A shallow grave
None of the problems plaguing the Murray-Darling Basin are easy. But when you’re stuck at the end of the river, watching as politicians at home and further upstream squabble and bicker as plants and animals die around you, they’re made even harder to swallow. That has been the lot of David and Fiona Paton, the father/daughter scientist team from the University of Adelaide who have been monitoring the ecological health of South Australia’s Coorong for a combined four and a half decades.
“This past summer I’ve seen groups of two or three shorebirds, instead of the hundreds, sometimes thousands that used to forage over the shallow mudflats. In recent years we’ve been finding dead and emaciated shorebirds, clearly starving,” says David.
Fiona has seen a similar downturn in numbers of the threatened Fairy Tern, “At the turn of the century there were 600-700, now we count around 350 in the whole Coorong, well shy of the numbers counted in the 1980s by David, when around 1,500 Fairy Terns called the southern Coorong home.”
They both lay much of the blame on Australia’s failure to prevent over-extraction of water from the Murray-Darling Basin and mismanagement of the water that does reach the mouth. David says the Coorong is not a complicated system. “In the Southern Lagoon, there is just one key aquatic plant, one key invertebrate, one small, salt-tolerant fish. They support thousands of waterbirds and shorebirds—especially during drought. In spring, water levels need to be maintained or the aquatic plant fails to reproduce. No attention is given to this and so the southern Coorong and its critical food chain continues to deteriorate. Recent influxes of freshwater from adjacent farms have contributed to massive algae blooms, further changing the ecological character of this lagoon—the birds are left with nowhere to go.”
David says that the extraction of water upstream in both SA and interstate, has fundamentally changed the unique character of the Coorong. Changing the character of a Ramsar-listed wetland is contrary to our EPBC Act and our obligations under international migratory bird agreements. But nobody seems concerned. “Within our legislature there is no leadership, no enforcement, no oversight of these issues. They [politicians] continue to ignore advice to benefit vested interests.”
“The Coorong is the barometer—if we can’t fix fundamental issues here something is wrong. The bottom line is no one knows if there is anywhere else for the birds to go. It’s easy to point to changes along the rest of the flyway but we need to look at our own backyard too. Our failure to adhere to, implement and fund our own environment laws has meant that the very things they were designed to protect continue to decline,” David says. Fiona concludes, “It’s so frustrating to inherit a flawed system. I hope my generation can care for our unique biodiversity before it’s too late and show the moral compass sadly lacking at the moment.”
Photo: David & Fiona Paton by Hayley Merigot