Independent assessment of the 2018-19 fish deaths in the Lower Darling: Final report

Robert Vertessy, Daren Barma, Lee Baumgartner, Simon Mitrovic, Fran Sheldon, Nick Bond

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report

Abstract

Three significant fish death events occurred in the Darling River near Menindee between December 2018 and January 2019. The three events took place within two adjacent weir pools in a 30 km reach of river between Texas Downs Station and Weir 32 (DPI NSW Fisheries, 2019). The main native fish species involved included Murray Cod, Silver Perch, Golden Perch, Bony Herring, with mortality estimates in the range of hundreds of thousands to over a million fish. Though post-event fish population sampling is yet to be conducted, we expect that these mortalities will impact populations in the lower Darling River, and perhaps beyond, for many years. These events constitute a serious ecological shock to the lower Darling and reverse positive ecological outcomes that had accrued from environmental watering programs.We have determined that fish deaths events were primarily caused by local hydrological and climatic conditions(Figure 1-1). The extreme hot and dry climate during 2018, extending into 2019, shaped the conditions that saw a large fish biomass, which had flourished since favourable spawning conditions in 2016, isolated in the weir pools around Menindee, with no means of escaping upstream or downstream. Those adverse climate conditions also shaped the subsequent algal bloom development and the strong and persistent thermal stratification of the weir pools, which created hypoxic conditions in the bottom waters of the pools. All that was needed for this to have a fatal impact on the fish was a trigger for the weir pool waters to become destratified and deprive the fish of oxygen. That trigger duly arrived with a series of sudden cool changes in the weather, with temperature drops and wind action initiating the turnover of the weir pool waters. This sudden depletion of oxygen, combined with the already high water and air temperatures, would have offered the large biomass of stressed fish no means of escape. For each fish death event, the weir pool in which the fish were trapped was bordered downstream by an impenetrable barrier (a weir) and upstream by a dry channel. Ultimately, it was the rapid transition from very favourable conditions to very adverse ones that resulted in such high numbers of fish deaths.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherAustralian Government
Commissioning bodyMurray-Darling Basin Authority
Number of pages99
Publication statusPublished - 29 Mar 2019

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