Observers

Hundreds of thousands of dead fish float on the surface of the green water. It is the second such incident to occur in the Menindee Lakes region in south-east Australia in three weeks. Communities living along the Darling River in New South Wales blame the environmental catastrophe on gross water mismanagement by authorities. Our Observer says that the deaths of thousands of native species was entirely avoidable.

Locals have been posting videos and photos of thousands of dying and dead fish crowding the river’s banks. One video posted to Facebook shows two Menindee residents, Dick Arnold and Rob McBride, standing in the Darling River and holding enormous dead Murray cod.

Since being posted on Monday, the video has garnered four million views and been shared over 120,000 times. “This is nothing to do with drought,” McBride tells the camera. “This is a man-made disaster”.


Our Observer Graeme McCrabb is a local who fishes in the river. He also posted photos and videos of the mass fish deaths, and has been trying to rescue the remaining live fish by moving them to deeper water. He spoke to us from his boat on the river, showing us the scores of fish carcasses lining the banks.

“It was carnage on the river”

I drove over the town bridge on Sunday morning and noticed a lot of carp floating on top of the water. They do come up to the surface in clumps sometimes, but this was unusual. I stopped my car and had a look, and I could see dead fish on top of the water. I reported it to the fisheries as we’ve had fish kill before. They asked me to hop in my boat and have a look.

The fish had died on the Sunday and then all started to come up to float the next day, so on the Monday it was carnage on the river. There were some still coming to the surface on Tuesday. This has to be one of the biggest environmental disasters we’ve seen in the Murray-Darling basin.

We’ve got a lake system in the middle of the Darling River, and the authorities drained water from the lakes. We should have had reserves of five to six years’ worth of water, but it was drained out twice in four years.


Screenshot from a video posted on Facebook by a Menindee resident.

“You drain the water and hope it rains. But then it didn’t rain”

You need running water to keep oxygen in the water, but the loss of water means the water slowed down and the pools became stagnant. We’re in the middle of a drought here, and the sunlight and heat encourages blue-green algae to grow in the water. As the algae dies it takes oxygen out of the water. That’s why the fish have died – there’s no oxygen in the water. You drain the water and you hope it rains. But then it didn’t rain. It’s as simple as that.

Authorities drained the lakes because they can use the water elsewhere for irrigation. They actually use some of the water to encourage a fish breeding process. It’s ironic that in draining the water to hit environmental targets further down the river, they’ve managed to kill a million fish. It’s as dumb as it sounds.


Photo by our Observer. This dead Murray cod measures over a metre long.

This is outback Australia. Farmers upstream and downstream rely on the Darling River for water for stock, irrigation and for domestic use. Water was required elsewhere where there are more people, more votes, and so the politicians drained the water to go there.

The local community is angry. It’s killed endangered species like Murray cod, which is an iconic Australian fish. Anyone who’s a fisherman would dream of catching a Murray cod. Some of these fish are 80 years old, older than people living here in the town. It really resonates with people.

 

Photo by our Observer showing some of the dead fish in the Darling River.

Murray cod, golden perch and silver perch are native to the Murray basin. Not only have we killed the fish but we’ve killed their food source, the smaller fish. You can just grab handfuls of little prawns out of the water. And the dead fish stink. It’s rancid.

Two years ago the lakes were almost full. According to the regional water authorities WaterNSW website, there is just 3% of total water capacity remaining in the Menindee Lakes. Regional authorities have been under fire from residents for ambitious plans to restructure the lake system, designed to tackle the problem of evaporation in the Menindee Lakes. Last year locals rejected the infrastructure plan, saying that they had not been consulted and that it could cause serious ecological harm.

The Department of Primary Industries has launched an investigation into the most recent fish kill. Local politicians refute accusations that the disaster came about after over-extraction of water upstream.


Photo by our Observer of dead fish in a cold room. McCrabb says that fishermen are not allowed to catch fish bigger than 75cm - so these dead Murray cod normally would not be touched.

Niall Blair, the New South Wales primary industries minister, said that the drought had caused the poor water quality. “What we must remember is normally, in a normal year, we would see around 4,000 gigalitres coming into the system,” he told a press conference. “In the first six months of this irrigation year, we’ve seen 30 gigalitres come in.”

He was criticised for ignoring residents who had gathered at a boat ramp by the river on Wednesday to ask him questions, citing security concerns after he allegedly received death threats on social media.

Some residents also cast blame on the cotton industry for siphoning off water to irrigate their crop. Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray responded to the accusations, saying that the cotton industry was tired of being the “whipping boy” for problems generated by the extreme drought. He reminded critics that the cotton industry has also been dramatically affected by the harsh weather conditions, with only half the volume of last season’s output expected to be produced this year.

Around 10,000 fish died in late December in another disaster further upstream. Experts say that if the hot weather continues, the deaths could decimate fish species native to the Murray-Darling Basin.

This article was written by Catherine Bennett.