Thousands of Fish Die in 3rd Mass Death in Australian River

CANBERRA, Australia—Hundreds of thousands of fish died on Jan. 28, in the 3rd mass death in recent weeks on a stretch of a major Australian river that local officials blamed on drought but critics said at least partly stemmed from water mismanagement.

The latest deaths began overnight in the Darling River near the township of Menindee in western New South Wales state. That’s the same area where hundreds of thousands of fish were found floating dead in early January and shortly before Christmas.

A video that was posted to Facebook on Jan. 7, shows local farmers holding the carcasses of native Murray cod went viral, highlighting the environmental catastrophe that was unfolding in the region.

In the video, Menindee locals Rob McBride and Dick Arnold were filmed standing on the banks of the choking Darling River with one saying he “feels like crying.”

NSW independent MP Jeremy Buckingham personally visited Menindee on Jan. 10 to highlight the mass fish deaths that had occurred in the river system.

Buckingham posted his own video to social media to raise awareness about the fish deaths and poor state of the rivers.

“Australia, you need to hang your head in shame. Look at this,” Buckingham said, as he retched while holding a rotting fish.

Reason for 3rd Mass Death

Hot weather is suspected of causing algae to bloom, then cooler overnight temperatures caused the algae to die, which starved the water of oxygen.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian blamed the poor water quality on an extended drought that is gripping most of the state.

Minister for Regional Water Niall Blair said his department knew weather conditions were “terrible” and had deployed two solar-powered aerators in the Menindee region. The government bought 16 aerators to deploy in waterways around the state after the last mass fish death on Jan. 6-7.

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing that anyone has been able to point to—no scientist, no locals, no one has been able to point to anything else that could prevent something like this other than freshwater coming into the system and we just don’t have that,” Blair told reporters.

Menindee Regional Tourist Association president Rob Gregory, who operates river cruises, said governments had allowed farmers to take too much water from the river to irrigate over the last four years.

“Now we’ve got no reserve to flush the system and we’ve seen depleted oxygen due to blue-green algal bloom and this is the end result,” Gregory said.

“This is probably the last fish kill we’ll have because there’s nothing left to kill,” he added.

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s main river system. It winds across four states and produces a third of the nation’s food.

Menindee resident Graeme McCrabb said the fish deaths highlighted how the water basin’s water management plan “is failing the whole system.”

“There’s been $9.3 billion (13 billion AUD) of taxpayers’ money being spent here to end up with … an absolute mess,” McCrabb told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

With a federal election to be called before the end of May, opposition environment spokesman Tony Burke called for a scientific explanation for the latest fish deaths.

“The last river I was at was the Darling, where you can just see the ecological disaster that’s occurring,” Burke told reporters.

By Rod McGuirk

NTD reporter Mimi Nguyen Ly contributed to this report.

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