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Native fish - and recreational fishers - need native fish funding

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Native Fish Strategy (NFS) is at serious risk of winding up, after NSW announced it is cutting its financial contributions. This is a serious blow to the conservation…

We are really just beginning to learn what’s gone wrong for native species like the Murray Cod. Biodiversity Heritage Library

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Native Fish Strategy (NFS) is at serious risk of winding up, after NSW announced it is cutting its financial contributions. This is a serious blow to the conservation and management of an iconic group of animals that get little long-term, strategic consideration and funding from state governments.

It also flies in the face of the popularity of fish and fishing to the wider community. The recreational fishing lobby and conservation groups are justifiably concerned.

Annually, about one in five of us goes fishing; more so for Indigenous Australians. It is one of the most popular pastimes in Australia and a large amount of money is spent in its pursuit, whether on fishing gear, bait, boats or accommodation. It is one of those rare, acceptable “primeval” behaviours that appeals to kids and adults alike. For the majority, it also brings people closer to nature, making them appreciate healthy water bodies, and contributing to better conservation and management.

While there is debate about the merits of introduced species, like trout and redfin, there is universal agreement that healthy populations of native fish are a good thing. There are various estimates of the state of the fish in the Murray-Darling Basin. Some say they are at 10% of pre-European numbers. I think that it is closer to 1%, based on my reading of early explorers’ and settlers’ accounts of the number and size of fish that could be caught before environmental degradation.

Fishing is one of the most popular pursuits in Australia. Charles Stretbor

But the actual percentage is somewhat academic. There is overwhelming evidence that fish numbers of the vast majority of species, including icons like the Murray cod, are a fraction of what they once were.

Some species are close to extinction: 73 of Australia’s approximately 250 species are currently listed as “threatened” under state or national legislation. And, to a large extent, the biomass of native fish has been replaced by introduced species, especially carp. A noxious species, carp is equivalent to the cane toad in the damage it causes and the negative emotions it elicits.

The reasons for the decline of native fish include historical overfishing, habitat change, river regulation, poor water quality, barriers to movement and the introduction of non-native species. But in many cases, we don’t know the actual cause for shrinking distribution and loss of populations. It is likely that multiple factors over time have contributed to this sad state of affairs.

We are also still in the early days of understanding how fish live, feed, breed and respond to the conditions that nature and humans throw at them. The increase in our knowledge of their ecology is struggling to keep pace with the steep decline of our fish.

It is unfortunate in some ways that we have no ongoing commercial fisheries of native species, but the numbers are not good enough to sustain such fishing pressure. So, unlike marine species, which support many commercial fisheries, freshwater fish tend to receive a tiny amount of funding compared to their marine counterparts. The federally funded Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, for example, doles out the vast majority of its funds to marine fisheries.

Carp have replaced many native species. Melbourne Water

And that is where the Native Fish Strategy (NFS) comes in. Over more than 10 years, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s foresight has put native fish up front, recognising fish as important in their own right and as sentinels for the health of our rivers. Some species, such as Murray cod, are like the lions of our waterways, and their demise affects all aspects of freshwater food webs of the Murray-Darling Basin. Other species are critical as food for larger fish and water birds.

The NFS has a long-term plan, realising that rehabilitation and restoration of our rivers takes time. It includes research to increase our understanding of what species and populations need to persist; conservation to restore populations of threatened species, like trout cod; management, to improve conditions in our rivers so that fish can carry out their life cycles, like improving fish passage; and education, so that the next generation continues to care for our freshwater environment.

The NFS’s work has only really just begun, and has just started to show dividends. Cutting funding for native fish research, conservation and management does not make sense in any but purely financial terms. The NFS should be recognised for what it is: a key plank in restoring health to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. It should be supported at all costs.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Bruce Moon



    A great overview of another disgraceful episode of environmental degradation.

    The key to your lament lies in the penultimate sentence. Conservative governments in Australia seem currently hellbent on cutting funding for social and environmental matters, while bolstering support to the private sector.

    - - -

    The scourge of European Carp is, like the Cane Toad, one that could have been appropriately addressed when first noticed.

    I suggest the only adequate remedy is to establish…

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    1. Paul Humphries

      Senior lecturer in Ecology at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Bruce Moon

      Hi Bruce,

      I share your concern about carp, but your approach is extreme for such a big system. Carp are only one of the issues that affect native fish. We have to be careful not to become blinkered to all of the other factors, because I am confident that if carp were entirely removed from the MDB, yet all other threats remained, our native fish would be still in dire straits. Native species need their own advocates, conservation, funding and research. Check out the Invasive Animals CRC for what they are up to re carp at:


      There are some promising developments here.

      Cheers, Paul

  2. John Browne
    John Browne is a Friend of The Conversation.


    All we seem to catch these days in the upper Murrumbidgee are carp. What can you do?

  3. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Should we take a more realistic long term view of Australian waters. Which is preferable an unstable fishery and polluted water way as a result of the vain attempt to retain uncompetitive native fish or accept it as a lost cause and seek to rebalance Australian watery ways with a more balanced and cleaner aquatic population.
    Should Australian lakes and rivers be restocked with a balanced range of aquatic species that can effectively co-exist and help to clean up those rivers and lakes. Should some…

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    1. Paul Humphries

      Senior lecturer in Ecology at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Hi Robert,

      The irony is that the vast majority of our species are actually very hardy; they have to be, considering the harsh environment in which they have evolved and continue to inhabit. It is one of the conundrums for us fish ecologists, that this hardy group of fishes has declined so dramatically since Europeans arrived, yet survived everything the Australian environment has thrown at it. There are some obvious and perhaps less obvious answers to this, and it would be interesting to discuss…

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  4. Michael Zarb

    logged in via Facebook

    Surely if so much money is spent on this hobby then there are a lot of companies with a vested interest in keeping it sustainable?

    Why does this need to be government funded? Surely these companies will be able to pick up the slack? There needs to be a rethink of public policy in this country!

    1. David Briggs

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Zarb

      Michael I agree with your argument. Recreational fishers spend $100s if not $1000s on gear. Why should taxpayers underwrite their need to satisfy their primordial urges. Surely a levy on fishing gear or a reasonable licence fee could be charged. Perhaps the Govt could provide matching $ for$ contribution with funds raised by the fishers themselves... As they do for rural research.
      With a strategy for funding, with meaningful contributions from the fishers, then conservation and management goals can be pursued. Without contributions from fishers, then program's will be vulnerable to cost cutting.

  5. David Elson

    logged in via Facebook

    Won't somebody please think of the children?!?

  6. Pera Lozac

    Heat management assistant

    Carp is a living creature - destroying it now is equally idiotic as it was bringing it in Australia in the first place. The nature follows the self balancing rule - the survival of the fittest. So called preservation of natives is therefore a shear refusal to accept the reality - carp is in Australia and it will not go anywhere. The nature will simply balanced itself as it always does. How can anyone say that a Murray cod is a more valuable fish than carp. That is completely mindless. Would anyone claim that the dinosaurs that were living in Australia were more valuable than those that were living in Africa? An animal that cannot adapt to the changed environment will disappear a new one will take its place - it is called survival of the fittest. Humans are just stupid and ignorant in their fruitless attempts to correct a system that is perfectly tuned because they are not capable of understanding how it functions.