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EXPERT REACTION: Federal Government independent interim assessment of Murray Darling fish deaths

Embargoed until: Publicly released:

The Federal Government last night released an independent interim assessment of the recent fish deaths in the Murray Darling river system. The report suggests continued hot conditions, combined with a lack of water flow, caused the weir pools to form layers of water - an upper oxygenated layer and a lower layer lacking in oxygen. Fish and algae became concentrated in the upper layer. Then, sudden reductions in air temperature and increased wind associated with storms caused the layers to mix, resulting in low oxygen throughout the water and no escape for the fish. This, says the report, was the primary cause of the fish deaths. Experts respond.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Culum Brown is Director of Higher Degree Research in Biology at Macquarie University and Assistant Editor of the Journal of Fish Biology

Fundamentally, the Federal Government report highlights the extreme weather conditions as being partly responsible for the fish kill. Frankly this is nonsense. If they had factored climate change into the basin plan, as any sensible manager would do, they would have anticipated these extreme events and increased environmental water allocations accordingly. What's more, these extremely hot days will increase in frequency in future and will soon be the norm.  

Sticking your head in the sand and pretending climate change does not exist is not an appropriate management action.

Last updated: 22 Feb 2019 2:16pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Australian Academy of Science's response

The Independent Assessment of Fish Deaths interim report released by Minister David Littleproud today is a welcome contribution to the growing evidence base to help inform action to improve the health of Australia’s rivers.

The fish kill is a multifactorial issue and it is in the national interest to ensure all the available knowledge is brought to bear in assessing this concerning situation and finding appropriate solutions.
Decisions to maintain and improve Australia’s river system based on the best available science is something all Australians want to see.

The expert panel of multidisciplinary experts, convened by the Australian Academy of Science, notes that the interim report reaches similar conclusions to the expert panel’s report released earlier this week regarding declining flows.

“We note that while the terms of reference for the government panel, and hence the scope of findings and recommendations are narrower, within the common scope there is good agreement across the two reports,” Professor Moritz said.

Expert review Panel Chairman, Professor Craig Moritz FAA, said the interim report’s recommendations primarily focus on monitoring and management of current flows but, as yet, do not directly assess the cause of the longer-term decline in flows down the Darling.

The expert panel will continue to work collaboratively with the government panel convened by Professor Robert Vertessy. A number of the Academy’s expert panel members are taking part in the technical workshop arranged to review the interim report on Wednesday, 27 February.

The expert panel also notes the MDBA discussion paper on Climate change and the Murray Darling Basin Plan released on February 20. This paper reflects the expert panel’s recommendation to improve forecasting of the effects of climate change on river flows and health and is very welcome.

The expert panel remain hopeful that there can be a bipartisan approach to solving the issues along the Darling.

Last updated: 22 Feb 2019 1:39pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor John Quiggin is an Australian Laureate Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland

The Report clearly describes the 'antecedent conditions' which made the Lower Darling so vulnerable to large-scale fish deaths, all of which reflect policy failures of the current government. These include increased upstream extractive use of water, the decision to release water from Menindee Lakes in 2016, and the extreme climatic conditions which are the 'new normal' as a result of climate change. The Minister’s statement ignores all of these factors, and focuses only on the immediate causes of the disaster.

The government has rejected water buybacks as a means of increasing flow, ignored environmental concerns in the management of the Menindee Lakes, and rejected any action to mitigate climate change. This was a human-made disaster, for which the present government bears substantial responsibility.

Last updated: 22 Feb 2019 1:36pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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