‘The river has been destroyed’: expert says agriculture has overshadowed science in the Murray-Darling Basin

<span>Dead fish in the Darling-Baaka River in 2023. Current and former NSW Fisheries staff say they are frustrated at the degradation of major river systems.</span><span>Photograph: Otis Filley/The Guardian</span>
Dead fish in the Darling-Baaka River in 2023. Current and former NSW Fisheries staff say they are frustrated at the degradation of major river systems.Photograph: Otis Filley/The Guardian

One of Australia’s most respected native fish experts says scientists working within the New South Wales government are discouraged from speaking to the media, resulting in “a loss of honesty and accuracy” in reporting by departments.

Dr Stuart Rowland, a retired principal research scientist who worked for NSW Fisheries for 36 years and remains a mentor to scientists in the agency, says there is a conflict within the Department of Primary Industries between fisheries and agricultural interests which makes it difficult for the former to speak openly about the health of the Murray-Darling River system and causes of ecological disasters including the 2023 Menindee fish kills.

Even though there are “very good scientists and managers in Fisheries, their voice is often not heard”, Rowland says.

Related: ‘Bracing for another fish kill’: locals sound the alarm as water quality drops at Menindee

“Even if there are internal scientists and managers who are aghast at what’s happened with the river, they can’t really express it to the media,” he says. “It is up to retired scientists like me, who don’t have an affiliation directly with the government, to speak their minds.”

Guardian Australia has spoken to a number of current and former NSW Fisheries staff who say they are frustrated at the degradation of major river systems, the conflict within the department and limits on speaking to the media, but none were willing to speak publicly.

Rowland says there are “conflicts between fisheries and agriculture” that have had “significant ramifications” for the Darling-Baaka River and are leading to the “extinction of the river’s unique aquatic ecosystem”.

Rowland says research by NSW Fisheries staff has for decades warned of the cumulative impact of agriculture on the Darling-Baaka, including a 2003 report of the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee which declared the lowland catchment an “endangered ecological community”. Rowland was a member of that committee.

“Environmental degradation has continued, species have been lost, there have been massive fish kills [and] the river has been destroyed,” Rowland says.

“If the state government truly valued our fish and rivers, NSW Fisheries should be an independent agency. This would reduce intradepartmental conflict between fisheries and agriculture and enable fisheries managers and scientists to provide independent and frank advice to the minister and government.”

His comments come as Menindee residents reported another fish kill involving dozens more dead native fish, including golden perch, as well as small numbers of dead or struggling carp and bony herring in Lake Wetherell. The NSW government says DPI is investigating the cause.

Dissolved oxygen levels have been critically low in the lower Darling-Baaka since November. WaterNSW this month announced an oxygenation trial in the Darling River at Menindee, which it hopes will reduce the risk of large-scale fish deaths.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industries says fisheries is located in the same department as agriculture in five Australian jurisdictions, and that work undertaken by NSW Fisheries is guided by the Fisheries Management Act 1994 and the Marine Estate Management Act 2014.

“The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) provides factual information and advice based on the best available science to Government,” they said.

“DPI strive to achieve the best outcomes for the health of fish and fish habitats, and our advice is guided by our engagement with stakeholders and the best available science.”

Fish kills with ‘PR narratives’

Dr Matt Landos, the director of Future Fisheries Veterinary Service and adjunct associate professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences, worked for NSW Fisheries between 2000 and 2005 as the veterinary officer for aquatic animal health.

He recalls an incident in 2001 when he “naively” spoke to a local journalist to provide information about a fish kill in the Richmond River in the northern rivers region in which millions of fish died.

After his interview went to air, Landos said he was “swiftly reprimanded” and “subsequent media releases talked down the size and impact of the kills”.

Even though scientists are supposed to be independent, there’s often pressure to stay silent on some research results

Dr Don Driscoll

Instead it was called a “natural event”.

“Only much later did research show the role of drainage and flood-gating for agriculture as a clear cause, which to this day remain largely uncorrected,” he says.

Landos says he has observed “non-scientific issue managers take control” after major environmental issues such as fish kills “and use PR narratives to shape the message into something they believe is palatable”.

“Scientific knowledge and accuracy are victims of this process,” he says. “The public gets to hear the messages the department wants to tell them.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industries says that when media requests are received, “DPI identifies the most appropriate spokesperson to ensure factual and coordinated information is provided. This is outlined in the Department of Regional NSW media guidelines.”

Dr Don Driscoll, a professor of terrestrial ecology at Deakin University and chair of the Ecological Society of Australia’s academic freedom working group, says he is aware of pressure to not speak publicly about certain research topics, “particularly research that might paint the current government in a poor light”.

“Even though scientists are supposed to be independent, there’s often pressure to stay silent on some research results – and those pressures are much higher for scientists working within government or within industry,” he says.

The ESA documents science suppression in Australia. A survey of 220 ecologists between October 2018 and February 2019 found that approximately half of the respondents who worked for a government agency had been prohibited from public communication about their research.

Driscoll says the survey showed that some suppression resulted from self-censorship, where individuals chose not to speak out because they are afraid of the consequences, to a more direct edict.

“There’s still a really strong culture of suppressing science and limited sharing of information within the public service,” he says.

He says there should be changes in the legislation and codes of practice governing how the public service operates to allow scientists to share research and findings.

“The environment would be much better off and our democracy would be stronger if we were able to share information about the state of our environment freely. Then people can vote after being fully informed about how government is managing the environment,” he says.

A spokesperson for the NSW agriculture minister, Tara Moriarty, says the government “was elected to bring better decision-making and transparency to government in this state and that is what we are delivering across primary industries and regional development”.