Federal Government releases independent fish deaths report

  Last updated February 22, 2019 at 5:07 pm


Experts say a Federal Government-released report into New South Wales fish deaths has failed to consider the effects of climate change.

Darling River drought

The once mighty Darling River. Credit: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

They were the grim scenes that shocked Australia and made headlines across the world: three separate fish kills taking place in rapid succession in western NSW, resulting in the deaths of millions of fish.

The Federal Government last night released an independent interim assessment, which suggests continued hot conditions, combined with a lack of water flow, caused weir pools to form layers of water – an upper oxygenated layer and a lower layer lacking in oxygen.

According to the report, fish and algae became concentrated in the upper layer, then sudden reductions in air temperature and increased wind associated with storms caused the layers to mix, resulting in low oxygen throughout the water and no escape for the fish.

In a statement, the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), which released its own report into the fish kills earlier this week, described the assessment as “a welcome contribution to the growing evidence base to help inform action to improve the health of Australia’s rivers”.

“Decisions to maintain and improve Australia’s river system based on the best available science are something all Australians want to see,” according to the AAS statement.

Report does not asses the cause of long-term declines in flow

The response noted, however, that the government report does not yet directly assess the cause of long-term declines in flows into the Darling River.

This is something the AAS outlined in its own report, which was commissioned by opposition leader Bill Shorten and compiled by a multidisciplinary expert panel.

The Panel Chair, Professor Craig Moritz from the Australian National University, told journalists at an AusSMC briefing that the kills are an indicator of a system in crisis.

“These kills are unusual in their severity [and] their connection to poor, still water with algal blooms,” he said.

“We’ve known for some time that the river is in crisis.”

Climate change not factored for in plan

The AusSMC also gathered independent expert comments on the new government report.

Macquarie University’s Associate Professor Culum Brown told the Centre the report singled out extreme weather conditions as a major factor responsible for the fish kill.

“Frankly this is nonsense,” he said.

“If they had factored climate change into the basin plan, as any sensible manager would do, they would have anticipated these extreme events and increased environmental water allocations accordingly.”

“What’s more, these extremely hot days will increase in frequency in future and will soon be the norm.”

Professor John Quiggin from the University of Queensland agreed that the conditions which made the Darling so vulnerable were worsened by “policy failures of the current government”.

These failures included “upstream extractive use of water, the decision to release water from Menindee Lakes in 2016, and the extreme climatic conditions which are the ‘new normal’ as a result of climate change”, he said.

Prof Quiggin told the AusSMC that the statement released by the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud ignores all these factors, focusing only on the immediate causes of the disaster.

But the AAS is hopeful that a collaborative approach between the Federal Government and independent scientists is achievable.

The AAS report earlier this week featured 20 recommendations to improve freshwater systems in the long-term, including improved water monitoring, increased local community engagement and factoring climate change into water management.

You can read the Expert Reaction here, and watch AusSMC’s Briefing with the AAS panel here.


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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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