The Critically Endangered Species File: Murray Cod
By Sean Crawley
Each edition of SHIFT presents one species of life that is classified as critically endangered, Homo sapiens excluded. By definition, whether it be by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), or your nation state’s environmental governance structure such as the Department of the Environment in Australia, critically endangered means that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.
Species: Maccullochella peelii
Range: Found in the freshwater clear streams, turbid rivers and billabongs of the Murray-Darling River basin in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia
- Overfishing, commercially (particularly in the mid-1800s) and recreationally
- De-snagging of riverways
- Water quality and quantity
- Introduced species
- Dams and weirs
Ngurunderi, an aboriginal Dreamtime figure, while searching for his two wives that had run off from him, chased a giant fish called Ponde with a spear. As Ponde was fleeing Ngurunderi, the giant fish widened the creek, causing it to become a river, and created the tributaries and billabongs, thus forming the landscape of the first peoples of the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia. When Ngurunderi finally speared Ponde he cut it up and created new species of fish that dwell both in the river and out to sea.
The aboriginal people along the Murray-Darling River system have existed in the area for tens of thousands of years. Prior to European settlement the large native cod was a major food source for these peoples. Its abundance, duly noted by the first Europeans, indicates that the harvesting of this fish as a food source, up to this point in time, was done sustainably. Sadly it is little surprise that this abundance was exploited by the European invaders who viewed Australia as a land of resources free for the taking.
There once was a man who caught a Murray Cod so large that when he gutted it inside he found, amongst other things, a foal. The fish was too big to simply eat so he stuffed it and mounted it on the wall of the local Hotel for all to see his great achievement. The foal, however, was alive – the man raised it, and lo and behold it went on to win the Melbourne Cup. In those days first prize was the largest watermelon grown in the district. The man took the watermelon home and it was also too large to simply eat, so he made a dog kennel from it.
The contrast of the two fish tales above serves as an illustration of how our stories reflect our beliefs and attitudes about the relationship between humans and the land. The creation tales of the aboriginal people of Australia engender deep respect for the land and a connection to all its creatures. The second story, typical of boastful invaders from another continent, glorifies the modern western tradition of man conquering nature as ‘his’ God-given right.
In response to the critical situation facing the Murray Cod, conservation efforts have included such measures as: improvement of water flows, restoring habitat, provision of pathways for fish movement, establishing aquatic reserves, management of introduced fish species and regulation of both commercial and recreational fishing. The Murray-Darling River system resides within the jurisdiction of four different State Governments and is a resource for many major industries and diverse interest groups. The resulting bun fight and bureaucratic nightmare has, to date, essentially failed to clean up the mess created since European settlement.
The culture and the stories of indigenous peoples, from Australia and other continents, provide a narrative that underpins a more sustainable approach to living as it recognises the interdependence of all members of an ecosystem. As long as modern culture continues to see humans as separate to – and having dominion over – the intricate web of life on earth, the demise of the Murray Cod and many other life forms will render the predictions of a sixth mass extinction event a reality.
Which story will you tell the children, number 1 or number 2?