Water is life – the Northern Fish Flow

From April – July 2019, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office (CEWO) with the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, released water for the environment down the Barwon-Darling. The flow, named the Northern Fish Flow, travelled around 1,500 km from Glenlyon and Copeton Dams to the junction of the Barwon and Culgoa rivers. The flow connected the rivers and helped native fish including guduu (Murray cod), and gaygay (catfish) survive.

Prior to the Northern Fish Flow, parts of the Barwon River had not flowed for over 330 days. A series of disconnected waterholes remained, with poor water quality and fish struggling to stay alive.

Calls for a flow to replenish the northern river systems were heard from senior Aboriginal people and Elders. The CEWO heard from Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations representatives, who were distressed about the fish deaths, reiterating how totemic species are like family for Aboriginal people. Local staff from the CEWO spoke with Elders about what could be done to help fish and other important values of the river systems.

During the Northern Fish Flow, the CEWO shared regular updates and held community ‘drop-in’ sessions for local communities. Aboriginal community members who attended the drop-in sessions expressed a deep connection to the rivers and a strong support for environmental flows.

Vanessa Hickey, a Traditional Owner from Walgett stated “These places are very special to us Aboriginal people, our ancestors walked here for thousands and thousands of years. They lived off these river banks. With the environmental flow coming down, this is going to pipe my community up. We're going to be out here fishing a lot”.

The Northern Fish Flow travelled through the traditional lands of many Aboriginal nations, supporting important environmental, social and cultural values. As the flow passed the Barwon River downstream of the Namoi junction, up to 40 members of the Aboriginal community came out to fish and enjoy the flow. Fisheries Officers reported seeing kids and adults along the bank catching golden perch and Murray cod, cooking jonny cakes (or damper) and enjoying the river. Carl McGrady, a Traditional Owner, noted the flow was “probably the best thing I’ve seen in the last 10 years”.

From school children to Elders, many conversations took place between CEWO staff and local Aboriginal communities, sharing information and receiving feedback about the flow. Jason Wilson, local engagement officer from CEWO noted, “Sharing with the local communities about the flow has been an eye opening experience; their knowledge, participation and passion was a constant in towns from the start of the event and right to the end. We learned a lot from the information sessions we conducted, importantly we have established and will continue to foster a strong relationship into the future, built on mutual respect and the common languages of looking after our rivers”.

Pelicans at Brewarrina Weir during the Northern Fish Flow. Photo: Mark Southwell UNE.