatively early, with males reaching reproductive maturity at 3 years of age and females reaching reproductive maturity at 4-5 years of age. They are oviparous (lay eggs). Adults aggregate in February to spawn, with eggs being deposited in pairs over several weeks in sand or mud near river mouths and estuaries. The eggs are encapsulated in elongated, flat leathery cases and hatch after about 8 months.

Spook sharks are also oviparous but little else is known about their reproductive biology. It is assumed that reproductive biology in spookfish is similar to that of ghost sharks and other closely related species.

Fishery

Fishery found in Gear used Catch of this species is targeted or incidental
Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery – Gillnet Hook and Trap Sector Gillnet, longline Incidental
Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery – Commonwealth Trawl Sector Bottom trawl Incidental
State Fisheries and Recreational Gillnet, longline, bottom trawl Incidental

Management of catch

Little is known about stock structure of elephant fish from an assessment and management perspective. Their biology suggests some potential for regional management of stocks.

The Commonwealth catch of elephant fish is managed by quota. This means the catch of this fish by commercial fishers is restricted by weight.

Commercial fishermen are required to fill in records of their catches, during each fishing trip and when they land their catch in a port. This helps us keep records of how much is being caught.

AFMA decide on the amount that can be caught each year from expert advice and recommendations from fisheries managers, industry members, scientist and researchers.

Area caught

Elephant fish are found from Esperance in Western Australia to Sydney in New South Wales, including Tasmania, at depths to at least 200 metres.

Elephant fish are also found in New Zealand, but are assumed to be separate genetic stocks from the population in southern Australia.

Fishing gear and environmental impacts

Elephant fish are caught using gillnets, trawl nets or longlines.

Gillnets have a minimal impact on the seafloor as they are stationary when set. Gillnets have the potential to interact with marine mammals, although when set properly, larger predatory sharks and marine mammals will bounce off the firm netting.

Pelagic longline fishing has minimal impact on the marine environment as they hang in the water column not touching the seafloor. Sometimes seabirds, turtles and sharks are caught accidentally. The capture of these species is monitored by on-board AFMA observers and any interactions with these species must be reported to AFMA and the Department of the Environment.

Sometimes, bottom trawling can catch unwanted species of fish (not the type of fish the net was supposed to catch). This is known as bycatch and it is monitored by on-board fishery observers who assess the environmental impact of the trawling.

Although it is not physically possible to trawl on reef structures, significant long-term damage can occur if sensitive habitat areas like corals, sponges and seagrass beds are trawled. To ensure these sensitive habitat areas are protected from trawling, management arrangements such as area closures are extensively used.

Want to know more?

This is just an overview of elephant fish, if you want to know more see the links below:

Sustainability – see the most recent Fishery status report

Management – this fish is managed under the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery

Expert advice Shark Resource Assessment Group and the South East Management Advisory Committee

Environmental impactsBycatch and discard program

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