As drought and extreme weather take hold, freshwater fish are declining – leaving reservoirs as a potential better option than the river.
As drought and extreme weather take hold, freshwater fish are declining – leaving reservoirs as a potential better option than the river.

A major Australian river is running out of native fish

Summer is when holiday-makers flock to the River Murray, but drop a fishing line in the waterway and you're likely to end up disappointed.

Former RecFish SA director Ian Fitzgerald says the declining amount of freshwater fish is of significant concern, from the Victorian border all the way to Wellington, on Lake Alexandrina.

"The river should be full of native fish, but it's not," he says.

He remembers the good old days when fish were caught in huge quantities on the river and sent to Adelaide fish markets by rail "in special carriages with holed, galvanised floors and loads of ice".

"In the 1950s, the price of Murray cod was part of the ABC radio news bulletins, similar to that of grain, beef and sheep - but not any more," Mr Fitzgerald says.

"Photos of those days showed strings of fish on set lines. The river was truly prolific and provided throughout the seasons."

The commercial river fishers had "reaches" licensed to them, but gradually their catches declined, and it became an uneconomic proposition.

Then, in 2002-03, all commercial licences for native fish species in the river, from the border to Wellington, were bought by the State Government. Mr Fitzgerald says at least that means there is no conflict between the commercial sector and recreational fishers in the South Australian stretch of the river, so restocking programs should be more straightforward.

"But while NSW, Victoria and Queensland have been stocking Murray cod and other native species in the hundreds of thousands for generations in the river, impoundments, and lakes, only one SA River Murray restock has been done, funded by the Labor Government - one," he says.

That's about to change, after the Primary Industries and Regional Development Ministrer, Tim Whetstone, promised in September to provide $200,000 over two years to fund Murray cod restocking in the river.

 

Andrew Koch from Maitland, fishing in the Murray River at Lock 5 near Renmark. Picture: Grant Schwartzkopff
Andrew Koch from Maitland, fishing in the Murray River at Lock 5 near Renmark. Picture: Grant Schwartzkopff

 

The action was recommended by the Minister's Recreational Fishing Advisory Council, in the context of the snapper ban.

Mr Fitzgerald says that's a start, "a bare start, but the figure probably needs to be more like $2 million per annum". "Victoria has nine government and commercial native fish hatcheries, with another government hatchery being planned. SA has none," he says.

Mr Whetstone says the Government will work with the advisory council "to explore further fish stocking this year and beyond" as part of a new recreational fishing strategy, acknowledging that the sector is lagging behind other states after years of neglect.

"Recreational fishing is an important part of the social and economic life of SA and the Marshall Liberal Government places a high priority on managing the state's freshwater fish stocks so fishing can continue to be part of the SA experience for future generations," he says.

"Our Government supports recreational fishing along the River Murray and other well-established freshwater locations around the state and is driving new fishing experiences with the opening up of reservoirs across SA for recreational activity."

The Murray cod is a protected species in SA and if caught should not even be lifted out of the water and must be released immediately. (Mr Fitzgerald notes lifting is allowed in other states).

Just one of the major freshwater fish species can be taken home and eaten - the golden perch, also known as callop or yellowbelly.

While experienced anglers have the ability to catch golden perch, most people hook only carp, or maybe other exotic pest species such as redfin.

All of the larger native species are struggling. Some, such as Macquarie perch and trout cod, are believed extinct in SA, according to Primary Industries and Regions South Australia.

Drought and climate change will make matters worse. The devastating scenes of mass fish kills in the lower Darling River are likely to be repeated, but are less likely in SA.

Without greater investment in restocking programs, habitat restoration and water for the environment, the desires of SA anglers will be better met at reservoirs and possibly future developments in the southeast lakes than on the River Murray.

Warren, Bundaleer, Beetaloo, South Para and Myponga reservoirs are all currently open to fishing, with the Government committed to opening other reservoirs across the state in the coming months and years.

 

River Murray stock status

Some fish species are listed as protected in the South Australian section of the River Murray and cannot be taken.

Any protected species caught must be returned to the water immediately. Anyone caught taking or causing harm to a protected species can be fined.

Species that are protected year round that may be encountered by recreational fishers include:

- River blackfish

- Freshwater catfish

- Silver perch (except in offline reservoirs)

- Murray River crayfish

 

 

MURRAY COD:

Maccullochella peelii

STOCK STATUS: Depleted

PROTECTION STATUS: Catch and release during season. Protected in Chowilla.

MANAGEMENT MEASURES: Catch and release only, from January 1 to July 31. Closed season (no targeting allowed), from August 1 to December 31.

STOCKING PLAN: Initial program in the lower reaches of the River Murray began in 2016 with releases in 2017 and 2018 (300,000 fingerlings). New restocking announced in September 2019 and due to commence in 2020. Released also in South Para, Warren, Bundaleer and Beetaloo reservoirs.

 

Murray Cod.
Murray Cod.

 

GOLDEN PERCH

Macquaria ambigua

(also known as callop, yellowbelly).

STOCK STATUS: Not available

PROTECTION STATUS: Can be caught and retained

MANAGEMENT MEASURES:

Size and bag limits:

• Minimum size - 33cm from tip of snout to tip of tail

• Personal daily bag limit - 5

• Daily boat limit (when three or more people on board) - 15.

Different fishing limits apply to fishing in certain reservoirs - see reservoirs.sa.gov.au

STOCKING PLAN: Released in Warren, South Para, Beetaloo and Bundaleer reservoirs. Currently no plans for restocking in the river.

 

Golden Perch.
Golden Perch.

 

SILVER PERCH

Bidyanus bidyanus

STOCK STATUS: Endangered

PROTECTION STATUS: Protected (except in offline reservoirs)

STOCKING PLAN: Released in Warren, South Para, Beetaloo and Bundaleer reservoirs.

 

Silver Perch.
Silver Perch.

 

MACQUARIE PERCH

Macquaria australasica

STOCK STATUS: Regionally extinct in the SA River Murray

PROTECTION STATUS: Protected

STOCKING PLAN: Currently no plan to stock macquarie perch in South Australia.

 

Macquarie Perch.
Macquarie Perch.

 

TROUT COD

Maccullochella macquariensis

STOCK STATUS: Regionally extinct in the SA Murray River.

PROTECTION STATUS: Protected

STOCKING PLAN: Currently no plan to stock trout cod in South Australia.

 

Trout Cod.
Trout Cod.

RIVER BLACKFISH

Gadopsis marmoratus

STOCK STATUS: Endangered

PROTECTION STATUS: Protected

STOCKING PLAN: No plan to stock river blackfish in South Australia

 

River blackfish.
River blackfish.

 

MURRAY RIVER CRAYFISH

Eustastacus armatus

STOCK STATUS: Endangered

PROTECTION STATUS: Protected

STOCKING PLAN: No plan to stock Murray River crayfish in South Australia.

 

Murray River crayfish.
Murray River crayfish.

 

CONGOLLI

Pseudaphritis urvilli

STOCK STATUS: Rare

PROTECTION STATUS: Can be caught and retained

MANAGEMENT MEASURES:

Size and bag limits:

• No size limits

• Personal daily bag limit - 2

• Daily boat limit (when three or more people on board) - 6.

 

Congolli.
Congolli.

 

 

YABBY

Cherax destructor

STOCK STATUS: Unknown

PROTECTION STATUS: Can be caught and retained

MANAGEMENT MEASURES:

Size and bag limits:

• No size limit

• Personal daily bag limit - 200

• Daily boat limit (when three or more people are on board): 600

• Females with external eggs are protected and must be returned to the water immediately

 

Yabby.
Yabby.

 

RESERVOIR FISHING RESTRICTIONS:

A Reservoir Fishing Permit is required to fish in SA reservoirs open to recreational fishing and are available for purchase from reservoirs.sa.gov.au/activities/fishing.

The following fishing limits also apply at reservoirs:

Murray cod

• Catch and release only

Golden Perch

• Minimum legal length: 33cm

• Personal daily bag limit: 2

Rainbow Trout

• Minimum legal length: 28cm

• Personal daily bag limit: 2

Silver perch

• Minimum legal length: 33cm

• Personal daily bag limit: 2

 

 

DOWNLOAD:

The SA Recreational Fishing Guide smartphone app for iPhone and Android is a one-stop shop for recreational fishers providing the latest information on fishing in the River Murray. This includes fishing rules, regulations, closures, noxious species, bag and size limits, protected species and gear rules. pir.sa.gov.au/fishing/recfishingapp

 

Fishers can also report suspicious activity and sightings of noxious species to the 24-hour Fishwatch hotline on 1800 065 522.

 



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