Rehabilitating Native Fish Populations in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin: Integrating Research, Management and Community Advocacy

The Murray-Darling Basin covers approximately 14% (1 million km2) of the Australian continent yet produces approximately 40% of Australia’s agricultural production.  Many of the rivers of the Basin flow through semi-arid or arid environments and exhibit substantial hydrological variability.  High levels of flow regulation and water extraction for consumptive purposes have reduced total end-of-system flows by 60% and contributed to significant declines in ecosystem health.  Ecological decline in the MDB is particularly evident in native fish communities. Populations are estimated at 10% of pre-European settlement levels and many species are now of conservation concern. Balancing the allocation of water for consumptive use against environmental values represents a major social and political challenge.

In 2004, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) implemented a 50-year strategy to address key threats to native fish. The Native Fish Strategy for the Murray-Darling Basinadopted an ecosystem-based approach incorporating research and contemporary ecological knowledge to inform on-ground management to improve the status of native fishes. The strategy emphasised rehabilitation through actions to address key threats and included research, policy and operational changes, structural rehabilitation measures and engagement of an array of stakeholders. It also had strong community support. Funding for the NFS was discontinued in 2013 yet the impetus has been sustained and aspects are now being used to support the restoration of flow regimes in the MDB to promote ecosystem health. Close co-operation between scientists, managers and the community is essential if rehabilitation of native fish populations is a realistic goal.

Brenton Zampatti and Lee Baumgartner
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