What’s left in the wake?
  |  First Published: February 2017

The last two floods along the Murray River have fallen just six years apart and have changed the face of a once vibrant fishery, leaving in its wake an uneasy silence that hides the unknown.

From the junction of the Murrumbidgee down the Murray spewed the hypoxic blackwater that has left most anglers wondering what might be. Countless Murray cod rode the black wave belly up as it pushed down through Robinvale, Wemen, Mildura and beyond. Any creek or anabranch in its path was hit hard as it rolled its way across the border into South Australia, where it continued killing large Murray cod at will.

Exactly what percentage of fish have been affected is largely unknown, but it doesn’t look good. As I write this, we are now about a month into the cod season with not a single Murray cod capture along the main body of the Murray River between the Murrumbidgee junction and Renmark in South Australia. This is a distance by river of approximately 700km, not counting smaller creeks and backwaters. Recently, I got the news of numerous giant cod starting to pop up around Waikerie in South Australia. The black water looks set to roll on the full distance with only a couple of lochs to go.

In the wake of the blackened flow, carp numbers have exploded and the river is now alive with their number. So thick are these fish they reside in the shallows in huge schools hugging the bank in the warm pockets of water. Sitting just inches from the bank, you might expect them to be an easy target for hungry water birds, but just like the cod their numbers too are not to be seen. I’m sure the birds will return in time to glutton this waterborne bounty of vermin fish, but until then the river will continue to resonate an unusual deathly quiet.

There are many questions surrounding this and the previous blackwater flows from 2010-11, and while many have answers, others don’t. At the forefront of the problem are the words ‘natural event.’ This is a real hurdle for riverside communities to straddle, especially for those entrenched in a life that’s been spent working on or beside the river itself.

Professional fishers and riverside farmers, many second generation, can never recall such events until the past two floods and to tell them any different is to treat them the fool. Clarity is the way forward, not smoke screens and mirrors, and while blackwater does occur it is on a much smaller scale than we are now witnessing. The sheer size and destructive power, as in distance and decimation of fish life, has never been witnessed in the past.

Since making the short clip that many of our readers may have seen on social media, I am still unable to find a clear cut answer to the simple questions I asked — what has changed in the last six years? Global warming has been mentioned on a few occasions, but has the world really changed that much that fast? A build-up of leaf matter bigger than anything we have ever seen has been touted a major contributor, with suggestions that all future floods are likely to produce the same massive hypoxic events. Are our forests not being managed and are management not responsible for the future wellbeing of the rivers and fishes? There have to be answers to these problems! If we have excessive leaf matter, should we then not have controlled burns or grazing? Are environmental flows into the forests the answer or part of the problem?

I would like to ask these questions again. Why have the last two floods, only six years apart, decimated more than a thousand kilometres of the main Murray River’s cod population? Why has this never happened in the past, where the floods were every bit as big and bigger? If a regulated system that is run by a bunch of supposedly clever people can’t pause for a moment and join the dots, then I fear our fishery is all but doomed.

Make no mistake, the ramifications of these massive fish kills will resonate through all riverside communities as it affects local business and tourism. We are now enjoying the Christmas break and those in charge have vacated their offices, and with them have gone the answers to all the questions on how this was allowed to happen.

And just like the giant dead fish, it will be all swept away by time and forgotten until the next flood comes. I watched this exact same thing happen six years ago, and I will guarantee if things don’t change, it will happen again. To leave these questions unanswered is to turn your back on these iconic fish and any real future they might have in the Murray Darling Basin.

Reads: 1932

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