Independent Assessment of the 2018–19 fish deaths in the lower Darling

Murray Darling Basin Authority and Australian Government
Publication Type:
2019, pp. 1 - 99
Issue Date:
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Three significant fish death events occurred in the Darling River near Menindee between December 2018 and January 2019. The three events took place within two adjacent weir pools in a 30 km reach of river between Texas Downs Station and Weir 32 (DPI NSW Fisheries, 2019). The main native fish species involved included Murray Cod, Silver Perch, Golden Perch, Bony Herring, with mortality estimates in the range of hundreds of thousands to over a million fish. Though post-event fish population sampling is yet to be conducted, we expect that these mortalities will impact populations in the lower Darling River, and perhaps beyond, for many years. These events constitute a serious ecological shock to the lower Darling and reverse positive ecological outcomes that had accrued from environmental watering programs. We have determined that fish deaths events were primarily caused by local hydrological and climatic conditions (Figure 1-1). The extreme hot and dry climate during 2018, extending into 2019, shaped the conditions that saw a large fish biomass, which had flourished since favourable spawning conditions in 2016, isolated in the weir pools around Menindee, with no means of escaping upstream or downstream. Those adverse climate conditions also shaped the subsequent algal bloom development and the strong and persistent thermal stratification of the weir pools, which created hypoxic conditions in the bottom waters of the pools. All that was needed for this to have a fatal impact on the fish was a trigger for the weir pool waters to become destratified and deprive the fish of oxygen. That trigger duly arrived with a series of sudden cool changes in the weather, with temperature drops and wind action initiating the turnover of the weir pool waters. This sudden depletion of oxygen, combined with the already high water and air temperatures, would have offered the large biomass of stressed fish no means of escape. For each fish death event, the weir pool in which the fish were trapped was bordered downstream by an impenetrable barrier (a weir) and upstream by a dry channel. Ultimately, it was the rapid transition from very favourable conditions to very adverse ones that resulted in such high numbers of fish deaths. We have also determined that the fish death events were shaped by a broader climatic, hydrologic and basin management context that placed the lower Darling River at risk of such fish deaths. The preceding six years (since 2012) had seen two high flow events that had delivered water into Menindee Lakes (2012 and 2016) and offered opportunities for substantial fish breeding and recruitment. Fish populations were further enhanced by the judicious use of environmental water. The end result was a considerable biomass of fish within the Menindee Lakes, post 2016. Outside of these high flow events there were minimal flows in the Darling River below Bourke. This period was preceded by the Millennium drought (2000-2010), during which time flows across the entire northern Murray– Darling Basin were reduced. All of the hydroclimatic evidence available indicates that the years since 2000 have been some of the driest on record, in terms of inflows into major upstream storages, combined with an increased number of extreme heat days, which would have had a major impact on water quality in remnant pools. Soon after the events, Basin government officials met and developed an action plan to respond to the crisis. Immediate actions underway include additional water quality monitoring in the lower Darling, the use of aerators and targeted fish relocations. These immediate actions are welcomed, however, the current situation remains critical – without significant inflows, further deaths of surviving fish may be expected. We consider that priorities and actions in the short-term should focus on anticipating a repeat of ‘worst-case scenario’ outcomes with responses focussed at the site scale. In addition, the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources announced a Native Fish Management and Recovery Strategy to help manage and recover fish populations across the Basin. We consider that this provides a good opportunity to enhance native fish management and support native fish population recovery and should be developed and implemented through a genuine collaboration between governments, communities, and Traditional Owners. The strategy needs to build on existing and lapsed native fish programs across the Basin. Through our investigations, it became evident to us that, over the long-term, the extant water access arrangements in the northern Basin, as well as limitations in the river models used to plan water sharing, place the lower Darling River at a higher risk of conditions that can lead to fish deaths during droughts than has previously been anticipated. Given that we are witnessing an increasing frequency of low inflow sequences in the northern Basin, this presents a serious problem for safeguarding fish populations, and populations of other resident biota, during drought in the lower Darling. We have identified that changes to Barwon–Darling water access arrangements made by NSW just prior to the commencement of the Basin Plan in 2012 have enhanced the ability of irrigators to access water during low flow periods and during the first flow event immediately after a cease-to-flow period. Further, it appears that the river models used to develop water sharing arrangements have a tendency to overestimate streamflows during dry sequences, and hence underestimate the impacts of extractions during dry times.
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