Tantangara Creek, site of the Stocky galaxias. Photo credit: Mark Lintermans

Native Fish Recovery

What is being done,
and what can you do to help?

What is being done to help native fish in the Basin?

The state and territory governments all have initiatives and programs designed to improve native fish populations in the Basin. These state initiatives were coordinated and enhanced by the Murray-Darling Basin Native Fish Strategy (NFS), funded from 2003 to 2013, which contained a range of programs and measures to recover fish populations. The NFS had six driving actions to achieve its goal of returning native fish populations to 50 per cent of pre-European settlement levels over 50 years. These driving actions included management, research and investigation, and community engagement interventions involving:
  • rehabilitating fish habitat;
  • protecting fish habitat;
  • managing riverine structures;
  • controlling alien fish species;
  • protecting threatened fish species; and
  • managing fish translocation and stocking.
A new program of integrated fish management commenced in 2021 with the release of the Native Fish Recovery Strategy (NFRS). The NFRS is a joint Australian Government initiative developed in partnership with Basin state governments, Aboriginal Nations and the wider community. It sets out a program of actions involving government, communities and industries across the Basin to ‘recover native fish for future generations’. The NFRS has a 30-year horizon to 2050, with three implementation stages of 10 years followed by major reviews. In the initial 10 years of the Strategy, a range of actions will be implemented across the Murray–Darling Basin, targeting four broad outcomes:
  • recovery and persistence of native fish;
  • threats to native fish are identified and mitigated;
  • communities are actively involved in native fish recovery;
  • recovery actions are informed by best available knowledge.

Learn more about the recovery reaches

Why have fish populations declined in the Murray–Darling Basin?

Various factors have contributed to the decline in native fish numbers over the period of European settlement, and the impacts of climate change are posing an additional significant risk to several species currently and into the future.
Learn More

What can you do to help?

Protect your riparian zones

Protection of the riparian zone helps to maintain a healthy aquatic environment. Riparian zones provide shade, instream cover (logs and branches) and the food source for aquatic invertebrates that in turn provide food for fish. A well-vegetated riparian zone also filters out sediment and chemicals such as fertilizers before they enter the stream. So, if you are camping or picnicking beside a stream, leave logs on the floodplain for fish to use and don’t cut down trees for firewood.

If you own a property that contains or fronts onto a waterway, actions that will assist fish populations include managing stock access to the riparian zone, minimizing runoff of agricultural chemicals such as herbicides and fertilizers, controlling invasive weeds and protecting wetland habitats. Get involved in local catchment and environmental activities such as Landcare and Waterwatch.

Brush up on your fishing habits

Fishing is a great way to spend time along a river, but be aware of the local fishing regulations, return threatened species to the water, and don’t keep more fish than you need. The use of live fish as bait can assist in the spread of unwanted alien species, so don’t use live fish as bait. Report fish kills and illegal fishing activity to your local fisheries department. This will assist in ensuring there are fish for our kids to catch as well.

Keeping aquarium fish is a popular hobby, but release of unwanted fish into waterways is a threat to native fish populations. Dispose of unwanted aquarium fish by returning them to a pet shop.

If you think you have found a fish species in the Basin that is not in this book, or if you have found a species outside the geographical range indicated, take a photo if possible, and please contact your local fisheries authority. There are still many exciting discoveries to be made on the fish of the Basin, and you can provide vital information to enable better protection of native species, or early action to control alien species.  
An angler with a Murray cod. Photographer: Andy McGovern.
If you think you have found a fish species in the Basin that is not in this book, or if you have found a species outside the geographical range indicated, take a photo if possible, and please contact your local fisheries authority. There are still many exciting discoveries to be made on the fish of the Basin, and you can provide vital information to enable better protection of native species, or early action to control alien species.  

New South Wales: Fishers Watch – 1800 043 536
Victoria: Environment Protection Authority – 1300 EPA VIC (1300 372 842)
South Australia: Fishwatch Hotline – 1800 065 522
Queensland: Department of Environment and Science – 1300 130 372
Australian Capital Territory: Access Canberra – 13 22 81

The Basin Plan, Water for the Environment, and the Basin-wide Environmental Watering Strategy

The Murray Darling Basin Plan is linked to the passing of the Commonwealth Water Act in 2007, where governments recognised the need for a plan to manage our water carefully and protect the Basin’s water resources for future generations. The intent of the Basin Plan is to support management of the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin in a way that optimises economic, social, cultural, and environmental outcomes. The Basin Plan was developed over several years, refined following consultation with stakeholders, and adopted in 2012.

The key function of the Basin Plan is to set the amount of water that can be taken from the Basin each year for human use, while leaving enough for rivers, lakes and wetlands and the plants and animals that depend on them.

Under the Basin Plan, ‘water recovery’ is fundamental for the recovery of our waterways and native fish. Water is recovered through improved efficiency, new irrigation infrastructure and water purchases. Some of this recovered water supports basic river flows and functions (e.g. keeps the rivers flowing, provides connectivity, allows nutrients to be dispersed), and some is allocated by federal and state environmental water holders to increase flows to certain areas to improve the health of our rivers, wetlands and floodplains. Hence the term ‘water for the environment’.  

The Basin-wide Environmental Watering Strategy helps guide the planning and delivery of water for the environment, builds on the environmental objectives in the Basin Plan, and sets out the expected environmental improvements. For native fish, the Basin-wide Environmental Watering Strategy’s broad objectives are:
  • no loss of native fish species currently present within the Basin
  • improved population structure of key fish species through regular recruitment
  • increased movement of key fish species
  • expanded distribution of key fish species and populations in both the northern and southern Basin
  • improved community structure of key fish species
The Basin-wide Environmental Watering Strategy is complemented by State government plans for each catchment.  The Basin Plan also requires the preparation of Basin Annual Environmental Watering Priorities. These annual priorities guide the prioritisation of water by environmental water holders, based upon the environmental conditions at the time.

For native fish, the Basin Annual Environmental Watering Priorities suggest that water for the environment be used to improve movement opportunities and improve fish habitat, helping fish to complete their life cycles. For example, in the wet conditions of 2022/23, water for the environment was used to support movement of fish from areas of good recruitment into areas that had suffered from long-term drought, poor water quality and bushfire impacts.

Water for the environment has helped native fish in many ways. Between 2013-14 and 2019-20, the MDBA reported that 130 events - totalling 3,756 gigalitres of water for the environment - were delivered for the primary purpose of benefiting native fish. During the record-breaking drought of 2017-2020, water for the environment was used to top up waterholes and replenish food and oxygen in the waters of the Barwon River to help fish survive.

During less severe times water for the environment is used to help native fish breeding success in systems where flows do not follow a natural pattern. Water releases have been provided to improve seasonal breeding cues, food and habitat, and connectivity between habitats. Water for the environment, complements other management techniques like fishways, resnagging, and habitat improvements to improve native fish populations, including threatened species.

Restoring Fish Passage

The Sea to Hume fishway program has restored fish passages from the Murray Mouth in South Australia to the Hume Dam on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. It includes 19 fishways designed to help native fish species navigate major weirs and barrages on the River Murray. A range of different fishway designs were constructed, providing fish passage for fish from 20 mm to > 1 m . The installation of these fishways allows the fish to migrate upstream for breeding, safety and to establish new territories. They also help in the management of invasive species like carp, with specialised separation structures in use at several of the fishways.
Torrumbarry Weir fishway in the Murray River, where a system of compartments allow fish to migrate through the weir.
Torrumbarry Weir fishway (Murray River). Photographer: Ivor Stuart (CSU).

Monitoring fish and river health

The Sustainable Rivers Audit (SRA) which was undertaken from 2004-2013 provided a clearer picture of the health of our rivers, their fish populations, and how they were responding to management activities. More than 500 fish sites across the MDB were sampled every three years in each of the Basin’s 23 river valleys, greatly improving knowledge of the distribution and relative abundance. This information on fish (along with other environmental indicators such as aquatic macroinvertebrates and hydrology) was used as part of a standardised assessment to compare river health across the Basin. In 2015 the SRA was replaced with the Murray–Darling Basin Fish Survey (MDBFS), a program that annually monitors fish at 105 fixed sites across the 23 river valleys of the Basin. The MDB Fish Survey continues to provide important information on the status and response of the Basin’s fish populations. Fish health is scored on a number of factors including the abundance of native and alien fish captured at each site (both weight and numbers), how many of the expected native species were present, and the number of recruits of native species (a measure of breeding and survival success).

Multiple interventions and actions required to recover native fish

While single interventions, such as environmental flows, alien fish control and habitat restorations will improve fish communities, the most significant positive impact will occur through a combination of interventions which address a range of problems. It is only with a multifocal and integrated native fish program that recovery of fish populations in the Basin is achievable. So we need to tackle all the problems, not just the easy ones, and this involves allocation of environmental flows, habitat rehabilitation, abatement of cold-water pollution, improved land-use management practices, provision of fish passage, addressing the impacts of a changing climate, and management of alien fish — in an integrated way.

Discover related content on the Finterest website, your home for stories about our Australian Freshwater Native Fish.

Since 2013, Finterest has been sharing great stories and information about the work being undertaken across Australia to bring back our native fish, particularly across the Murray-Darling Basin. It's a great source of inspiration and knowledge for anyone interested in Australian freshwater fish and native fish, and is updated with new stories regularly.
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