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Migration patterns of fishes of the Blackwood River and relationships to groundwater intrusion

Beatty, S.J.ORCID: 0000-0003-2620-2826, McAleer, F. and Morgan, D.L. (2009) Migration patterns of fishes of the Blackwood River and relationships to groundwater intrusion. Murdoch University. Centre for Fish & Fisheries Research, Western Australia.

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The Blackwood River catchment is one of two in the Southwest Coast Drainage Division to house all eight freshwater fishes endemic to the region and is therefore of high conservation importance. However, salinisation of the upper catchment has led to substantial range reductions of freshwater species downstream to the largely forested region; where fresh groundwater intrusion by the Yarragadee and Leederville aquifers is greatest. This study represents the only long‐term and comprehensive monitoring of freshwater fish populations in the south‐west of Western Australia, and consisted of 27 monitoring events between October 2005 and September 2009; which provided information on spatial and temporal movement patterns and identified indicator species of adequate groundwater intrusion.

The overall key implication of this study is that it demonstrates, for the first time, that groundwater plays an important role in maintaining relictual fish fauna in a major river system of this region. This study identifies two species that are appropriate as indicators of river connectivity and in the setting and monitoring of Ecological Water Requirements (EWRs) for this river in light of groundwater extraction, increasing salinisation and reduced rainfall (and thus surface water run‐off and groundwater recharge) as a consequence of climate change.

The study specifically identifies Milyeannup Brook (one of two permanently flowing tributaries due to groundwater intrusion) as being of key conservation importance as it houses the only breeding population of the EPBC listed (Vulnerable) Balston’s Pygmy Perch Nannatherina balstoni, and also housed all the other freshwater fishes of the river which were shown to use the system to varying degrees. Microhabitat utilisation by this species within this system during baseflow conditions demonstrated the importance of pool habitats with the Balston’s Pygmy Perch found to only occupy the downstream <1600m of permanent habitat during March (baseflow). To maintain this baseflow population, it is crucial that this groundwater discharge is maintained in Milyeannup Brook.

In the main channel of the Blackwood River, the study found a strong relationship between the upstream movement of Freshwater Cobbler Tandanus bostocki through riffle zones and discharge during the baseflow period, i.e. March in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. The species was found to undergo large localised movements in the main channel of the Blackwood River that were variable both spatially and temporally. Movements during low flow periods (i.e. highest proportional contribution by groundwater to total flow) were best explained and highly correlated with amount of discharge. It is proposed these movements are probably related to feeding rather than spawning activity as large numbers of small, immature individuals (the study found the females of the species matured at ~172 mm Total Length (TL)) were recorded moving through the riffle zones. Furthermore, by examining the reproductive biology of the species, peak spawning was shown to occur from October to December (i.e. outside the baseflow period).

Subsequent modelling of upstream movements of Freshwater Cobbler over two riffle zones during the driest month (i.e. March) determined that the level of discharge and subsequent riffle depths that would preclude upstream passage by the species were 381.5 l/sec (0.18 m depth) and 101.9 l/sec (0.05 m depth), for the riffles downstream and upstream of the major groundwater discharge zone, respectively. The significance of riffle access to sustaining the population requires further research, however, it is the largest bodied fish of the river and obviously utilises these riffle habitats in large numbers during baseflow. Therefore, if baseflow discharge maintains adequate depth on these riffle zones such that this species is able to access them, then it could be assumed smaller bodied fishes could also access or negotiate them. It 3 is therefore proposed (along with ensuring the sustainability of the Balston’s Pygmy Perch in Milyeannup Brook) that this species should become an indicator of ecological river connectivity during baseflow and be incorporated in monitoring the adequacy of determined EWRs of the river. Furthermore, in terms of an ecological trigger, the rate of future groundwater extraction from the Leederville and Yarragadee Aquifers should not exceed that which will continue to enable this species to access these riffle zones during the baseflow period or lead to a reduction in the baseflow stream length in Milyeannup Brook.

These data represent a comprehensive baseline of fish communities in arguably one of the region’s most important river systems, and highlight the value in long term monitoring of a diverse range of aspects relating to the ecology of these fishes. These findings have considerable implication for setting and monitoring Ecological Water Requirements of this and other rivers in this region; particularly in light of regional groundwater extraction pressures and reduced rainfall due to predicted climate change.

Item Type: Report
Murdoch Affiliation: Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research
Series Name: Murdoch University Report to the Department of Water
Publisher: Murdoch University. Centre for Fish & Fisheries Research
Copyright: 2009 Murdoch University. Centre for Fish & Fisheries Research
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