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Being catastrophe ready: environmental and social change in the Basin
Australian Smelt
Michael Hammer

The impacts of a changing climate are impacting everyone on a global scale, and the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) is not exempt. Over the past 6 years we have seen an increase in large scale crisis in the MDB through the form of drought, fire and flood. The consequences of these disasters have been well and truly felt by or native fish populations. From fish kills to virus outbreaks, we have seen some absolutely devastating consequences for fish. The 2018/19 summer fish kill events in NSW attracted international attention. The response from the community was a deeply emotional one, the feelings of sadness and distress are still felt today in 2024. Unfortunately, there is an incredibly high likelihood that these events will continue to happen more frequently and on larger scales. At the 2024 Native Fish Forum, the critical question was raised – how can we be ready for the next catastrophe?

Native fish extreme event management

After the devastation of the fish kills, Dr John Koehn, a freshwater fish ecologist at the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, made some recommendations for improving our ability to manage fish kills.

Many of the immediate learnings from Dr Koehn’s study found that emergency response to catastrophic events must be strengthened and improved. As a result, NSW DPI developed the NSW 2018-2020 Lower Darling-Baaka River Drought Response and short-term recovery outcomes. At the Native Fish Forum 2024, Dr Kat Cheshire and Sam Davis​ from DPI Fisheries led a workshop focusing on the current tools we have for dealing with catastrophic events.

Currently, there are four key steps utilised for emergency management under the NFDR. The steps are designed to be used in chronological order and outline a variety of tools that can be implemented to

Emergency management steps as outlined in the NSW DPI Response Framework. Source: Katherine Cheshire

Mitigation – Activities are undertaken before, during and after emergencies and aim to prevent or reduce the likelihood and reduce the impact of emergencies.

Preparedness – Activities take place before an emergency occurs and include planning and preparations to aid response.

Response – Activities put preparedness plans in action, taking place during the emergency to prevent further damage.

Recovery – Actions occur after the event when conditions become more favourable.

What does this look like?

In practice, these actions can look very different but provide a solid basis for managing catastrophic events.

Mitigation example: Identify sites across the NSW MDB that are key to the long-term maintenance of fish populations, and their associated risks of fish deaths using the latest monitoring, habitat and spatial data

Preparedness example: develop a communication strategy that informs and involves communities across the Basin and details proactive measures to inform the community and stakeholders of the likelihood of upcoming disasters, agreed framework for disseminating such information and; agreed protocol for responding to individual/site-based requests for information.

Response example: Implementing appropriate on-ground action at priority sites, continued monitoring at key sites to assess impact of any deployed intervention and, continued implementation of communication strategy, including production of periodic updates on current conditions, risk ratings and management initiatives.

Recovery example: Assessment of impacts at priority sites, monitoring of key sites to inform any recovery actions, continued development and implementation of appropriate native fish recovery actions, such as habitat
rehabilitation, fish passage, translocation and restocking where relevant, and water management programs.

A Macquarie Perch is held gently out of the water by human hands.
Macquarie perch. Source: Renae Ayres & Joanne Sharley

Future considerations

There are many future considerations that must be taken into consideration for improved catastrophe response and management. Kat Cheshire outlined four key considerations for future preparedness and response:

  1. Continue to develop fit for purpose Native Fish Emergency Management Framework
  2. Ongoing program of emergency mitigation, preparation, response and recovery activities
  3. Improved collaboration with clarity about roles and responsibilities across all stakeholders
  4. Undertake a strategic and evidence-based prioritisation of freshwater fish species

For more engaging content from the Native Fish Forum 2024, click here.

Social changes

Over time, the human relationship to water has changed and evolved. Our relationship to water in Australia, and other settler colonial states, is informed by the assumption that modern water has a singular material existence and that claims to it ‘can or must be made in the constitutional language of the state’ (Schmidt, 2014). We often think of ourselves as separate to nature, rather than a core part of it. This idea can cause modern water management to become ‘antisocial’ in the sense that nature often takes the blame for catastrophic events, overlooking the human aspects (Linton, 2014).

Modern water is in crisis because of its attempts to separate and remove the social from water (Jackson and Head, 2020). Fish are a culturally and socially uniting part of our waterways and the perfect mascot for change. With the increased likelihood of catastrophic events in our waterways, we must begin to stress the importance of social and cultural connections to water to be better prepared for future events.


Australia’s mass fish kills as a crisis of modern water: Understanding hydrosocial change in the Murray-Darling Basin – Sue Jackson and Lesley Head

What Is Water?: The History of a Modern Abstraction – Jamie Linton

Historicising the Hydrosocial Cycle – Jeremy J. Schmidt

Featured image: Australian Smelt

Source: Michael Hammer

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