Talks begin to save Victoria’s Curdies River after blue-green algae kill fish, but not all hopeful

It has been a sad year for residents and longtime visitors to Peterborough, where the Curdies River spills into an estuary under the Great Ocean Road, a place often teeming with vibrant birdlife and aquatic life.

In April, sections of the river turned green and smelled putrid, then became dangerously toxic, full of dead fish and cattle found floating bloated and dead.

To address community alarm about the health and future of the Curdies, the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority formed a consultative committee, which held its inaugural meeting in August.

It has offered a glimmer of hope, bringing together numerous water and land management agencies with two relevant councils, dairy and agricultural groups, community representatives, and Landcare.

The Curdies River flows through the Heytesbury region, one of the largest milk-producing regions in Australia.The lush green slopes were originally covered by eucalypt forest, but clearing began in the 1950s in the government-sponsored soldier settlement scheme — 50,000 hectares of the Heytesbury forest was cleared. The amount of vegetation on the river banks can impact the quality of the water.

But despite the deforestation on the Curdies River catchment, VR Fish — the state’s peak body of recreational fishers — considers the river “one of Victoria’s premier black bream and estuary perch recreational fisheries”. But in April, local fisher Chris Searle was boating up the river when he came across huge numbers of dead fish, mostly bream.

He videoed the scene, and once the video began doing the rounds on social media, speculation grew that the aquatic life had been suffocated by lack of oxygen due to severe blue-green algae blooms. Two weeks after the first fish kill, more dead fish were found in the river along with 20 young cows.

Barb Mullen, the interim chair of the Curdies River Catchment Alliance, a community group formed during this crisis, believes that if not for the impact of those images, little would have been done. “That was the shock-horror thing because people are thinking, ‘The blue-green algae has killed the cows. How terrible is this?'”

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) issued a statement saying the cattle’s cause of death was suspected to be consumption of toxic blue-green algae but that inspections of the carcases were inconclusive. 

Whether or not the cows drank and were killed by the river water, those images became a call to action that led to several public meetings, a petition to parliament, and a public dressing down from VR Fish.

In April, VR Fish chair Rob Loats labelled the Curdies River fish kill event an “unmitigated disaster that was foreseen decades ago. We’re watching thousands of native fish go belly up and now dead cattle floating down the river,” he said.

“This is not a small, limited fish kill as stated by DELWP or a natural event as stated by the Corangamite CMA. “The current handpassing of blame between state government agencies, including the EPA, will not fix this issue, nor will putting heads in the sand.”

On August 4, Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) released a statement announcing that 25 dairy farms within the Curdies River catchment were inspected without warning to check on effluent management.

EPA south-west regional manager Carolyn Francis said they were reassured by the high levels of compliance they saw.  “Most farmers are doing the right thing and have good effluent management practices,” Ms Francis said. “Two of the 25 dairy farms were not properly controlling their effluent and allowing it to discharge in a way that it could harm waterways. So, we will put more explicit requirements on these farms using legally enforceable notices.”

Ms Francis said further inspections across the region would follow, but EPA recently confirmed that none had since occurred. 

Ms Mullen lives on the edge of the water where the Curdies River widens out into a beautiful expansive inlet and then flows out to the Southern Ocean.

Her view takes in the arrivals and departures of migratory birds that soar across the East Asian-Australasian Flyway between Peterborough and Japan or the great egrets and crested terns feasting on fish.

“It has been a sad year,” she said. “You’ve got no idea what it’s like to live with blue-green algae, watching the lake in front of you dying for months and months and months.”

She said while the photographs and videos of dead fish spurred many locals into action, they felt frustrated at the response from relevant authorities.

“I’m tired of hearing from authorities that the blue-green algae is a naturally occurring phenomena,” she said.

“Those photos that Chris spread around helped get us all agitated and motivated to move, but we felt powerless. It seemed that they [the agencies] didn’t care about the Curdies, and it needed the media to make it move.”

Sarah Holland Clift is the general manager of community and catchment services at the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority and chair of the new consultative committee.

She said there was a genuine desire from the consultative group to explore short, medium and long-term actions that would help reduce blue-green algae outbreaks.

“We’re starting to see [them] way too frequently, and it’s definitely not the issue that agencies don’t care,” Ms Holland Clift said. “It’s just at the moment we don’t have the solutions.”

The first round table of the Curdies River Consultative Committee had representatives from Agriculture Victoria, WestVic Dairy, Wannon Water, Parks Victoria, Corangamite Shire, Moyne Shire, Environment Protection Authority, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, a research team from Deakin University, six community representatives and the Heytesbury District Landcare Network. 

Ms Holland Clift said the committee’s strength was in its breadth.  “The key message out of today is that we are in it for the long game,” she said. “The only way that you can manage a river is that everyone who lives works and plays within a waterway needs to be part of the solution.” 

Ms Holland Clift said the first meeting was spent briefing the committee on key factors contributing to blue-green algae blooms in the Curdies River, which can be triggered by nutrient levels, low inflows, lower storage volumes, and warmer weather conditions.

“There are a lot of issues in the river itself that are going to take a long time to remediate, and there are no short fixes, unfortunately, to those things,” she said.

Ms Holland Clift said that 93 per cent of the catchment’s riverbanks were thought to be stripped of native vegetation.  

“We know that about 30 per cent of what we call the named waterways have been fenced off and revegetated. However, there are about 1,300 kilometres of what we call unnamed waterways,” she said.

“The reality, unfortunately, is if you even just plug that hole and stopped any nutrients coming off the land, you’ve still got historic sediment that’s holding nutrients in the waterway.

“So that’s going to take a long time to flush, basically.”

A public community forum is scheduled for October 8, hosted by the Corangamite Management Authority, where Deakin University ecologists will present new research focused on nutrient enrichment in the river. 

Ms Mullen said she hoped that the ongoing process would result in action, not just another report to be shelved.  

“We’ve had numerable reports where the recommendations have never been implemented,” she said.”No-one has an action plan that is based on the science, on what needs to be done — that’s what is lacking.”

ABC South West Vic / By Emily Bissland