The Science Statement

Statement from the undersigned coordinating authors and supporting scientists

 

We welcome the Western Australian Government’s commitment to create a new protected area in the Fitzroy River Catchment, and to create a management plan to ensure the protection of the National Heritage and other significant cultural and environmental values of the river and provide a basis for sustainable development.

 

The Fitzroy River is one of the largest principally unregulated rivers remaining in Australia and is recognised as a centre of cultural life and biodiversity in the Kimberley.1 The river follows a path from the roof of the central Kimberley Plateau, flowing through spectacular and ancient gorges in the King Leopold and Napier Ranges, and coursing between wide floodplains before meeting the ocean at King Sound. The river and catchment support a rich and unique biodiversity of aquatic and terrestrial life with national heritage listed natural and cultural values.2

 

Cultural values arise from unique archaeological records, major rock art assemblages, and associated and continuing Aboriginal cultural practices, and are exceptionally high in the Fitzroy region. Some of the oldest, continuous and most detailed records of Aboriginal occupation, exploitation of both arid and tropical faunal and botanic suites, and persistence during the Last Glacial Maximum come from the Oscar and Napier Ranges49.The sites of Carpenter’s Gap 1 and Riwi are in the earliest tranche of sites dated by radiocarbon in the continent and have unheralded preservation records of plants, terrestrial and aquatic fauna, organic and inorganic artefacts including some of oldest known edge-ground axes, bone and bifacial Kimberley Points, and marine shell personal ornaments. The rock art of the region is widespread and highly variable and shares strong cultural traditions with the wider Kimberley, having both Pleistocene (pre-10,000 year old style elements) and later styles including variants of Wanjina from the Holocene (during the last-10,000 years). There are also elements of the painted and engraved art bodies, stone arrangements and mythic tracks affiliated with groups of the sandy deserts to the south. Current cultural art estates are actively maintained by Traditional Owners and Indigenous Protected Area Rangers.   

    

The Fitzroy River Declaration by Traditional Owners further speaks to the ongoing multifaceted value of the river to Aboriginal people and outlines aspirations for the future. It is hoped that this statement will also be of value to Traditional Owners in the process of furthering the aspirations expressed in the Declaration.

 

The Fitzroy River and its estuary provide critical habitat to arguably the world’s most important population of Vulnerable (EPBC Act) Freshwater Sawfish (Pristis pristis) and supports other elasmobranch species of conservation significance, such as the Freshwater Whipray (Urogymnus dalyensis), the Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas), the Critically Endangered Northern River Shark (Glyphis garricki), the Vulnerable Dwarf Sawfish (Pristis clavata) and the Winghead Shark (Eusphyra blochii)3. Juveniles of the Freshwater Sawfish occur as far upstream in the Fitzroy River as the Margaret River Gorge. Globally, this species has disappeared in >70% of its former range, and intact nurseries, such as the Fitzroy are rare, and are crucial for its persistence globally. In addition, the estuary of the river is a significant nursery for Dwarf Sawfish4,5,6,7,8. The aquatic habitat supports thirty-seven species of fish, many of which are endemic to the Kimberley including an endemic glassfish, archerfish, hardyhead, grunter and gudgeon9,10,11.

 

The lands and waterholes flanking the river are of equally high conservation value. Riparian and floodplain vegetation in the catchment includes 40 species of groundwater-dependent plants, which support riparian bird species such as the nationally Endangered Purple-crowned Fairy Wren and Buff-sided Robin12,13. The wetlands and billabongs at the river mouth and along the floodplain are habitat for internationally protected migratory (and non-migratory) birds13. In particular, the large floodplain wetlands at Camballin are important waterbird habitat (67 species recorded) and significant breeding grounds for Magpie Geese and Whistling Duck14; parts of the floodplain meet criteria for listing as Wetlands of International Importance, under the Ramsar Convention. The river also provides a rich source of food for local Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people through its abundant fish, freshwater turtle, mussels and freshwater shrimp (cherabin)15.

 

Recent genetic analysis of lizards from across the Kimberley has demonstrated that the Fitzroy region and flanking King Leopold Ranges have a rich fauna, reflecting the mixing of arid zone and tropical elements. In particular, the limestone ranges of the Devonian Reef System44 flanking the southern margin of the Fitzroy Gorge harbour several endemic species and genetic lineages of lizards, such that this system is a major hotspot of unique evolutionary diversity45. Each of these ranges – the Napier, Oscar, Pillara Ranges and scattered outcrops south to Ngumpan Cliffs – are home to unique elements of the biota not found elsewhere48,46.

 

The ecology and hydrology of the river is shaped by highly variable and unpredictable river flows. Waterholes along the course of the river and its tributaries provide vital refugia for wildlife during the dry season months, including fish, turtles, invertebrates, crocodiles and birds. Many waterholes are fed by groundwater during the dry season in a complex interaction between surface and ground water. Surface waters then recharge ground water in the wet season when river flows occur 13, 14,17. The magnitude of these interactions is likely to vary significantly from year to year, as the volume of and duration of river flow is highly variable. These interactions between surface water and groundwater will also be highly variable along the length of the river, requiring detailed mapping and data collection over at least 5-10 years to characterise given inter-annual variability.

 

High volume freshwater flows from the river into King Sound are critical for both ecological functioning and the long-term sustainability of the pearling, recreational and commercial fishing and tourism industries. These flows act as a pathway for those species that spend part of their life-cycle in both marine and freshwater environments, such as Barramundi, Freshwater Sawfish and Mullets. Scientific research has consistently identified the importance of wet season flows from northern Australian rivers in determining the productivity of many species of estuarine fish and crustaceans of economic significance18, 19,36.

 

Significant flood events in the river catchment replenish the vitality and connectivity of the river, floodplains, wetlands, waterholes and estuarine system. More than one third of all fish species in the freshwater reaches of the river need water flows to access the estuary and near shore zone to reproduce, including the ecologically and economically important Barramundi15, 16. Tracking of Barramundi in other Northern Australian river systems demonstrates that it is critical to maintain the connectivity between floodplains, the river and estuaries in order to support populations of large-bodied fish18,19,20.

 

With such enviable relatively intact freshwater, riparian and adjacent terrestrial ecosystems that support endemic, endangered and scientifically significant species and communities, the creation of protected areas and a management plan in the Fitzroy River catchment is an opportunity to establish an internationally acclaimed and scientifically endorsed conservation regime. However, the ecological, cultural and natural values of the river and new protected areas are also tied to the overall condition of the river system which is threatened by agricultural practices 18, 21, 32 and long-running proposals for large-scale irrigation schemes,33,34,41,42,43, mining and gas extraction23.

 

Large-scale cattle grazing results in soil compaction, degradation and loss of riparian and aquatic vegetation, increased sedimentation, introduction of weeds and potentially significant collective impacts on water quality, hydrology, aquatic ecosystems20, 24,as well as on terrestrial vegetation communities31 and threatened species32. The clearing and fragmentation of native vegetation for cropping and associated inputs of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and water23 can lead to severe impacts on freshwater biodiversity.

 

Native vegetation clearing and water infiltration from irrigation practices can cause groundwater levels to rise and salinisation, as has occurred in the Ord River agricultural area25, 26 and in the Murray-Darling Basin. Groundwater salinisation has also been linked to the widespread dieback of Eucalyptus camaldulensis (River Red Gum) forests of the Murray River floodplain27.

 

Lowering of the water table (through reduction of surface water flows or through groundwater abstraction) can cause pools to become ‘disconnected’ for longer periods and in extreme cases whole refuge pools can dry-up, threatening the diverse wildlife that relies on groundwater-fed pools. Permanent pools are the principal dry season refugia for freshwater fishes, sawfish, turtles and crocodiles in the river28. Vegetation that is groundwater-dependent, such as Pandanus aquaticus that provides habitat for the Endangered Purple-crowned Fairy-wren32 is also likely to suffer from moisture stress28.

 

Stygofauna and troglofauna, which is likely to be diverse in the aquifers of the Fitzroy River catchment, are likewise vulnerable to groundwater extraction29, 47. Similarly, lowering of the water table could impact the unique reptiles of the limestone ranges which have persisted here for millions of years at the interface of the desert and Kimberley supported by these complex groundwater systems13.

 

Disruption to natural surface water flows, including damming of the Fitzroy or its tributaries, off-stream storage dams and direct extraction of surface water, may change the frequency and duration with which riparian and floodplain vegetation are inundated by flood waters30, and the very morphology of the river system. Water harvesting may have substantial impact on habitat suitability, food-webs and ultimately biodiversity. Damming or re-direction of water flows can interrupt migration and cause isolation (physical and genetic) of populations of aquatic species.

 

The regular wet-season flooding plays important roles in the recharge of groundwater and therefore persistence of dry-season refuges. In addition, waterbird abundance and composition have already been impacted by such developments in many river and wetland habitats in Australia28,37.

 

Science shows that the most effective way to protect the remarkable natural and cultural values of the river is to: a) create a protected area upstream to eliminate the threat of dams; b) reduce the impacts of landscape-scale threats such as frequent intense fire, weeds and over-grazing that affect water quality; and c) legislate for a management plan that includes a buffer zone along the river that protects important seasonal wetlands; the alluvial aquifers and other groundwater conduits on which dry season refuge pool are reliant, and the floodplains from which the aquifers recharge. The buffer zone must exclude native vegetation clearing, hydraulic fracturing, mining and large water extraction projects38,39,40.

 

The use of good science and modern planning tools should lead to an outcome that matches or exceeds the protection offered in other world-class protected areas in Australia.

 

 

Coordinating Authors

Professor Craig Moritz

Australian National University

 

Professor Kingsley Dixon

Curtin University

 

Professor Peter Veth

The University of Western Australia

 

Professor Jeff Connor

The University of South Australia

 

Distinguished Professor Sue O’Connor

ARC Laureate Fellow, Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage

Australian National University

 

Associate Professor David Morgan

Murdoch University

 

Dr Ryan Vogwill

Independent, principal hydrogeologist

Previously Associate Professor UWA 

 

Dr Andrew Storey

Adjunct Associate Professor

The University of Western Australia   

 

Dr Anja Skroblin

University of Melbourne

 

 

Supporting Scientists

Title

Name

Affiliation

Professor

Catherine Lovelock

The University of Queensland

Professor

Hugh Possingham

FNAS, FAA, Dphil (Oxford), The University of Queensland

Professor

John Pandolfi

The University of Queensland

Professor

John Quiggin

School of Economics, The University of Queensland

Professor

John Woinarski

Charles Darwin University

Professor

Keith Christian

Charles Darwin University

Professor

Paul Sunnucks

Monash University

Professor

Peter Davies

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research), The University of Western Australia

Professor

Pierre Horwitz

Edith Cowan University

Professor

Richard J Hobbs

The University of Western Australia

Professor

Richard Kingsford

University of New South Wales

Professor

Sam Banks

Charles Darwin University

Professor

Tara Martin

University of British Columbia

Professor

Tim Flannery

MSSI, The University of Melbourne

Adjunct Professor

Chris Johansen

The University of Western Australia

Adjunct Professor

William Humphreys

The University of Western Australia

Associate Professor

Jane Balme

The University of Western Australia

Associate Professor

Ben Phillips

The University of Melbourne

Associate Professor

Cynthia Riginos

The University of Queensland

Associate Professor

Jane Elith

The University of Melbourne

Associate Professor

Oscar Venter

University of Northern British Columbia

Associate Professor

Tim Dempster

University of Melbourne

Emeritus Professor Dale Roberts The University of Western Australia

Emeritus Professor

Stephen Mueke

University of New South Wales

Dr

A.N. Start

Principle Research Scientist (Retired) DBCA, Research Associate Western Australian Herbarium

Dr

Adrian Gleiss

Murdoch University

Dr

Alexander Watson

Kimberley Program Manager, WWF-Australia

Dr

Alison O'Donnell

The University of Western Australia

Dr

Amelia Wenger

The University of Queensland

Dr

Anne Poelina

Nulungu Research Institute, The University of Notre Dame

Dr

April Reside

The University of Queensland

Dr

Barbara Wueringer

Director and Principle Scientists, Sharks and Rays Australia

Dr

Barry Traill

Director Outback to Oceans Program, Pew Charitable Trusts; Research fellow Charles Darwin University

Dr

Carla Eisemberg

Charles Darwin University

Dr

Cassandra Rowe

James Cook University

Dr

Chandra Salgado Kent

Curtin University

Dr

Christine Adams-Hosking

Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

Dr

Christine Schlesinger

Charles Darwin University

Dr

Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle

University of Saskatechewan

Dr

David Duncan

The University of Melbourne

Dr

Erica Garcia

TRACK, Charles Darwin University

Dr

Fiona Jean Ede

University of Melbourne

Dr

Jessie Wells

The University of Queensland

Dr

Joe Greet

The University of Melbourne

Dr

Katherine Selwood

University of Melbourne

Dr

Kathy Townsend

University of Sunshine Coast

Dr

Leon A. Barmuta

University of Tasmania

Dr

Matthew Le Feuvre

University of Melbourne

Dr

Michelle L Hall

The University of Melbourne

Dr

Michelle Lim

Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

Dr

Neil Pettit

The University of Western Australia

Dr

Nerida Wilson

Western Australian Museum

Dr

Nicole Phillips

The University of Southern Mississippi

Dr

Pauline Grierson

The University of Western Australia

Dr

Peter Kyne

Charles Darwin University

Dr

Reid Tingley

The University of Melbourne

Dr

Renee Gruber

The University of Western Australia

Dr

Rujiporn Thavornkanlapachai

The University of Melbourne

Dr

Sam Nicol

PhD Mathematics / Ecology

Dr

Selina Ward

The University of Queensland, Director (International River Foundation), Councilor (Australian Coral Reef Society)

Dr

Tim Maloney

Griffith University

Dr

Nigel E. Hussey

The University of Windsor

Dr

Yung En Chee

The University of Melbourne

Dr

Gary Scott

University of the Sunshine Coast 

Dr 

Ross G. Dwyer

The University of Queensland

Dr

Malcolm Lindsay

Kimberley Nature Project

Dr

Mike Christensen EIANZ, SWCC

Dr

Tegan Davies

The University of Western Australia

Dr

Scott Thompson

EIANZ

Dr

Bill Kruse

Consultant Anthropologist

Dr

Mark Allen

Western Australian Museum

Dr

Glenn Moore

Western Australian Museum

Dr

Simon Clulow

Macquarie University

PhD Candidate

Jordan Iles

The University of Western Australia

PhD Candidate

Caroline Mather The University of Western Australia

PhD Candidate

Glenn Althor

The University of Queensland

PhD Candidate

Jessica Cheok

James Cook University

PhD Candidate

Karissa Lear

Murdoch University

PhD Candidate

Kate Buckley

Charles Darwin University

PhD Candidate

Madeline May Goddard

Charles Darwin University

PhD Candidate

Micha Jackson

The University of Queensland

PhD Candidate

Naomi Indigo

University of Technology Sydney

PhD Candidate

Rosalie Willacy

The University of Queensland

PhD Candidate

Síofra Sealy 

Monash University

 

Donna Bagnall

Curtin University

 

Dion Wedd

Charles Darwin University

 

Andrew Del Marco

Deputy President (WA), EIANZ

 

Nigel Jackett

Warden, Broome Bird Observatory

 

Steve Wilke

EIANZ

 

Simonne Grimes

EIANZ

 

George Swann 
Kimberley Bird Watching 

 

Susan Davies
Principal Environmental Consultant, WRM

 

Jess Delaney
Principal Environmental Consultant, WRM

 

Kim Nguyen
Senior Environmental Consultant, WRM

 

Bonita Clarke
Senior Environmental Consultant, WRM

 

Chris Hofmeester
Senior Environmental Consultant, WRM

 

Emma Thillainath
Environmental Consultant, WRM

 

Fintan Angel
Environmental Consultant, WRM

 

Adam Harman
Principal Environmental Consultant, WRM

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