The last straw
  |  First Published: March 2008

After what’s happened in the Richmond River over the past month, it would be anybody’s guess what’s around the corner and not much of it any good.

The catastrophic fish kill has led to the indefinite closure of the river and all its tributaries, with DPI Fisheries to review the closure each month.

Every form of life that needed oxygen dissolved in water to breathe died. There were huge flathead, whiting, jewfish, mangrove jacks, estuary cod, bream, blackfish, trevally, catfish, multitudes of mullet, herring, mudskippers, eels and so on. Yabbies, worms, cunjevoi and tonnes of prawns died and mud crabs were seen crawling from the toxic water.

Fifty tonnes of dead fish were taken to the Ballina tip and reasonable estimates are that at least 10 times that volume died within a week of the flood peak coming down the river. Rafts of dead fish were seen many miles offshore and the bottom of the river was carpeted with corpses. The stench of decay hung over Ballina for weeks.

A total of 14,000 hatchery-raised jewfish, just approaching catchable size, are well and truly gone, along with the Richmond River component of a university research program paid for with NSW angler’s licence money.

The flood and fish kill made the lucrative Christmas holiday season a total wash-out at Ballina. So the State tourism body has been quoted as wanting $34 million for a campaign to promote the area to bring back tourists – talk about infernal cheek! The slogan could go along the lines of ‘Come here, bring your money but don’t bother fishing!’.

Think of how much that money could do towards river rehabilitation – proper management of a host of tidal-flushing drum floodgates, buy-back of farmland in crucial hot spots, helping co-operative farmers plant widened drain buffer zones of salt couch, sedge, mangroves and reeds – the mind boggles.

Many unthinking sugar, soybean and tea tree farmers have no time for anything but their crops and themselves, considering land ownership equates with a god-given right to ignore the consequences of their actions on downstream ecosystems and river towns and villages. Some upland graziers display equal irresponsibility for eroded gullies and river banks covered with weeds that rot and de-oxygenate water as soon as they are flooded for a couple of days. The flood mitigation authority, with nominal control over floodgates, has an overriding responsibility to diminish flood effects on humans, not fish.

To prevent these kills becoming annual events, the river catchment needs a presiding body that has overriding power over all these vested interests that have abused the river for over a century.

After a lesser but still huge kill in 2001, those who attended a number of Ballina meetings were told by scientists in minute detail why these events occur and what steps need to be taken to limit their future effects. There are no doubts, except in the heads of the uneducated amateur scientists and the blame-shifters, that this kill was due to the same reasons.

Let’s hope this time it’s the last straw.


The volume of dead fish at least confirms that the river had bounced back in the seven years following the last massive kill. It took about three or four very dry years for the ecosystems from Ballina to Coraki to re-establish, although there were regular smaller kills around ‘hot’ areas after other rain events.

Under Fisheries supervision, pro fishers will make monthly net surveys to determine fish numbers in the river.

It’s likely that when the threat of further kills passes and the area immediately around Ballina is repopulated, these waters will be the first to be reopened, at least to rec fishers. With all the wet weather about, don’t hold your breath for an Easter reopening.

The coastal closure is likely to be lifted sooner, I’d surmise.

Meanwhile, the inshore reefs should fish quite well and baitfish are likely to linger in the nutrient-rich water.

An initial show of Spanish mackerel started in early February around Lennox Head, Riordans Reef and the reefs south of Evans Head in 26C water. If we get a run of small slimy mackerel in March and April, there should be some entertainment on the inshore reefs.

Snapper have also benefited from the nutrients and bait and some quite encouraging catches have already been made, mainly of small to undersized (30cm legal) fish in closer and some better fish out wider.

The beaches should also begin to fish well for travelling tailor, along with the bream, whiting, flathead and jewfish that escaped the river. When the swell drops there should be bait schools moving into the surf zone.

For those who must get an estuary fish, the Brunswick outside the marine park sanctuary zones should be quite good for bream, flathead and jacks.

Because the Evans River is joined to the very suspect Rocky Mouth Creek Richmond tributary by a canal with a weir, it will fluctuate in productivity depending on rainfall. Minimal tidal flushing of the middle to upper reaches of the Evans will mean that only the first few kilometres will be fishable.

Catches immediately after the flood were excellent with even cobia caught from the South Wall, with heaps of good bream, whiting and blackfish in the shallows as the clean water moved back in.



• No fishing, crabbing or bait-gathering in the entire Richmond/Wilsons catchment and its tributaries, nor along the beaches and headlands (and 1km seawards) from the eastern point of Flat Rock – towards Lennox Head – to the point where Keith Hall Lane joins the beach south of Ballina.

• Toonumbar Dam, near Kyogle, is open.

• The Evans and Brunswick rivers remain open.

• Closures are reviewed on the 7th of each month. Check with DPI Fisheries or local tackle stores.

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