Fish Barriers

Diadromous fish in Mackay and Whitsundays face serious transit challenges.

Mackay Whitsunday Fish Barrier Prioritisation Report

Diadromous fish move between the fresh and saltwater environments for some aspect of their lifecycle. The movement of Diadromous fish along our waterways is considered crucial to their life cycle and breeding patterns. Barriers such as dams, weirs, culverts, bed level crossings and causeways were stunting the growth of key species for commercial and recreational fishers. These structures have been built throughout the state for a variety of purposes such as irrigation supply, flow gauging and regulation, on-farm stock watering and irrigation supply, urban and industrial supply, flow management and flood control, prevention of tidal incursion, road crossings or simply for urban beautification and recreation facilities (Marsden et al. 2003).

Important recreational and commercial species such as barramundi, sea mullet, mangrove jack, tarpon, jungle perch, long-finned eels all migrate between the two different habitats. By enabling connectivity to each species preferred habitat, you are increasing their numbers. In Mackay-Whitsunday there are 48 freshwater fish species and half of those are ‘diadromous’, where they migrate between freshwater and inshore marine habitats to complete their life cycle– they are a truly migratory species and need to transit between freshwaters and the sea, at various stages of their life cycle, including to breed. Queensland’s two most important and iconic in-shore commercial net species, barramundi and sea mullet (Williams, 2002) require unimpeded access between freshwater and estuarine habitats to maintain sustainable populations (Mallen-Cooper, 2000).

Breaking down the barriers, the latest report

The updated report identifies Stafford’s Crossing (O’Connell River). Vitanza Road (Saltwater Creek), Marklands Wetlands, Flaggy Rock and Andromache weirs, and many others as top priority for remediation. The next step is fixing the highly ranked barriers to improve fish movement and habitat availability.

Download report

Fish movements within the river system

Native fish, such as barramundi, swim up the creeks as small juveniles and then use that safe habitat to find plentiful food away from predators. They may stay there more than a year before they grow big enough to swim back downstream and, as bigger fish, prosper in the major estuaries opening into the sea and spawn. If those juveniles are blocked from migrating upstream, they must instead take their chances among the bigger predators downstream and are much less likely to grow to adulthood. One study on a creek in the area showed about one barramundi heading upstream per hour. Multiply that by the number of hours in a wet season, and the number of creeks in the region, and the total fish affected becomes significant. Barriers impact fish communities in many ways, some barriers such as high dams form complete blockages, whereas other structures such as culverts present partial or temporary barriers, restricting passage during particular flow events (e.g. small, medium or high flows). Even small vertical drops downstream of road crossings and culvert aprons (>200 mm) is enough to form barriers for many fish, particularly juvenile and small-bodied species. The swimming abilities of fish play a critical part in understanding the effects of barriers. Physiology, size, developmental stage and morphology all influence the ability of fish to ascend past barriers (Koehn and Crook, 2013). Generally, juvenile (Rodgers et al., 2014) and small-bodied fish (Domenici, 2001) possess weaker swimming abilities than larger adult fish. Pertinently, many juvenile diadromous species undertake significant upstream migrations into critical nursery habitats, and less obvious barriers such as culverts and pipes can create velocities in excess of the swimming abilities of many species.

Fish migration in the Mackay Whitsunday region

Fish migration in the Mackay Whitsunday region is intrinsically linked to large seasonal variations in the annual hydrological regime. The annual ‘wet season’ increases streamflow conditions and creates an abundance of transitional wetland habitats and the largest king and spring tides also occur at this time of year. Weaker swimming ‘young of the year’ diadromous species such as barramundi and tarpon have evolved life history migration strategies to coincide with the increased summer flow conditions and higher tides. They utilise these favourable conditions to enter into and out of inter-tidal habitats before migrating upstream into low ordered streams and lowland wetlands. The cumulative impact of a series of barriers along streams has the ability to reduce upstream fish diversity, particularly diadromous species, and in some instances may cause localised extinctions upstream of the barrier (Bunn and Arthington, 2002). Therefore, the amount of connected in-stream habitat from the tidal interface upstream to the first barrier is extremely important. Simply, the greater the amount of connected in-stream habitat, the greater the diversity and abundance of diadromous species resulting in better condition fish communities.

Wetland Barriers

A total of 773 wetlands were mapped for this project. Of these, 291 were classed as ‘off-stream’ with no connection to the stream network used in the prioritisation. Primarily these represented irrigation storages, which water was pumped into to maintain levels. Only five off-stream wetlands were natural. Off stream wetlands were catalogued and attributed size and water permanence information but did not contribute further to the FBP. Of the 9,379 potential fish barriers, 596 were associated with regional wetlands. These were mostly associated with artificial or modified wetlands where the stream channel had been impounded to increase water storage capacity. Only 24 potential barriers were located on natural wetlands.

The on-stream wetlands ranged in size from 3,000 ha. Larger sized wetlands generally represented major water storage dams (e.g., Peter Faust, Teemburra and Kinchant dams) or ponded pastures (e.g., Tedlands, Marklands or Goorganga wetlands). It should be noted that only wetlands which were associated with fish barriers were assessed in this project. The region contains numerous expansive mangrove and salt marsh wetlands and several large freshwater wetlands which were not affected by barriers to fish movement. Water permanence (refuge potential) also varied considerably amongst the wetlands. Again, the larger water storages returned the highest and most expansive areas of permanent water. Notably, there were several smaller wetlands which recorded relatively large areas of permanent water. Ponded pastures, which represented the largest wetland coverage, contained a relatively small area of permanent water. Within these complexes, the more permanent areas tended to correspond with existing creek channels

The Mackay Whitsunday Fish Barrier Prioritisation Report 2015

This report found fish in the Mackay Whitsunday area face up to 3974 potential barriers that prevent, delay or obstruct fish migration as they attempt to migrate across our region, leaving no aquatic ‘highway’ to move along. This is the first comprehensive fish barrier prioritisation study conducted locally. If fish movement continues to be blocked, it could lead to a serious decline in the native fish population long-term. Barriers that prevent fish connectivity also have an adverse impact on our local fisheries’ productivity and create environmental conditions favourable for invasive fish species – for example, tilapia. It is critical that works are undertaken to improve conditions for local fish.

From the 3974 fish barriers the report identified, the Mackay Whitsundays ‘Top 40’ most important fish barriers where identified. Barriers where the environmental benefits stack up best against the cost of a solution are rated most highly. The highest priority sites that show the most potential for effective outcomes, as well as value for money were included in this “Top 40” list. These sites are where attention and investment dollars need to be focused to build appropriately designed fishways, remove barriers and really start to improve life for our local fish. The report has named the “Top 40 barriers” for consideration by authorities, such as councils and government departments.

Highest priority waterways recommended for immediate fish passage works includee the O’Connell River, Flaggy Rock Creek, Cedar Creek, Marion Creek, Sandy Creek, Constant Creek, St Helens Creek, Jolimont Creek and Blackrock Creek.

By rebuilding fish passage at these sites, extensive areas of fish habitat will be opened up to migratory fish species. This is an important first step to ensure we keep genetic diversity and maintain healthy fish populations in Mackay Whitsunday waterways moving forward.
Download 2021 report

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Carlos Bueno

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