Murray-Darling fish kill: authority shelved fish health strategy in 2013 | Australia news
The Murray Darling Basin Authority shelved its native fish strategy six years ago and ended its sustainable rivers audit program after New South Wales pulled 60% of its funding from a basinwide program to monitor the health of fish in the river.
For 10 years the MDBA made much of its fish strategy, releasing a glossy brochure that claimed the strategy required a “sustained commitment” of 50 years in order to rehabilitate native fish in the river. It announced a goal of “restoring native fish stocks to 60% of its pre-European levels.”
But in 2013 it was shelved.
The federal minister for water, David Littleproud, has just announced a new fish recovery strategy in response to a fish kill that has seen up to 1 million die at Menindee on the Lower Darling River, including 70-year-old Murray cod and hundreds of thousands of perch.
The NSW opposition has announced it will set up a special commission of inquiry – equivalent to a royal commission – to investigate the environmental catastrophe at Menindee.
The NSW and federal governments continue to blame the drought for the crisis but multiple documents suggest the fish kill in the Darling River is also due to policy choices by the NSW government and the MDBA.
In 2013, after a critical article in the Deniliquin Times, the MDBA fired off a release saying that the cuts to the fish strategy program “were made by the NSW state government, not the MDBA.”
“Last year, the NSW state government cut 60% of its share of funding for the joint management of the River Murray system,” the MDBA said.
“Historically, all the basin governments have pitched in and shared this funding and the MDBA, as ‘the agent’, has managed the river, maintained the dams, locks and weirs and managed the NRM [natural resource management] programs on behalf of all six governments.
“After the NSW state government cut its funding, the basin governments made the decision to cut the native fish strategy and the sustainable rivers audit, and delayed maintenance programs,” it said.
The end to the fish strategy has deprived federal and state authorities of crucial information to manage the Murray-Darling and its fish stocks.
A Menindee Lakes expert, Dr Richard Kingsford, from the University of NSW said environmental outcomes had taken a back seat to water management.
“These are complex systems and our knowledge of them only scratches the surface,” he said.
The Menindee Lakes are important breeding grounds for golden perch throughout the river. Yet the lake has been increasingly managed as a water storage, with little regard for the impacts on the fish stocks.
Asked about the cancelled fish strategy, the MDBA said parts of the strategy had been taken over by other arms of the authority.
In 2012 Katrina Hodgkinson, then NSW agriculture minister, put in place the Barwon Darling water-sharing plan.
The plan has been heavily criticised by downstream farms, environmental groups, Indigenous groups and scientists. The circumstances around its formation, in which cotton interests pushed for late amendments after the public consultation period, is now believed to be under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
A submission on the Barwon Darling water-sharing plan by the fisheries division of the NSW Department of Primary Industry warned of “inadequate protection for threatened species of fish within the endangered aquatic ecological community” and advised there should be amendments to protect low flows.
The NSW minister for primary industries, Niall Blair, has claimed his predecessor addressed these concerns in the final plan but the state opposition leader, Michael Daley, said the fish deaths of last week showed that the plan remained inadequate to protect the environment. He has promised a commission of inquiry if he wins the state election in March.
The Australia Institute said its research has shown that the Lower Darling and Menindee Lakes had been mismanaged by many over a long period of time.
“Approximately two Sydney Harbours worth of water has been taken out of the region in the last two years,” said research director, Rod Campbell.
“Repeated policy failure in the management of the Lower Darling and Menindee Lakes has implications for major projects, irrigation and the environment throughout the basin.
“The hundreds of thousands of fish like the Murray cod have been sacrificed for interests elsewhere. The Australian public deserve an open account of how we have gotten to this point and the proposed inquiry is a good start.
“The river of dead fish is symbolic of the death of public trust in the management of the Murray-Darling basin plan.”