Kapiti's mystery fish

From Afternoons, 1:25 pm on 21 February 2018

A Kāpiti diver has stunned experts by finding a fish they can't identify.

It was filmed in the Kāpiti Marine Reserve and no-one seems to know what it is, leading to debates over whether it could be a previously undiscovered species. 

Ben Knight was snorkelling on the eastern side reserve in “beautifully clear” water in January when he spotted the mystery fish.

About 20cm long, it looked a little like a red moki or a striped tarakihi, Knight says, and he thinks it’s either an unidentified species or possibly a hybrid.

“In both cases [it’s] incredibly rare”.

He’s calling it a taramoki, for the moment.

For Knight, who's president of the Guardians of the Kāpiti Marine Reserve, it highlights the value of the reserve.

“I wonder whether the fish would have survived this long had it been swimming around outside the reserve – it might have just ended up as an unusual meal on someone’s dinner plate.”

Knight hasn’t seen the fish again, and water visibility hasn’t been as good since the original sighting. But he hopes it’ll turn up again so a small tissue sample could be taken, without harming it, try to identify it.

Fisheries scientist Dr Malcolm Francis, from Niwa, has been diving around the New Zealand coast for 50 years and hasn’t seen anything like it before.

“It was pretty astonishing to me too.”

It could be a tarakihi-red moki hybrid or another member of the Cheilodactylidae family, which both fish belong to.

Or it could be a previously unknown species that lives on an unexplored seamount to the west of New Zealand, Francis says. Currents come from the west, and could bring fish larvae to New Zealand shores.

He’s checked with Australian scientists and another in Chile and none has seen a fish like it.

“This is what gets scientists excited … we’re into discovering things, and finding a new fish in shallow water is pretty rare.

“This fish is really important” he says.

“Members of this family can live up to 100 years old. This fish could be in the same place for decades to come and we certainly want to appreciate [it].”

But if another specimen was found, outside the reserve, Francis says there are several non-invasive ways of taking a tissue sample that wouldn't harm the fish.