Tiny freshwater Snowy Mountains fish faces extinction, environmentalists say

<span>The critically endangered Australian freshwater fish Yalmy galaxias.</span><span>Photograph: Invasive Species Council</span>
The critically endangered Australian freshwater fish Yalmy galaxias.Photograph: Invasive Species Council

Even on its best days, the Yalmy galaxias is hard to find. The small, native freshwater fish is only known to live in a couple of tributaries of the Snowy River in remote and mountainous East Gippsland.

It was last seen in March 2023, when a government survey found 20 survivors. Since then? Nobody knows.

Related: Invasive species lead driver of biodiversity loss in Australia – and feral cats have biggest impact, report finds

It is listed as critically endangered, but environment campaigners and scientists say there have been no further surveys, and officials have not drawn up a recovery plan to try to save it. It has prompted six organisations to write to the federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, and her counterparts in Victoria and New South Wales calling for change.

Jack Gough, the advocacy director with the Invasive Species Council, said the Yalmy galaxias was “on the verge of disappearing for ever”, and the Australian government was on the brink of failing to meet its target of zero new extinctions.

The Yalmy galaxias has a tubular and scaleless body marked by a lateral line, and rarely grows more than 7 centimetres in length. It has a unique swimming style, usually laying on the bottom of the river before darting rapidly forward.

Gough said the species was probably once widespread in the Snowy River system, but had been hit hard by droughts, bushfires that washed smothering sediment into rivers and predation from trout that had been introduced by recreational fishers. Seven were recovered for an attempted captive breeding program after the black summer bushfires, but six died.

“The yalmy may have survived in its last refuge due to water being warmer than trout prefer, but there is no barrier to trout moving there in cooler periods, or in floods, or being introduced by a fisher. The extinction of the Yalmy galaxias is almost guaranteed without urgent intervention,” he said.

“We are calling on the Australian and Victorian governments to mount an urgent rescue operation for the Yalmy galaxias, including a search for survivors and a new attempt at captive breeding.”

Related: Top environmental groups say some of Labor’s new laws could take conservation backwards

The yalmy is one of 15 species of galaxiid fish in NSW and Victoria that is considered at high risk of extinction by 2040. The six organisations, which include the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Biodiversity Council and three state-specific conservation groups, said the governments should find or create trout-free havens and undertake captive breeding for the galaxiid species, and develop a national invasive fish action plan.

The Biodiversity Council’s director, James Trezise, said the plight of the Yalmy galaxias highlighted the failure of national environment laws to stop major threats to critically endangered species.

The Albanese government last week said it would soon introduce legislation to create a national environment protection agency, to be known as Environment Protection Australia, but delayed a promised rewrite of the laws, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, until an unspecified date.

“We urgently need reforms to our national conservation planning system and a dramatic increase in investment to better tackle major threats and recover threatened species populations,” Trezise said.

Related: WA mining and media ‘naysayers’ spreading misinformation about nature reforms, Senate hears

In response, Plibersek said the government was investing in projects to help galaxiids species “survive and thrive for our kids and grandkids”, including establishing captive breeding programs, trout-free refuges, translocations, and the eradication of feral and invasive species.

She said she last year gave 14 galaxiid species greater protection under national environment law, and that conservation advice was “already in place to identify actions to support their recovery, including to mitigate major threats such as predation and competition from introduced fish”.

“Trout stocking is the responsibility of state and territory governments,” Plibersek said.

Gough said while it was true the government had taken steps to help some threatened species, much more needed to be done to save the Yalmy galaxias. “It could be nearly gone, and maybe it’s too late, but we should be throwing everything at it,” he said.