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Burdekin Water Futures – TropWATER presenters

The Burdekin Water Futures Group was established in 2006 to facilitate a more strategic approach to water management in the Burdekin River catchment. Burdekin Water Futures is a consortium of Government, community, industry, businesses, farmers and scientists working together, sharing information and knowledge, for the long term management and protection of the Burdekin catchment.

A forum was held this week where presentations from Government, industry, scientists and community were heard covering a range of important environmental topics and new information relating to water delivery/storage, irrigation management, cane production, ground and surface water, and aquatic ecosystems. TropWATER's Dr Stephen Lewis and Jane Waterhouse presented an overview of data and information relating to the Burdekin catchment.

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Call to stop African eco-disaster in the making

A James Cook University scientist has warned of an environmental catastrophe in Africa’s world-famous Serengeti if planned new dams are built.

JCU’s Professor Eric Wolanski is an internationally recognised expert on interactions between water and ecosystems. 

He collaborated in this study with top level managers from the Tanzania National Parks organisation, culminating in an article published last week in the scientific journal Oryx published by Cambridge University Press - The Serengeti will die if Kenya dams the Mara River.

Professor Wolanski said the proposed dams in Kenya are a disaster in the making.

“The Serengeti ecosystem has only one year-round river, the Mara. If these dams are built there will be insufficient water to support the ecosystem in a drought year.”

The Serengeti hosts an annual wildlife migration of up to 2 million animals - mainly wildebeest, zebra and other species that live on the plains.

Dr Wolanski said seven dams are in the planning stages.

“The proposed Norera dam is 30 kilometres upstream from the Serengeti ecosystem, and the recommended minimum flow to support the environment is 300 litres per second, but the dam would release just a third of that.

“On top of that, all that water would be used by irrigators downstream of the dam before the river enters the Serengeti ecosystem. If that dam is built, the Serengeti will almost certainly face ecological collapse during the next major drought,” he said.  

Dr Wolanski said if the more than 1.2 million wildebeest involved in the migration cannot use the Mara River in a dry year, modelling suggests that 80 % would die.  

He said water diverted for hydropower in Kenya would also flood the nesting sites of three-quarters of Africa's lesser flamingos around Lake Natron in Tanzania.

Dr Wolanski said the dams are an international issue, as they would be built in Kenya, and the river flows from there into the Serengeti in Tanzania. He said that Kenya gets all the economic benefits, while Tanzania gets all the environmental problems.

“In a dry year, the Kenyan operator has either to release water for the Serengeti and kill the Kenyan irrigation fields or retain the water for irrigation and kill the Serengeti. This becomes a local political decision, with Tanzania having no say.”

Dr Wolanski said it was no exaggeration to say an international effort was needed to save the Serengeti.

“Tanzania has to be involved as an equal partner with Kenya in the decision-making about managing the Mara and Ewaso Ngiro Rivers. If that’s not possible, then the financing of these dams must be stopped.”

Contacts: Professor Eric Wolanski, FTSE


P: 07 4781 5453

M: 0408 89 71 07

Images here.

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3 post-doc positions going at TropWATER, JCU

TropWATER @JCU has 3 post-doctoral level positions available. These vacancies are now open and candidates can apply online via Jobs@JCU.  Applications will close at Midnight on Sunday 22 October 2017.  These positions will also be advertised in various online sources (Water Jobs, Uni Jobs, seek etc.). 

These are Academic level A or B positions (depending on experience):

  1. Position 16146 will mainly work on wetland systems repair in the GBR catchments and Torres Strait, plus coastal ecology, habitat enhancement/restoration, coastal water quality in ports and aquatic ecology projects in Gulf of Carpentaria/Cape York.  Good all round ecology skills required.  Lots of variety in this position.
  2. Position 16147 will work on eDNA.  The position will focus on answering ecological questions about the abundance and distribution of various rare and exotic aquatic animal and plant species in northern Australia, using eDNA as the tool for these investigations.  The person should have at least some genetics background but if not strong, they will be working as part of a team of post-docs that possess considerable lab genetic skills.
  3. Position 16148 will work on freshwater ecology.  Like 16146, this position will cover water and sediment quality, fish, invertebrate and riparian vegetation study so a wide variety of ecology skills is required.  This position will mostly work on projects related to mining and industrial impacts on freshwater environments.

For enquiries contact Prof. Damien Burrows:
P: 07-47814262

Also see our website at for some ideas on the range of projects we work on.

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PhD opportunity: Environmental DNA for the management of aquatic biodiversity of northern Australia (PhD top up scholarship available)

JCU is home to a team of eDNA researchers who are developing rapid and cost-effective technology for monitoring aquatic species in Northern Australia with practical monitoring and assessment applications.  We are looking for enthusiastic, dedicated and passionate PhD candidates to join our team.

To appropriately manage the aquatic biodiversity of northern Australia, especially in the face of pressure for development of water resources, there is a requirement to have a greater understanding of faunal distribution, abundance and occurrence patterns, especially for key species of high conservation status or other special interest (e.g. exotics species, cryptic species).  There is a need for an approach that can rapidly increase data on the occurrence of aquatic fauna to more effectively manage their populations and to further our understanding of key drivers of population vulnerability/resilience. Being able to conduct more frequent and widespread survey/sampling/monitoring of key aquatic species of importance in northern Australia would greatly assist decisions around appropriate development of northern resources and the current discourse about northern development.

This project will take advantage of the rapidly growing field of eDNA.  Organisms constantly shed DNA into their environment (eDNA) and this can be utilised to determine their presence in place of traditional sampling methods. eDNA field sampling can involve as little as collecting water samples and subsequent laboratory analyses. Consequently, the method offers the potential for research and monitoring programs to be conducted rapidly, at lower cost, across a large array of locations, and to involve the participation of non-specialists.  

This PhD project will develop and employ eDNA technology for species of conservation and/or management significance. The project can be shaped to the students interests, but may focus on:

  • Development and validation of probes for species of conservation and/or management importance in Northern Australia.
  • Development of a metabarcoding approach to target a range of species of interest.
  • Investigation of the relationship between water quality parameters, sampling procedures, sample transport time and DNA degradation and detection rates.

The student will be based at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia (under the supervision of Prof. Damien Burrows and Assoc Prof Jan Strugnell). The student will receive expert training in fieldwork and laboratory and bioinformatics skills and work as part of a team of 3 post-docs working on eDNA, and other leading aquatic researchers.

Requirements: The successful applicant will have a First Class Honours (or equivalent) in biological science or a related field and will pick up extra points in the scoring system if they have a first authored paper. Applicants must be eligible for an Australian Postgraduate Award (APA). Preference will be given to those applicants with previous experience in genetics and/or evidence of strong technical and laboratory skills. Journal publications in these fields are desirable but not essential. A top-up ($10,000) per year for three years is available for this project.  Operating funds are also available.

Enquiries are welcome. Please submit a short cover (1 page max.) letter detailing your suitability and interest, academic transcript and a CV with contact details for two referees by email to:

Prof Damien Burrows and Assoc Prof Jan Strugnell


Also visit

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Deadly fish pathogen detected in the Tully River catchment

Erin and Sue processing eel-tailed catfish in North Queensland
Erin and Sue processing eel-tailed catfish in North Queensland
A dangerous pathogen, which caused devastating losses in the aquaculture industry in the United States, has been detected in wild Australian catfish for the first time. Murdoch University researchers from the Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research who made the discovery, say the bacterium causes a potentially fatal disease called enteric septicaemia of catfish. The bacterium, known as Edwardsiella ictaluri is considered one of the most significant pathogens of farmed catfish in the United States and has also caused mortalities in farmed and wild fishes in many other parts of the world. It has previously been detected in imported fish and aquarium facilities in Australia but wild species had not been surveyed for the disease until this recent study.

The researchers say more investigation is required to determine the susceptibility and tolerance of native fish species to the bacterium. They also want to clarify whether E ictaluri is a recently introduced or a native strain. Lead researcher Associate Professor Alan Lymbery said if the pathogen affects Australian fish species in a similar way to cultured catfish in the USA, the delicate freshwater biodiversity of Australia’s rivers could be impacted.

Murdoch University researchers, Erin Kelly and Sue Gibson-Kueh made the trek to the east coast to process the specimens, and TropWATER’s Brendan Ebner and James Donaldson were the field crew responsible for collecting catfish from several of the east coast river sites. Erin and Sue discovered the pathogen in eight of 20 wild catfishes (Tandanus tropicanus) caught from the Tully River catchment. Catfish caught in 14 other locations across northern Australia were not found to carry E. ictaluri, but Professor Lymbery said the presence of the pathogen could not be ruled out from other rivers because sample sizes were small.

The ornamental fish industry in Australia has been valued at $350 million, with up to 15 million fishes imported and 700,000 exported per year. If Australia can no longer claim pathogen-free status, this trade may be affected. Aquaculture, currently Australia’s one of fastest growing primary industries, may also be impacted.

Although catfish species are particularly susceptible to the disease, E. ictaluri has affected an increasing number of non-catfish species, including salmonids and barramundi and thus may represent a threat to cultured fishes as well as Australia’s unique freshwater fish species. Infection with E. ictaluri results in acute, often fatal septicaemic disease or a chronic infection. Those that survive infection may become carriers for up for 200 days, serving as a reservoir of infection. Affected fish often swim in tight circles, chasing their tails or hang in the water with the head up and tail down. Professor Lymbery said more sampling was required to determine the geographic range of E. ictaluri in Australia, and to inform management actions.

Dr Ebner also commented that it is totally unknown what these means for the fish fauna of the Tully catchment and the nearby rivers of the Wet Tropics. What we do know is that the local endemic species of catfish Tandanus tropicanus is a host for the pathogen and so at least one of our highly localized endemic species is potentially affected negatively.

Due acknowledgment goes to Associate Professor, David Morgan for networking to assemble a wider team of fish ecologists for collect specimens across the breadth of Northern Australia. The study was funded by Fisheries Research and Development Corporation through the Aquatic Animal Health Subprogram. The study was a collaborative venture between Murdoch University, the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, CSIRO, TropWATER James Cook University, Charles Darwin University, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

The research was published in the Journal of Fish Diseases.

Kelly, E., Martin, P. A. J., Gibson-Kueh, S., Morgan, D. L., Ebner, B. C., Donaldson, J., Buller, N., Crook, D. A., Brooks, S., Davis, A. M., Hammer, M. P. Foyle, L. Hair, S. and Lymbery, A. J. (On-line first). First detection of Edwardsiella ictaluri (Proteobacteria: Enterobacteriaceae) in wild Australian catfish. Journal of Fish Diseases DOI: 10.1111/jfd.12696

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JCU scientists assess feral controls and restoration efforts in wetlands

Invasive species are set for the chop and wetlands feeding into the Great Barrier Reef will benefit as James Cook University partners with a nationwide environmental organisation. 

Dr Nathan Waltham, Principal Research Scientist at JCU’s Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystems Research (TropWATER) said the research alliance between Greening Australia (GA) and TropWATER would focus on the restoration of wetland systems within the reef’s catchments.

Dr Waltham said coastal wetlands provide critical habitat for aquatic flora and fauna species, as well as cultural values for local communities in Australia.

“The ability for wetlands to continue providing these services in the future is threatened owing to a range of pressures such as agriculture, overfishing, hunting, recreation, water extraction and pollution of water. Increasingly, there is also the threat from introduced feral animals which can easily cause wide-scale destruction,” he said.

Dr Waltham said a recent audit of Australia’s wetland systems show most have poor water quality and have been overtaken by invasive species.

“Government has put considerable amounts of money into trying to repair them, but there is little scientific data produced to enable the repair work to be evaluated and validated,” he said.

Brendan Foran, the CEO of Greening Australia (GA), said the research alliance is important in supporting restoration efforts administered through GA QLD’s GBR Reef Aid funding, but is also necessary to support plans to expand the program to new project sites.

“We have two restoration sites underway as part of our Reef Aid program– at the West Haughton crooked waterhole complex in the Burdekin and at Mungalla wetland in Ingham,” said Mr Foran.   

Dr Waltham said TropWATER field studies were underway at Mungalla, covering water quality, habitat surveys, fish and turtles, and hydrology – with data expected over the coming months.

In a separate project, TropWATER scientists are also currently assessing the impact of a 3km fence designed to keep feral pigs and cattle out of a large coastal wetland near Agnes Waters in Queensland. The fence was completed in November 2016 with funding from the Burnett Mary Regional Group. 

“We’ve seen the impact of feral animals on coastal wetlands all the way along the northern Queensland coastline, including the Gulf of Carpentaria. The damage has a local impact, but often sediment from damaged wetland areas is also washed downstream,” said Dr Waltham.

He said federal funding through the National Environment Science Program – Tropical Water Quality Hub, will allow TropWATER to comprehensively assess the scheme, and will provide data to support new projects on the horizon.

Dr Waltham said work assessing the Agnes Waters and Mungalla project would be completed in December 2019.

Contact: Dr Nathan Waltham

M: 0411 161 161

Video and images of wetlands and feral animals here.

Please credit Brian Ross.


Greening Australia is a national non-for-profit organisation striving towards the vision of healthy and productive landscapes where people and nature thrive.  GA (QLD) has committed to undertake a technical program to design and evaluate wetland system repair projects that will be delivered through the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and GA QLD’s GBR Reef Aid funding. 

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Wetland system repair research alliance - Greening Australia and James Cook University (TropWATER)

Dr Niall Connolly (Greening Australia) and Prof. Norm Duke (TropWATER, JCU)
A research alliance between Greening Australia and James Cook University’s TropWATER (Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystems Research) has formed to tackle and expand restoration of wetland systems within Great Barrier Reef Catchments.

Dr Nathan Waltham (Principal Research Scientist, TropWATER) said that “A recent audit of Australia’s freshwater and estuarine wetland systems revealed that most are moderately to severely modified, suffer poor water quality, are overtaken with invasive species, and generally provide reduced habitat for aquatic species. In response, government (state and federal) agencies have invested considerable funding into on-ground system repair projects, coordinated through NRM bodies and extension partners.  While these on-ground system repair projects have been delivered with the intention of achieving biodiversity and water quality outcomes, little scientific data is available to actually evaluate and validate these outcomes.”

Greening Australia (GA) is a national non-for-profit organisation striving towards the vision of healthy and productive landscapes where people and nature thrive.  GA (QLD) has committed to undertake a technical program to design and evaluate wetland system repair projects that will be delivered through the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and GA QLD’s GBR Reef Aid funding.  Brendan Foran (CEO Greening Australia) said “the research alliance was important in supporting restoration efforts administered through Reef Aid funding, but was also necessary to support plans to expand the program to new project sites”.

We have two restoration sites are underway: 1) West Haughton, Crooked waterhole complex, Burdekin; and 2) Mungalla wetland, Ingham, and its early days before we can reveal results” said Mr Foran.   

Prof Norm Duke (TropWATER) recently visited Mungalla to inspect the extent of mangrove and saltmarsh wetland habitat adjacent to recent restoration efforts, which involved an earth bund wall removal to allow tidal flushing to help control invasive aquatic plants.  Prof Duke said “the mangrove and saltmarsh habitat adjacent to Mungalla station show signs of stress, whether because of impact from feral pigs, erosion, aquatic weeds or sea level rise, the mangroves are as risk without intervention”.

Dr Waltham said “field studies were underway covering water quality, habitat surveys, fish and turtles, and hydrology.  More data is expected over the coming months before the wet season.

For more information contact Dr Nathan Waltham (TropWATER, James Cook University or Dr Niall Connolly (Great Barrier Reef Rivers and Wetlands Program Manager –

Greening Australia acknowledges the funding support for this project by the Australian Government’s Department of Environment through the Reef Trust Program.

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Fencing feral pigs out of a nationally significant coastal wetland

Coastal wetlands provide critical habitat for aquatic flora and fauna species, and cultural values for local communities in Australia. The ability for wetlands to continue providing these same ecosystem services in the future is threatened owing to a range of pressures such as agriculture, overfishing, hunting, recreation, water extraction and pollution of water. In addition to these, and increasingly so, are the introduction of feral animals which while also provide a use for humans in some instances (i.e., food substance), introduced populations can easily increase and contribute to wide scale destruction and long term consequences, including loss of sensitive species and habitat.

The Burnett Mary Regional Group for Natural Resource Management funded the installation of an exclusion fence around a large coastal wetland near Agnes Waters, Queensland.  The fence is approximately 3km long, and designed to keep out feral pigs and cattle from accessing the wetland.   The fenced wetland area is part of the Bustard Bay Wetlands Directory of Important Wetlands Area (under the EPBC Act), in recognition of the unique flora and fauna that exist in the area.  Recently a Masters of Philosophy student from University of Queensland recorded the endangered water mouse (Xeromys myoides) in the wetland.  The wetland is also home to a number of migratory birds, fish and freshwater turtles. 

Kirsten Wortel (Burnet Mary Regional Group) said “the fence was completed in November 2016 following many years of noticeable impact from feral animals in the reserve.  We are looking forward to seeing how the wetland responds to these efforts, but more work is still necessary”.

Dr Nathan Waltham (TropWATER, James Cook University) is completing research on the health and condition of the wetland.  Dr Waltham said “we’ve seen the impact of feral animals, particularly pigs, on coastal wetlands all the way along the northern Queensland coastline, including the Gulf of Carpentaria.  The damage caused by pigs not only contributes to local impact, but often sediment from damaged wetland areas is washed during rainfall to downstream areas

Dr Waltham said “we have secured federal government funding through the National Environment Science Program – Tropical Water Quality Hub, which will assist in forming a partnership between Burnet Mary Management Group, Queensland Government and local community, to examine how the wetland condition responds to the fencing.  For me, I am also interested in how the conditions in the downstream estuary, in the fish habitat area, also responds to these efforts”.

Ms Wortel said “this wetland has steadily become impacted over the years, but it’s great to see the fence finally in placeIts early days, but we are excited to track the condition in the wetland over the coming years.  We hope that data from this project site will assist other NRM groups challenged with feral animal management.

For more information contact Kirsten Wortel (Burnet Mary Regional Group) or Maree Prior, BMRG Biodiversity Team. Ph 0417 554 905

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Asian Green Mussel: Surveillance underway in Weipa waters

Avoiding crocodiles and hunting mussel DNA are two priorities as the surveillance effort continues in the hunt for Asian green mussels around Weipa, following the discovery of a single mussel south of the town in May 2017.

Biosecurity Queensland officers have spent time working with local businesses and the community to check areas where the mussels may take up residence, including wharves, moorings and old pieces of nets and ropes.

"We have received great support from the local community, and our officers have been working with North Queensland Bulk Ports, Maritime Safety Queensland, the federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and Rio Tinto to look for signs of the marine pest," Biosecurity Queensland Invasive Plants and Animals general manager Dr John Robertson said.

"Biosecurity Queensland officers met with local stakeholders last week to discuss the investigation and establish an Industry Reference Group to keep partners up-to-date with activities," he said.

"We are implementing a range of surveillance techniques, including partnering with CSIRO to use a Remotely Operated Vehicle funded by the federal government, to investigate underwater infrastructure.

"We're now reviewing the footage taken from a range of sites, including Evans Landing, Hey Point, Hey River, Boyd Bay, Humbug, Hey River Terminal, Weipa Harbour, and Cora Bank."

Biosecurity Queensland have also contracted James Cook University's Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, who commenced a plankton tow survey in the area this week, hunting for Asian green mussel DNA.

"The plankton tows target the traces of the mussel like eggs and larvae in the water, which float around and disperse after spawning," JCU principal research scientist Dr Rob Coles said.

"In other Asian green mussel surveys we have also used divers to survey the bottom of moored vessels – but that is not practical in Weipa due to the presence of crocodiles."

Dr Robertson called on the community to keep a lookout for Asian green mussel on boat hulls and anchors that had been moored for a period of time.

"Other places where Asian green mussels can be found are on floating objects that wash up on beaches," Dr Robertson said.

Asian green mussels are an invasive marine pest that out-compete native species. The single Asian green mussel was discovered on a settlement plate array south of Rio Tinto's Amrun Project port development site.

Asian green mussels are identified by the following characteristics:
· mussels can be between 8 and 16cm long
· juvenile shell is bright green
· adult shell is dark green to brown
· shell exterior is smooth with concentric growth rings and finely pitted ridge for ligament attachment
· shell interior is smooth, iridescent pale blue to green
· shell beak has interlocking teeth (1 in right valve, 2 in left)
· posterior is wavy, adductor muscle is large and kidney-shaped.

To report marine pests or for more information, contact Biosecurity Queensland on 13 25 23 or visit
Subscribe to the DAF aquatic pest e-alert at and go to 'About us', then 'eNewsletters' and 'Subscribe to our eNewsletters' and select the aquatic pests alert.

Follow Biosecurity Queensland on Facebook and Twitter (@BiosecurityQld).

Media: Andrea Corby, 3330 4551

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Seeing a ghost for the first time

A gradual increase in the detection of these stunning little fish called cling gobies has been occurring in the Australian Wet Tropics over the past decade as a function of TropWATER fish ecologists snooping around in rainforest streams. Ebb and James Donaldson have encountered a ninth species in Australia based on glimpses of this fish grazing on rocks immediately beneath a waterfall just south of Cairns. On one trip they even roped in fish guru, Dr Gerry Allen, to help out with things since he has encountered cling gobies more widely in streams of the Pacific region. Ebb commented that ‘it was a pretty exciting day when observing two giant cling gobies at a whopping 18 cm and 20 cm in length. Most adult cling gobies are more typically around the three to ten centimetre mark.’

A second trip involved using a network of ten video cameras to record the behaviour of this secretive species. The species has a red eye, and the ladies are little and brown whereas, the male is brown with black and gold patterns on the upper body. However, in the lead up to courtship the bucks display an overall luminescent white sheen with two thick black stripes resembling chop sticks on each pectoral fin, and some aqua-blue touches at the base of the tail. This male masquerade stands-out vividly in the darkened rainforest streams, hence it appears like a ghost. The identification was confirmed by the world expert on stream cling gobies, Professor Philippe Keith from the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, in Paris. Professor Keith commented that ‘this species is found elsewhere on tropical Pacific Islands, but is usually much smaller in body size than what has been seen in the case of the range extension to the Cairns region’.

For further information the relevant short paper has just been published in the French ichthyology journal, Cybium:

Ebner, B. C., Donaldson, J. D., Allen, G., and Keith, P. (2017). Testing an underwater video network and first record of Sicyopterus cynocephalus in Australia. Cybium 41, 117–125

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