Faced with a looming ferocious summer with little rain forecast, the New South Wales government has embarked on a Noah’s Ark type operation to move native fish from the Lower Darling River — part of Australia’s most significant river system — to safe havens before high temperatures return to the already stressed river basin.
Researchers have warned of other alarming ecological signs that the river is in a dire state, following last summer’s mass fish kills.
Fran Sheldon, a professor at Griffith University’s Australian Rivers Institute, said only one surviving colony of river mussels had been found along the river and there were signs that river red gums were under severe stress.
“If the river red gums die, and some are hundreds of years old, there will be a domino effect. Banks will collapse, there will be massive erosion and it will send sediments down the river,” she said. “These sort of ecological collapses are much harder and expensive to reverse.”
The government last week announced an A$10 million (US$6.9 million) rescue package to mitigate the effects of the river crisis on native fish this summer.
New South Wales Minister for Agriculture Adam Marshall said the unprecedented action would provide “a lifeline for key native species ahead of an expected summer of horror fish kills.”
“We’re staring down the barrel of a potential fish Armageddon, which is why we’re wasting little time rolling out this unprecedented action,” Marshall said. “By starting this operation today we’re getting on the front foot while we still have the chance to rescue and relocate as many fish as possible.”
In December last year and January fish began dying in their hundreds of thousands in the far west of the state at Menindee, leaving weirs and waterholes carpeted with dead fish.
While fish deaths have occurred in the past, the scale was unprecedented and stunned Australians.
Several scientific reports said the lack of flow in the river due to the drought and exacerbated by irrigation upstream were to blame.
However, there are already doubts about how effective the A$10 million program will be. The unprecedented operation aims to move as many fish as possible from 15 to 20 priority waterholes in a two-week period, including Murray cod, some of which are at least 25 years old, golden perch and other rare species.
Boats with electrostatic fishing equipment will be used to stun the fish in weir pools and waterholes along the Darling at Menindee, where they will scooped up and loaded into special climate-controlled transport to a section of the Darling further south, near Wentworth, where the river joins the Murray, which is still flowing.
New South Wales Department of Primary Industries fisheries scientists are targeting fish contained within drying pools that are not expected to last through the summer.
However, the government has not said how many fish it will move. One source told the Guardian it was hoped it would be in the hundreds, but this is just a fraction of the population of the river and will not prevent the likelihood of further mass fish deaths.
“It’s a photo-op rather than a real deal,” said a Menindee local, Graeme McCrabb, who has become a spokesman for the local community on the lower Darling.
The NSW Natural Resources Commission has called for an urgent revision of the rules that allow irrigators to extract from the river when flows are very low.
“The fish rescue program will preserve some genetic diversity, but the government also needs to monitor the surrounding ecosystems, as [returning] fish would not survive if mussels and other invertebrates are lost,” Sheldon said.
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