On 22 January 2019, the Australian Government established an independent expert panel, led by University of Melbourne Professor Robert Vertessy, in response to a series of fish deaths in the lower Darling River in December 2018 and January 2019. On 10 April 2019, then Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud released the panel’s final report, the Independent Assessment of the 2018-19 Fish Deaths in the lower Darling.
The independent expert panel expressed its strong support for the continuation of the Basin Plan, while recognising that reform effort must be re-energised and accelerated.
The panel determined that the predominant factor in the fish deaths was local hydrological and climatic conditions, both at the time of the events and as shaped by broader climatic, hydrological and basin management matters.
The panel made 27 “practical recommendations addressed to Basin policy makers and Basin managers separately that, if adopted, would enhance the ability of State and Australian Government agencies to discharge their responsibilities more effectively within the policy settings of the Basin Plan and the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.”
Many of these recommendations are directed at the States, and will require a collective response by Governments.
Response to recommendations
The Australian Government has announced a range of actions to address a number of key aspects of the findings and recommendations in the report. The implementation of many of these initiatives will involve close engagement with communities in the relevant regions, including Aboriginal people.
Fish management and recovery
- Up to $10 million being provided over three years to help restock rivers and lakes with native fish species across the basin and establish new hatcheries in St George, Queensland, and Menindee, New South Wales, to kick start fish recovery.
- An additional $5.24 million for the Toorale Water Infrastructure Project to better connect the Warrego and Darling Rivers. This funding will improve flows and build fishways.
- $15 million for fencing northern Basin riverbanks. This will help to improve water quality and outcomes for native fish.
This is in addition to previously announced initiatives (on 14 January 2019 and 21 February 2019):
- Working with NSW to allow better fish movement through the system by installing fishways, fish ladders and removing obstacles between Menindee and the Murray, after the interim report found allowing fish to move between both systems will help recovery. These include:
- Construction of a fishway at the Menindee Main Weir;
- Removal of the Old Menindee Town Weir to allow fish to pass through;
- Upgrading two existing fishways and creating a new fishway on the Lower Darling below Menindee Lake; and
- Construction of a fishway around the inlet regulator between Frenchman’s Creek and Lake Victoria which is a major barrier to fish passage along the Murray River.
- Creating an early warning system—an MDBA risk assessment matching where fish deaths have previously occurred with current factors such as water quality, weather and flow.
- Funding the local community for aerators that the report found created refuge zones for fish.
- Extending the Native Fish Demonstration Reach program to the Lower Darling; directly involving local and Indigenous communities and fisherman in habitat restoration and re-stocking.
- Committing an extra $3 million into fish research and basin research.
- Investing $5 million for a Native Fish Management and Recovery Strategy – a Basin-wide strategy to enhance the management of native fish populations.
Improving water connectivity between the north and south of the Basin
- The Government will, in consultation with community and NSW Government, seek to secure A class licences to protect low flows in the Barwon Darling into the future as recommended by the report.
- The Government will also work with NSW to allocate some water for indigenous communities fulfilling a commitment from the Government’s 7 May 2018 agreement with Opposition.
Improving river management and compliance
- Up to $25 million into metering in the northern basin, in the form of a 25% subsidy for AS4747 compliant meters. This will be backdated 12 months and states will be asked to contribute additional funding.
- $20 million to expand research on the Murray-Darling Basin for better water and environmental management and to address gaps in our knowledge as recommended by Prof Vertessy and the panel.
- $5 million to enhance real time monitoring (satellite and live-stream river flows to the internet) at key sites in the northern Basin.