Operating a fishy business
September 30, 2011 · Print This Article
By Lauren Jones
Operating on a fish is tricky business; you can’t just lay them on a sterile table and open them up as you would with conventional surgery.
But it’s all in a day’s work for Melbourne aquarium vet Dr Robert Jones, 55, who has been treating sick fish for more then 30 years. He says usually fish are treated with injections and food based medicines, but in extreme case, require operations.
The operating table doesn’t look much like a typical table, there’s no flat steel surface for one. In truth the “table” looks more like a child’s science project.
The most important part of the contraption is a plastic tub, similar to those you buy to store all the junk around your house, filled with water. Three rods pierce the container to make a platform for the fish to lie on during the surgery and a long tube is connected to a submerged pump in the tub.
“It’s really an anesthetic machine, you put a anesthetic agent in the water and it’s pumped from the container to the fishes mouth, out through the gills and back into the tank,” Dr Jones said.
Dr Jones said people don’t realise fish can undergo very similar treatment to other animals. He said it’s not just expensive or large fish being treated, recalling owners who have forked out as much as $400 to save a $5 goldfish.
Dr Jones has performed x-rays, biopsies, lump removals, eye removals, and treatments for infection and buoyancy issues on fish. In one extreme case he even helped perform plastic surgery on a fish giving it a prosthetic eye.
Before working at Melbourne Aquarium Dr Jones worked at Dandenong Veterinary Hospital, he laughed when recalling one strange case involving a gold fish and a cork.
The goldfish had a swim bladder problem, the biggest issue for common goldfish especially the big odd shaped fish. Swim bladders, Dr Jones explained, are gas filled sacks in the dorsal area of a fish that keep it swimming normally.
If you’ve owned a goldfish chances are you’ve seen little Goldy suddenly either sink to the bottom of the tank or rise to the top as if filled with helium. That’s a fish with a swim bladder problem.
Dr Jones said normally it’s just a case of taking the air out of the fish’s swim bladder with a needle but this doesn’t always work.
“For this particular fish I actually made like a buoyancy vest for it, I literally got some soft silicone air tubing and crisscrossed it around the fish and up to a cork. It worked well for about three months but then there were some issues like chafing and the owner decided she didn’t want to continue,” Dr Jones said.
Contemplating his future Dr Jones said he’s more concerned now with the big picture rather then individual fish. He is especially interested in working with Grey Nurse Sharks.
Excitement flooded Dr Jones face and his speech became faster as the conversation turned to his passion, sharks.
“Grey Nurse Sharks are great for display because they have this lovely set of teeth and they swim around with their mouths half open showing all their teeth.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, the misconception that Grey Nurse Sharks were man-eaters led to intensive fishing efforts by spearfishers and in 2001 Grey Nurse Sharks became critically endangered.
Dr Jones is now involved in cutting edge research into shark artificial insemination in an attempt to boost numbers. In 2005 his team was the first in the world to perform artificial insemination on a shark.
“We send divers out into the Oceanarium (largest tank at Melbourne Aquarium) they herd the shark into a shark bag being held open by other divers and they lure the shark into the Loch (an area with waist height water),” Dr Jones explained.
The shark bag looks like a large triangular cake icing bag. Imagine where the icing would normally squeeze from, this is where the sharks head goes. Along one of the edges, where you’d put the icing into the bag, there is a large Velcro seal to close the shark off from the divers.
While a Velcro seal wouldn’t tempt most people into a shallow pool with a shark Dr Jones assures there is really not a high level of danger,
“Grey Nurse Sharks are extremely placid and once a shark is rolled onto its back it goes into a catatonic state and we can do what we need to do,” he said.
Dr Jones also came up with a concept in 2001, later adopted by marine scientists in NSW, where shark fetus (pups) are removed from the Grey Nurse’s womb and grown in artificial wombs.
“Female Grey Nurse Sharks produce about 10 pups in their womb but once the pups develop teeth they attack and kill each other so only two sharks are born, one in each side of the uterus. In the wild this ensures only healthy sharks survive,” Dr Jones said.
This operation is to get as many sharks as possible from each pregnancy rather then just one.
While pups have yet to be born using these methods Dr Jones remains hopeful his work will assist breeding of the endangered species.