Richmond River fish kill at Moore Park, Old Grevillia earlier this year. A combination of lack of water, heat and deoxygenated water.
Richmond River fish kill at Moore Park, Old Grevillia earlier this year. A combination of lack of water, heat and deoxygenated water.

Fires could lead to floods and fish kill

IF THIS drought ends with a flood, as many do, the Richmond River is in line for another round of massive fish kills, according to retired commercial fisher John Gallagher.

“I’m a retired fourth-generation commercial fisher and proud of my achievements,” he said.

“My father and his father could plan their activities and income a long way ahead, given their knowledge of the river, weather patterns and relationships with the rest of the community.

“How things have changed and how quickly people forget!”

During the 2001 and 2008 floods many hundreds of tonnes of fish were trapped and suffocated by water stripped of its oxygen after the deadly contents of backed-up drainage channels were released into the river.

Twenty-five kilometres of the Richmond were lined with rotting carcasses and Ballina Council removed fifty tonnes of dead fish from the Ballina Quays canals alone.

“The fish kills almost brought this area to a standstill,” Gallagher said.

“Businesses right through the Richmond catchment were affected, Ballina in particular. Flights to and from the area were reduced or cancelled, motels and caravan parks did it tough.

“A young bloke from the DPI, who is still around, manned the phones and responded to the many calls as to the river’s condition.

“It was closed for several months on each occasion.

“During and following those two events, the newspapers and TV were choked with community screams for action.

“Politicians and local councils of the day promised all kinds of action and fixes that would ensure these events would never happen again, or at least not to the same level.

“We have always had fish kills, my grandfather told me, but they were nothing like we saw on these two occasions.

“Ten years on and nothing has happened apart from some good work that OzFish Ballina is doing, but they can’t do it all on their own. How quickly we forget!

“The Coastal Management Plan, drawn up in 2011, which required $16 million to do its thing, went absolutely nowhere.

“This plan was supposed to address acid run-off and blackwater coming from drained swamps.

“Apart from some recent work started by OzFish and Rous County Council to the Keith Hall drains, nothing has happened across the rest of the drainage system.”

The drains largely remain closed and with the extreme dry, the mixture behind the closed floodgates is now breaking down and will result in monosulfidic black ooze being exported after the first heavy rains, John says.

Now was the time to open floodgates to ensure that there is a gentle mingling with tidal river water so that the effects of the blackwater are gradually diluted, rather than belching out into the floodwaters in a toxic cloud.

Tests have shown that one litre of blackwater has the chemical potential to strip all of the oxygen from up to 10,000L of river water.

“The University of New England Eco Health Card (much of the Mid-Richmond received an “F” rating) was another wake-up call in 2015,” Gallagher said.

“Have any of the real issues mentioned in that report been addressed? Short answer, no.

“When the drought eventually breaks, and it will, this catchment could well see monumental environmental issues because we have failed to do anything.

“Tonnes and tonnes of dead fish will rot on the banks of the Richmond River again.

“We, the community, need to act now before another fish kill of the magnitude of 2001 and 2008 occurs.”