April 2019

The Nation Reviewed

The Murray–Darling’s dry mouth

By Jo Chandler
Scientists are witnessing the ecological collapse of South Australia’s Coorong

A tinnie materialises out of the blue, announcing itself with the shrill yowl of an outboard in a hurry to get home. Dr David Paton is in his usual position, riding the tiller like he could do it in his sleep. He drops the revs and noses into sandy shallows at Woods Well as his daughter Dr Fiona Paton and PhD student Hayley Merigot execute their own practised moves, packing up field kits and sliding into thigh-high water to guide the hull towards the shore.

The trio are red-eyed, flayed by sun, salt spray and sand whipped off surrounding dunes. After a pre-dawn start in Adelaide, almost three hours’ drive up the coast, they’ve spent the morning on a rocky island on the far side of the lagoon threading silver bands onto the skinny orange legs of fledgling fairy terns. This is a population David has logged through decades of freefall. Worldwide, there are fewer than 5000 of these tiny birds, which sport a striking black mullet over snow white feathers. In the mid ’80s, in the South Lagoon alone, their count was 1500; by 2000 it was 600–700; lately it’s 300–400. “The Coorong was their stronghold,” he says. “It’s one species that worries me immensely.”

An ecologist with the University of Adelaide, David routinely clocks up a hundred hours on the water overseeing the annual summer bird census of the Coorong wilderness, much of it adrift along the 110-kilometre length of its lagoons. Over 20 consecutive years, working methodically along 1-kilometre sectors, he and his team – Paton the Younger and Merigot are fixtures – have recorded 3,291,653 birds in the wetlands that are the last gasp of the Murray–Darling system. Here, some 2500 kilometres distant from its Queensland source, what remains of the flow diverts for one last wild meander down a blind alley between the mainland and the sandy ribbon of the Younghusband Peninsula before exiting into the Southern Ocean.

The Kurangk, as its Ngarrindjeri owners know it, forms a reverse estuary, with the lagoon at the southern end, furthest from the Murray mouth, fermenting a brew three times saltier than the sea. This would seem to be the makings of a hostile environment, and yet a trifecta of bespoke organisms – an aquatic plant (Ruppia tuberosa), a fish (smallmouth hardyhead) and an invertebrate (a chironomid, or midge) – have historically thrived, providing rich pickings for birdlife flocking in from around the nation and the globe. This wondrous habitat is recognised under the Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of International Importance, underwriting its preservation under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act).

It’s a wildscape that resists humans. Lovely, but unwelcoming. There’s something two dimensional about it, all length and breadth – horizons of sand, saltbush, sky and shallows – and penetrating to any depth requires determined effort. It’s a PR problem that preoccupies David, as popular concern may well be its last, slim hope. “It’s a terrible place to photograph,” he observes. “Just a narrow band of hills, a nice bit of blue water … blue sky … and you end up falling in love with it.”

Those who visit are mostly fisherfolk looking for a catch of Coorong mullet, and Storm Boy–inspired day-trippers searching out pelicans, terns and avocets, stints and swans, locals and migrants. In survey season, David and his spotters call out mantras of identity and behaviour, painstakingly itemised by scribes on data sheets: “13 shelduck resting, 2 foraging; 34 swan foraging, 10 resting; 1 Caspian tern foraging; 2 crested tern resting …” If a ripple in the ether raises a flock of banded stilt, veterans like David will scan the whorl of feathers, applying an expert calculus to tally the population over acres of pale sky.

These past three summers, this last bit of arithmetic is rarely required. There are simply not so many birds to count. Here, in the South Lagoon this January, surveyors could mostly count them on their fingers.

The Coorong has long been recognised as the barometer of the health of the Murray–Darling. As the damning Murray–Darling Basin Royal Commission into the system’s management recently observed, en route to excoriating authorities for maladministration, negligence and ignoring catastrophic risks of climate change, “it is a generally accepted truism that a river dies from the mouth”. So, as thousands of fish go belly up in New South Wales, it’s timely to check in on the Coorong, and no one knows it better than David. The ecology of these lagoons has been the obsession of his scientific life.

David is Old Adelaide, and his family has an ornithological lineage straddling generations. His grandfather was pathologist and naturalist Sir John Burton Cleland, for whom the city’s Cleland Wildlife Park is named. Cleland’s vast collection of bird skins informed the 12-volume Birds of Australia (1919–27), which is why David had a copy of the monumental work to explore as a boy. Some specimens are still held by the American Museum of Natural History. David’s mother – Cleland’s daughter – was a microbiologist who spent her downtime taking bird enthusiasts on field trips. His first visit to the Coorong was with her in 1968, aged 15. He set up mist nets in the scrub to capture, catalogue and release tiny terrestrial birds.

He met the girl who would be his wife, Penny, at a Coorong camp. “She used to sit outside my tent early in the morning … to make sure she didn’t miss out [on some bird-banding].” Their daughters, Fiona and Lydia, grew up spending summers with teams of students and volunteers, counting and banding birds, sifting the shallows for Ruppia tuberosa seeds and chironomid larvae, pulling pygmy possums and silky mice out of mammal traps. Next year, Fiona, also an ecologist, will take the tiller on much of her father’s work, when he retires. With a baby due in May, another generation will be baptised in the shallows of Coorong fieldwork, albeit too late to know what it was once like.

David received more than just a scientific pedigree from his forebear’s plain-speaking, unswerving Scottish stock. Having spent decades cataloguing the Coorong’s loss, he’s now contemplating suing the South Australian government for failing in its obligations to protect the lagoons. There’s a line in the recently reprised Storm Boy movie, he says, to the effect that “no one gives a damn about the birds”. He has a stronger take: “They don’t give a fuck about the birds. And you can use that word if you want to. They don’t. As far as they are concerned [the Coorong] is a bloody noose around their neck.”

On the shore at Woods Well, David notes a single curlew sandpiper, a few sharp-tailed sandpipers and, off to the east, a couple of dozen red-necked stints. All outfitted in nondescript dun plumage, these are nonetheless remarkable birds, flying in every year from the Siberian tundra to feast on the bounty of this perversely sparse ecology. In past years, David would have expected to find hundreds feeding along this sweep. But his records, and a handful that pre-date him, plot a wholesale vanishing.

This is a dynamic system in which populations of any of the 40 species routinely monitored can vary wildly from one year to another. But drawing on decades of data, David declares that “overall, numbers of waterbirds using the Coorong have approximately halved since the 1980s”. Some species have declined more dramatically, at twice that rate.

In his first counts in the mid ’80s, “we had tens of thousands of many species more than we have now … the place just hummed along the shorelines”. In the South Lagoon, the Siberian visitors alone accounted for some 40,000 birds. In the past three years, their collective numbers have tanked to around 4200. “In the 1980s we counted some 9000 curlew sandpipers in the southern Coorong alone,” says David. “Just 41 this year.”

Foreigners are not the only ones getting whacked. Endemic shorebirds such as the red-necked avocet are down from over 7000 to under 1500; the red-capped plover from over 2000 to around 500.

This year’s census observed shorebirds struggling to find food, spending more than 90 per cent of their time foraging or flying. “We find dead carcasses out on the islands – we don’t find them here [on the mainland] because the foxes clean them up,” David explains. “We find emaciated birds – these birds have starved. That is telling us something about a wetland that is meant to be protected.” The failure to provide suitable productive habitat for these birds, he argues, flouts Australia’s obligations under Ramsar and the EPBC Act.

Experts have long blamed the decline of the Coorong on decades of over-extraction of water to irrigate the Murray–Darling Basin, compounded by the Millennium Drought, when no water reached the Murray mouth for several years. The irony, David told the royal commission, is that the Coorong and nearby Lower Lakes were “absolutely critical” to the survival of bird populations through that crisis, and will be again in a climate-changed future. “It’s the absolute refuge … the one place you should be looking after is this wetland.”

The magic of its fine-tuned ecology is in the water, the calibrated gradient of salinity from estuarine in the north to hypermarine (super-salty) in the south, and the inflow to the lagoons of just the right dose, at just the right times, to nurture a healthy crop of sustaining Ruppia tuberosa. The royal commission heard testimony from David and others that the Murray–Darling Basin Plan has failed to deliver the requirements to support either of these core ecological characteristics. “The system is now in a vulnerable state and may have little capacity to absorb continued and cumulative environmental stress resulting from water extractions and changes in climate,” a panel reporting for the Goyder Institute for Water Research concluded.

Adding to the injury, lately a smothering tide of green algae has appeared around the shorelines. The Patons, father and daughter, are in no doubt about its source. We navigate around a huge brown snake – “Hello, beautiful,” coos Fiona – to drive to the southernmost end of the system, Salt Creek, where a channel funnels fresh water into the lagoon, a hairy green beard of algae sprouting in the shallows. It’s caused by nutrients washing off agricultural land, David says. Come springtime, “It just covers everything. So, no tern can fish in that, shorebirds can’t walk through it, species like avocets and others can’t work their way through.”

This drain is the result of two instances of flawed management, he argues. One is a local narrative that claims the South Lagoon has become too salty and requires corrective freshening – an idea with particular appeal to fishers who imagine it will help stocks. David argues this is not backed by the science, and that by watering down the salinity the lagoon is already losing the Ruppia tuberosa seeds and chironomid larvae on which so many of the birds rely.

The other is a sleight of hand in the dark arts of Murray–Darling flow currency. The drainage program is calculated as contributing 25 gigalitres of precious flow to the South Lagoon. So, that’s 25 gigalitres that don’t have to be wrestled from thirsty irrigators upstream to meet the mandated minimum allocation for the Coorong. But it’s not the ecological equivalent of water flowing down the river, and comes with the toxic wash of nutrients, David argues. The failure to properly assess and monitor the risks and impacts on the ecology is one of the issues he’s spoiling to pursue in court, having all but given up on getting a response to his numerous letters to ministers and bureaucrats. He’s not planning on a quiet retirement, not least because of his concerns about the capacity of working scientists to conduct deep, unfettered research. “You talk, they cut your funding. It’s as simple as that.”

The erosion of independent scientific culture was one of the concerns highlighted by the royal commission. Scientists depend on the drip-feed of ever-­diminishing flows of government money to fund their fieldwork. It’s a brutal gig economy that is undercutting critical environmental surveillance. Environmental consultant Dr Anne Jensen told the commission: “I suspect we’re heading towards a situation where we don’t have the long-term data records such as those we get from someone like David Paton.”

“David is one of the scientists who’ve dedicated themselves to being the guardians of our rivers, and the wetlands and ecosystems they support,” says Richard Beasley, who was senior counsel assisting the royal commission. “The lead role in that space should be the Murray–Darling Basin Authority. The royal commission report explains why it has been left to people like David to sound the ongoing alarm about what the environmental cost is of over-extraction.

“His evidence wasn’t just technical. It highlighted the moral failure of degrading something as precious and important as the Coorong.”

Before heading back to Adelaide, the Patons pull up at a favourite spot, Policeman Point, which offers a view over the mudflats as they eat their sandwiches, doing what they do. Fiona points out a couple of little egrets – “they’re quite funny to watch forage, darting around after fish” – and a white-faced heron. “But no shorebirds whatsoever.”

Her father scans the sweep of sand and sky, squinting into the glare, his face folding into timeworn crevices.

“I’ve never seen it so dead at this time of year.”

Jo Chandler

Jo Chandler is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and author.

@jo_m_chandler

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