Throwing a lifeline to native fish stocks

The future of native fish species in Murray-Darling waterways will get a boost with assistance from Flinders University fish genomics experts.

The Molecular Ecology Lab at Flinders University has secured a $158,000 research contract from the NSW Department of Primary Industries funded via the Joint Venture Monitoring and Evaluation Program in collaboration with the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) jurisdictions.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a major investment in government water reform, with up to $12 billion committed to achieve environmental outcomes in the waterways of the MDB.

Every year more than 4.6 million freshwater native fish, mainly Murray cod and Golden perch, are stocked by government and private fish hatcheries in Murray-Darling system waterways and impoundments.

A key factor for assessing the outcomes of water management across the Basin is whether fish recruits detected through monitoring are a response to environmental watering or a result of fish stocking.

“There is currently no non-destructive way to distinguish stocked fish from wild fish,” says NSW Department of Primary Industries freshwater fish ecologist Dr Meaghan Duncan.

“The stocking of native fish represents a large confounding factor for monitoring and evaluation activities that are designed to assess if native fish outcomes from Basin Plan implementation are met,” she says.

To shore up monitoring, the Flinders University researchers will start the project by developing a suite of genetic techniques for parentage analyses of Murray cod and Golden perch.

The establishment of genetic techniques to identify stocked fish from wild-origin fish is the first stage of the Murray-Darling Basin Fisheries Genetic Resource Program.

“In subsequent stages, we plan to apply these techniques to identify if young-of-the-year fish collected from across the MDB are of wild origin or originate from stocking activities,” says Professor Luciano Beheregaray, director of the Molecular Ecology Lab at Flinders University’s College of Science and Engineering.

Additional stages of this long-term basin-wide program are expected to be implemented in late 2018 and in 2019.

These stages would expand the work to include genetic monitoring of six key fish species (including Silver perch, Trout cod, Macquarie perch and freshwater catfish) from across the Basin, allowing for greater alignment with the broader Basin Plan priorities.

Flinders University staff involved in the parentage technique project include research fellow Dr Chris Brauer, a Flinders alumnus with expertise in conservation genomics of MDB fishes.

Previously a team led by Flinders Australian Research Council Research Fellow Professor Beheregaray was instrumental in a project to successfully implement the full potential of DNA techniques to save freshwater species the Yarra pygmy perch (Nannoperca obscura) and southern pygmy perch (N. australis) from extinction in the lower Murray-Darling Basin in Australia.

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