Flows and habitat make native fish happen
Last Sunday I attended the launch of the Native Fish Awareness Week (5–12 November) near the Murray mouth in South Australia. The Awareness week is an annual event, and a real opportunity for communities throughout the Murray-Darling Basin to acknowledge the importance of good fish habitats – healthy rivers – to our collective wellbeing.
There could not have been a better place for kick-starting native fish week than the Murray mouth. The floods and rain in the Murray-Darling Basin have sent fresh-water flows down the rivers, recharged wetlands, flushed out salt and pollutants and given a boost to native fish and wildlife. Locals recount that just a year and a half back this same place felt radically different, the river was not flowing, the mouth was closed, there was too much salt and very few fish and birds. The goal of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Native Fish Strategy is to rehabilitate native fish numbers back to 60% of their estimated pre-European settlement levels. Throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, the serious decline in distribution and abundance of native fish species is mainly due to the loss of habitat.
Sixth generation fisher Henry Jones is upbeat because the fish in the Coorong and near the Murray mouth are spawning as a result of plenty of water. He took us out to the Coorong in his fishing boat where we were greeted by an abundance of pelicans and other water birds. More fish in the water means more food and more birds. Native fish, like other native wildlife in the Basin, play a key role in keeping the rivers healthy and in turn depend on enough water and habitat. Taking too much water out of the rivers in the Basin has been a primary threat to native fish. The creation of countless weirs, locks and dams, destruction of floodplains and wetlands along the Basin, and the increase in alien fish numbers has all cost native fish in the Murray-Darling Basin. I had a chance to speak to some residents about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, who seemed to be cautiously hopeful. They know that one drink in 20 years will not bring the environment of the Lakes, Murray Mouth and the Coorong back on track. Some of them have been around for a while and have seen the river change and its wildlife decline at an alarming rate. Accounts of people’s experiences with the river have been captured in a series of oral histories which was a highlight of the launch event. They are keen to see the problem of over-extraction of water from the Murray-Darling fixed before the next drought. They are wary of decades of politics and sincerely hope that it does not come in the way of a good plan. The most significant threat to the Murray-Darling is over-extraction of water. The draft Basin Plan is set to be released in two weeks; it is our opportunity to limit water taken from the rivers for irrigation to a level that sustains the environment of the Murray-Darling into the future. At a roundtable with Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke this Tuesday 8 November a gathering of environmental groups and Basin residents – including dry-land graziers from New South Wales and irrigators from Shepparton – discussed what the Basin Plan needs to deliver. The Minister got the message that people across the bush and city are on the same page on this issue, and expect a good Basin Plan which gets the environment back on track. Native fish and wildlife are integral to river health, and they need adequate flows to survive into the future. If you have ever gone fishing and want to find out more about our native fish, please visit www.nativefishweek.com.au