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Like freeing “freshwater rabbits”: Alarm as government pours trout in troubled waters

Despite their threat to native fish populations, state governments’ continue to fund the release of an invasive species, Brendan Kearns reports.

Like freeing “freshwater rabbits”: Alarm as government pours trout in troubled waters

Brown trout are an invasive species threatening Australian natives. Photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr

Story by Brendan Kearns
 

Last year, the Victorian government released over 1.1 million recognised environmental pests into dams, lakes and reservoirs.

These pests are brown and rainbow trout, popular among recreational fishers but seriously threatening to Australian native species. This year, the government plans to release some 1.2 million.

The Victorian Fisheries Authority plans to release 50,000 rainbow trout into Blue Rock Lake in Gippsland this year. Photo: Diggers2004

The Victorian Fisheries Authority plans to release 50,000 rainbow trout into Blue Rock Lake in Gippsland this year. Photo: Diggers2004

Millions of dollars are given to the Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA) to fund the breeding and stocking of these invasive fish. Not only do recreational fishers pay for their stocking through their license fees, but government programs like the $96 million “Go Fishing and Boating Plan” means all taxpayers are contributing to this enterprise, whether they like it or not.

One of Australia’s most experienced water experts doesn’t like it at all. “What the government is doing is breeding freshwater rabbits … and putting them back into the streams,” says David Papps, who managed the water in the Murray Darling Basin between 2012 and 2018 for national authority, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder.

“[Y]our taxes [pay] to drive native fish extinct.”

Introduced trout are carnivorous and predatory. They eat small fish, devour tadpoles, and threaten other native fish species by competing for habitat and food.

The rabbit analogy is useful, but not the whole story. Rabbit populations are actively suppressed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act because they degrade land, costing Australia over $200 million each year in agricultural profits.

Trout, on the other hand, are bred and released as they contribute to the $11 billion generated annually in Australia’s recreational fishing industry. They are not listed as a threatening process in the EPBC Act despite it listing fish that are threatened by trout as critically endangered.

It should be noted that the VFA’s programs release trout into lakes, reservoirs, and dams, not rivers and creeks. Trout can swim though, so they are more than able to migrate into nearby rivers. The VFA promotes several rivers as “hot spots for catching trout”.

Trout are “hugely mobile” says independent researcher Simon Kaminskas.

“If you put them in a lake in the winter spawning season, they’ve got a very strong urge to make their way upstream.”

The swan galaxias is one of many species endangered by invasive trout. Photo: Bruce Deagle

The swan galaxias is one of many species endangered by invasive trout. Photo: Bruce Deagle

The fish threatened by trout include 15 species of galaxiids, little fish named for their shimmering, star-like appearance. Most urgently at risk is the Yalmy galaxias which six environmental bodies, including the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA), recently urged state and federal governments to take action to save in a joint statement.

Alongside the Maugean skate, an ancient fish endangered by salmon fishing in Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour, the Yalmy galaxias holds the unenviable title of the first potential extinction under the current federal Labor government. This is despite Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek’s bold pledge of no new extinctions.

“The Australian government is on the brink of breaking their promise… as the Yalmy galaxias, a native fish in East Gippsland, is on the verge of disappearing forever,” says Jack Gough, advocacy director at the Invasive Species Council. “It may already be too late.”

Minister Tanya Plibersek made a bold pledge of no new extinctions. Photo: DCCEEW

Minister Tanya Plibersek made a bold pledge of no new extinctions. Photo: DCCEEW

Asked what the Government plans to do to abate the threat from invasive trout, a spokesperson for Minister Plibersek referred The Citizen to her previous comments.

“The government is investing in projects to help galaxiid species survive and thrive for our kids and grandkids.”

A 2023 study by researcher Simon Kaminskas, published by the CSIRO, found that invasive trout also threaten large-bodied native fish like the Murray cod, Macquarie perch, and silver perch. That study observed that “continual stocking” of brown and rainbow trout is “incompatible with the survival of large-bodied native fish species.”

The Federal and the Victorian governments are funding programs aimed at preserving native fish species. These programs include captive breeding programs, trout-free refuges, translocations, and feral and invasive species eradication.

But while governments fund programs to protect galaxiids or to breed Macquarie perch, the Victorian government continues to invest in a process that threatens these species: the stocking and release of invasive trout.

The VFA also campaigns to increase participation in fishing with “School holiday trout stocking” of rainbow trout. The program is designed to “get more people fishing, more often” by teaching children how to fish using an invasive species.

Invasive rainbow trout predate on small fish like the two-spined blackfish. Photo: Simon Kaminskas

Invasive rainbow trout predate on small fish like the two-spined blackfish. Photo: Simon Kaminskas

Asked about its funding trout stocking, a spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action said in a written comment: “We’re actively combating the decline of Victoria’s native plants and animals through the landmark 20-year Biodiversity plan, backed by the Government’s record investment of $582 million since 2014 to safeguard the state’s one-of-a-kind natural environment.

“As part of this, the Victorian government has invested $2.7 million in a new conservation hatchery at Snobs Creek to produce hatchlings of threatened aquatic species.”

Brown trout were first introduced to Australia in 1864, and rainbow trout 30 years later. Their proliferation was supported by Acclimatisation Societies, which also introduced pests like rabbits and foxes, to make Australia more European so colonists felt more at home.

“It was a reflection of the time that this strange landscape, that was so unfamiliar and so hostile in the eyes of white settlers, needed to be made more like England,” says Papps.

Towns like Adaminaby, in NSW, have built an identity around trout fishing. Photo: Mattinbgn

Towns like Adaminaby, in NSW, have built an identity around trout fishing. Photo: Mattinbgn

They have since become an icon of Australian fishing; towns like Adaminaby, a small NSW town near the Snowy Mountains, have built an identity and economy around the fish.

While there was little to no consideration of the environmental impacts of trout at the time of introduction, the science is now clear about the effects of invasive trout on Australian native species and experts are asking for change.

Trout fishing is a “minor recreational pursuit, mostly by white men” that is threatening species with extinction, says Papps.

“It’s unscientific, it’s unethical, it’s wrong, it needs to be stopped.”

The joint statement from six Australian environmental groups called for the establishment of trout-free havens to protect galaxias species and for the development of a national Invasive Fish Action Plan that lists trout as a threatening process.

“Immediate action to save the Yalmy galaxias and short-term action to protect other at-risk galaxias species are essential if Australia is to meet the zero extinctions pledge,” the statement reads, signed by organisations including the Invasive Species Council, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and the NSW Nature Conservation Council, as well as the VNPA.

“Keeping this pledge requires a committed, collaborative national effort to abate the threat of invasive trout.”

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