A deeper look at “wild” places (and is stocking threatened native fish outside their range a good idea?)


This habitat might be degraded, but there is a lot to be gained by improving it, both for fish and people.
This habitat might be degraded, but there is a lot to be gained by improving it, both for fish and people.

By complete coincidence, me and Graz unknowingly both wrote drafts about a similar topic. You can read Graz’s piece about the “Natural trout stream paradox” here. This piece touches on similar topics, however its not about trout and takes a far broader brush to the issue (and is way longer- if you want punchy read Graz’s piece).

Conservation strategies, such as conserving biodiversity hot spots and maintaining “pure” ecosystems are failing. Despite our best efforts we are still losing species at a rate of knots. Forests continue to disappear. River ecosystems and fish populations are often at best stable, some continue to decline. We have been successful is setting aside protected areas. Areas of great beauty, of high biodiversity value. Yet we are often still losing the battle. Even in places where those strategies are being somewhat successful, the prospect of climate change, means that those wins may only be short lived. In 50-100 years todays biodiversity hot spots may have moved. So it goes. Don’t get me wrong, protected areas, parks, reserves, still have their place. They are hugely important tools that will always have a place in conservation efforts. Its simply that, alone these areas wont win the war. We will need more than just “islands” of “pure” wilderness if we are going to be successful in conserving species, environments and biodiversity, and thus maintaining important ecosystem services that we all rely on.

At the heart of many of these failures is the idea that the environment is something separate from people, the idea that conservation is about keeping people out so that the “wild” “natural” environments can prosper. These myths and ideologies are captivating, wild places, wildernesses, have an almost spiritual pull to many of us (myself included). However, I can’t help but feel that these romantic notions often mean we fail to see whats really in front of us. That the truth is that “wild” places, places untouched by human hand, simply do not exist. Even places as remote as the Galapagos islands have long histories of human impacts. As tempting as it is for people to see “nature” as something pure, something apart from people (the “save the planet kill yourself“, “aren’t people the worst” crowd), that isn’t the world we find ourselves in. The truth is, that there are no “pure wildernesses” untouched by man.

Our (sometimes) fetishising of these “ideal” places, of nature being something “pure”, “wild”, “pristine”, can potentially set us up to fail. Nature is not apart from humanity, humanity and nature are parts of each other, parts of a whole. Humans are reliant on the ecosystem services that nature provides. We often rely on managing landscapes, rivers and forests for our benefit, for food, wood and other resources (clean water, flood and drought mitigation). By forgetting about the human part of nature, I feel that we can often de-value the environments that sit outside of protected zones. Sometimes defaulting to an idea that only “untouched” “wild” places are worth protecting, worth fighting for. In doing so, we fail to see the value in and fail to manage all the areas that fall outside these wild areas adequately. We fail to see that even our great wilderness areas often rely on direct human management to maintain their relative purity.

Failing to value the ecosystems services these vast areas outside protected zones provide humanity adequately can only be to our detriment and the detriment of species and environments. All to often, because we have failed to value these areas, we plunder them, rather than sustainably managing them for the benefit of the environment and the communities that rely on them.

Farmland may not be the prettiest, but the habitat it contains is important
Farmland may not be the prettiest, but the habitat it contains is important

Humans gaining some benefit from managing ecosystems and environments, giving those places a “value” to the people who use them, investing people in the health of the environments they rely on shouldn’t be something that is seen as apart from conservation. Instead, it should be seen as a vital part of conservation. We can’t hope to lock up all the areas necessary to conserve species and ecosystems. Thus by necessity, we need to consider how to maximise the benefits, both for people and environments, in all the areas that fall outside of those protected areas, farmlands, forestry plantations, rivers, oceans, urban fringes, urban environments themselves. Management of these places for conservation is vital because these places ARE themselves vital for the conservation of biodiveristy, of ecosystems. They may not be pure, but they are important.

Emphasising the value of environments FOR people, not just aesthetically, needs to be a bigger part of how we conserve the biodiversity and ecosystems around us. Management of ecosystems for the benefit of people and environments shouldn’t necessarily be seen as dirty. Instead of viewing these things as separate goals, we should be promoting individuals and communities to invest in nature, to gain some benefit in return for improving it, simultaneously achieving better  human and conservation outcomes. The more people that are invested in the health of these environments, the better outcomes we can achieve.

We need to start viewing conservation in a far broader context, in the vast tracts of land and water used and exploited by people and look for ways in which we might be able to manage those lands better, to both help threatened species and ecosystems across a far broader area of the landscape, while simultaneously benefitting the managers, that is, the humans who rely on that land for their livelihoods and recreation.

Which brings me to the management of some of our most threatened fish species. Can this sort of management help ensure their survival? Can giving those fish value to a far wider group of people, e.g. recreational fishers, farmers, communities, be an important tool in “saving” those species? I would argue that it can be. One of the advantages of re-framing conservation this way, is that is can be used to massively grow the support base for conservation efforts. For example, fishers, a group of people who spend time in and utilise these resource are often people that care deeply about these environments and place a huge value on the resources they provide. These are people that can be harnessed to push for better environmental outcomes. People who may not be interested in “classic” conservation, but who will be interested in conserving ecosystems they care about and will be interested increasing the productivity and resilience of those ecosystems because of the benefits this sort of work will do for them. After all, they are one of the groups that will ultimately benefit from those improvements. As I argue here, the antagonism between environmentalists and fishers is one that shouldn’t be so stark. Ultimately, well managed fisheries can simultaneously achieve both the improvement of “recreational” opportunities and improved conservation objectives.

Many fisheries and fish conservation efforts are already managed in this manner. Freshwater (and marine) ecosystems, with their diverse user base and highly connected habitats, which are by their very nature hard to “lock up”, naturally lend themselves to this sort of management. That is, for freshwater and marine conservation to be successful, numerous groups and stakeholders have to be involved and play an active role in conservation programs. Programs such as the Native fish strategy and Demonstration reach programs (a great video demonstrating what they do can be found here) long ago recognised that emphasising community ownership and involvement in conservation strategies is vital to give them the best chance of success. It is these sort of programs, which seek to involve and energise whole communities across broad landscapes and communities which are behind some of our greatest freshwater fish conservation successes. They demonstrate the importance of educating and involving communities, farmers, researchers, conservationists and other stakeholders and of those groups working together across broad areas of the landscape in order to ensure success.

The aim of these strategies, the improvement of native fish stocks within the Murray darling basin, rely on broad-scale changes and widespread community and stakeholder support. In return, they will provide benefits to those diverse user groups, not just the fish. Restoring the degraded river ecosystems (e.g. wetland ecosystems) in the basin is something that will provide broad environmental benefits, as well as significant benefits to stakeholders. These include more resilient ecosystems and improved habitat for birds, reptiles, mammals and fish, as well as improved ecosystem services, helping mitigate floods and droughts, thus helping communities. And of course, recreational fishers will also benefit as more fish equals better fishing. It is this sort of conservation effort that we need to be emphasising and fighting for. As recreational fishers, its these sort of programs that we should be putting our political power behind. I strongly recommend joining the Ozfish unlimited initiative which seeks to involve recreational anglers in environmental works that will directly benefit them.

However, this may not be enough in some cases, for some fish species. Environmental rehabilitation of this sort takes time and in some cases, more drastic short term action may be needed. At least in the short term. Added to this, the spectre of climate change looms large over conservation efforts in many of our freshwater ecosystems (e.g. Kimberly fish species). Taking the ideas discussed above of ecosystems managed to maximise both human value as well as conservation value a step further, in time it may be worth considering more drastic management that aims to facilitate these duel aims. For example, it might be considering both the recreational and conservation benefits of stocking endangered species outside their range. Management such as this is anything but “pure”. However, it may be preferable to losing species entirely.

Mmmmmm habitat
Mmmmmm habitat

The conservation value of these sort of interventions has already been demonstrated. More or less by accident. The most secure population of Macquarie perch exists outside its range in the Yarra river, thanks to translocations done for recreational reasons in 1850s. One of the last remaining populations of trout cod in the Seven creek exists outside its range due to anglers moving fish above a natural barrier in the 1920s. Similarly, the Peddar galaxias can thank its survival on translocations of fish into new habitats outside its range after populations crashed in the 1980s. There is no doubt that these populations are now of vital importance for the conservation of these species and that these translocations outside the range of these species have vastly improved their chances of survival into the future. There are also examples of how translocations of native fish outside their range have set up wonderful fisheries in the past, Lake Burrumbeet being a prime example where a vibrant Murray cod fishery was established in the late 1850s (could this fishery be re-established today?).

Trout stockings have created great fisheries well outside their natural range. Can we do the same with endangered native fish?
Trout stockings have created great fisheries well outside their natural range. Can we do the same with endangered native fish?


Given the demonstrated conservation value and potential social value (at least historically) of stockings such as these, maybe we should at least consider consciously repeating similar stockings, both to help preserve these species into the future and to potentially add value to our recreational fisheries? Setting up “safety” populations that can be latter used to restock rehabilitated habitats, that can also potentially act as valuable recreational fisheries in and of themselves in the short term.

This would undoubtedly be controversial and a big step away from classic ideas about conservation. However, given the highly regulated nature of many of our freshwater environments, I believe that at least considering options such as these has value. To improve recreational fisheries we stock trout, an introduced species from the other side of the globe, many many thousands of kms outside their natural range into Australian environments that they have never historically existed in. These stockings provide a social benefit, but add nothing in the way of conservation value. Wouldn’t it potentially be much better, to in some cases stock highly threatened native fish into these environments instead? To achieve a similar social benefit AND a large conservation benefit. These fish are at least Australian and stockings such as these could at least provide duel benefits. Unlike trout stockings, these stockings may only be hundreds of meters from where these fish originally lived (e.g. Seven creek) and at the most, would only be 100s of kms, not thousands from the original range of these species. Hypothetically, establishing populations of trout cod and Macquarie perch in places such as Watts and Upper Yarra reservoirs near Healsville (as purely conservation populations), Sugarloaf reservoir and Thomson reservoir just outside of Melbourne as populations that would provide both social and conservation benefits could prove to be hugely beneficial to the long term prospects of both species while simultaneously improving angling.

Obviously, doing so could only happen after proper environmental risk assessments, taking into account the myriad of risks such a project would entail. Those risks, may mean that ultimately, such a project may not be feasible. However, given the great conservation and recreational benefit stockings such as these have achieved in the past and could potentially achieve in the future this sort of intervention at least deserves consideration. With the potential impacts of climate change, stockings outside the original range of species (this doesn’t just apply to fish either) may eventually become the only hope many species have of survival. Does ensuring the continued existence of a species warrant taking the risks involved and moving away from “purity” into (extreme) active management of threatened species to ensure their continued existence? Wherever you sit on the topic (and to be honest, I have no idea where I stand myself), it is a conversation we need to have before its too late.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have many answers. I do however believe that these conversations about how we approach conservation, how we can best mobilise larger groups and communities to be part of conservation efforts in order to achieve better outcomes, not just in reserves and parks but broadly across the landscape are worth having. That discussing drastic management options that may save species from extinction are worth having.

This piece is designed to hopefully start some of those debates. I would greatly appreciate your feedback, criticisms and ideas. So over to you. Fire away.



Note: I promise I’ll actually go fishing soon and write some good old fashion trip reports or something 🙂



Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

9 thoughts on “A deeper look at “wild” places (and is stocking threatened native fish outside their range a good idea?)

  • August 26, 2015 at 11:26 am

    Excellent thoughts!

    My very quick thoughts in response:

    — I’d argue the wilderness concept is actully pretty valid in some parts of the earth. For instance, large tracts of western Tassie are wilderness of the classical definition and always have been … even if the odd indigenous person wandered through them in times past. Yes, indigenous people have heavily modified Australia in some ways (megafauna extinctions, drastic changes in vegetation in some landscape types through fire), but their overall impact is overstated. This concept that the whole of Australia — all ecotypes — were regularly burnt and carefully managed is nonsense. In most places of wet forest or rainforest, they did not do burnings and made little change, and in fact, made little use generally of these areas.

    So yes, while broadly, you’re right that most areas we call wilderness have been modified by man, and thus challenge the concept of wildnerness, some areas still really do meet the definition of wilderness.

    — It’s great to say that wilderness management should be about people using wilderness. But the sad fact is, people are destructive and selfish, and ANY use of wildneress invariably leads to serious degradation, especially if things like trail-bikes, four-wheel-driving, catch-and-kill fishing, etc. are allowed. Note even the issues fairly responsible bushwalking can cause in areas of Tassie. In short, human use of wildnerness is a great idea, but it causes huge problems in reality and needs very careful management … and so far, good management of these problems (and more importantly, adequate funding and staffing for it) never occurs.

    — Similarly, recreational fisheries for species like Macquarie perch and trout cod are a great idea. Unfortunately, they rapidly get corrupted. We are currently witnessing the horror of two catch-and-kill fisheries being opened for trout cod, a nationally-listed endangered fish, in Victoria. This is a disgrace. These fisheries should have been catch-and-release-only. Instead, they’re catch-and-kill, they open up huge poaching and law enforcement problems, and most importantly, they send the wrong message — the ugly, outdated, inappropriate message that you have to be able to kill the native cod you’re catching to have a good time. The over-arching problem with recreational fisheries for endangered fish is many will likely have to be catch-and-release-only … permanently. Particuarly, trout cod, due to their extreme catchability and low breeding capacity, will ALWAYS have to be catch-and-release only — and our rec-fishing masses and our state fishery departments simply don’t want to admit this fact. (1) I will also make the comment that I find it deeply deeply offensive that some rec-fishing ranks think they have some kind of “right” to kill trout cod, just because some recreational fishing licence fees went towards stocking of trout cod. (2) a largely catch-and-release is necessary for the future of fishing for cod species, given their vulnerable biologies and problems of feral competitors, habitat degradation and water extracton. This needs to be embraced. Fishery departments need to be promoting catch-and-release for cod. Rec-fishers need to realise catch-and-release fisheries for cod (whatever species) are great, and that no, you don’t have to be killing cod to be having a good time … and that this is not possible anyway.

    — We should absolutely — after careful checking for potential impacts (e.g. endemic galaxiids) — be creating more translocated populations of threatened native fish. In particular, we desperately need more populations of MDB Macquarie perch. The Endrick and Corang Rivers are heavenly habitat for MDB Macquarie perch, totally available, and translocated populations should be established in them. No ifs or buts! Now!

    — The purists oppose this, of course. Which brings me to my final point. “Purists” in conservation are causing a lot of damage. It’s time to get rid of this ridiculous purist thinking once and for all, and push obstructionist “purists” aside. “Purism” in conservation is just managing species to extinction and will leave us with nothing. It really would seem that some purists would prefer to see a threatened native fish species managed to extinction rather than do something “impure” like establish a translocated population of that species outside of its natural range. GRRRRRR.



    • August 26, 2015 at 11:42 am

      Thanks for the reply Simon. Some interesting thoughts.

      I agree “wilderness” does exist and is greatly useful. In this I am mainly talking about all the areas that lie outside protected areas, which is where I think the major failings are… Its only feasible to lock up and protect a relatively small proportion of what is really needed to protect biodiversity/ecosystem functions etc etc. The protected areas we have are great, but I personally, think that there also needs to be a little more of a focus on the broader scale and about how you maximise environmental benefits from all those areas that are being used as farmland, forestry land, urban land. That is, the point I think I’m trying to make, is that we need to focus a little more on how we utilise those areas that aren’t protected (and aren’t feasible to protect), to maintain the economic outcomes that currently accrue from those areas, while improving their environmental value. All those places that aren’t in national parks are really important!

      I completely agree that that is very difficult to do properly. Its part of the reason that we are where we are… Tragedy of the commons and all that (pricing externalities etc etc are potential solutions to some of those issues)… But I do think we need to try.

      Agree on the translocations thing. Its something I’ve been thinking about for a while and I haven’t yet come up with many really convincing reasons that its a bad idea. There are obviously some potential environmental impacts, but given the highly modified nature of so many of our freshwater river systems (the fact most are dammed and have established populations of redfin, carp or trout for one), I find it hard to believe that those potential impacts are worse than doing nothing…


      • August 26, 2015 at 12:43 pm

        Hi Hamish

        Thanks. I understand better now that you’re referring to the broader areas outside of strict conservation reserves. I agree totally with your thoughts on these areas.

        Agree too with translocations. I strongly suggest you check out the Endrick and Corang Rivers on the Braidwood-Nowra Road. It’s madness we’re not establishing MDB macs in them. As you’re probably aware, another, similar tributary of the Shoalhaven system has supported translocated MDB Macs for a long time, though this population now struggles, despite pristine habitat and natural flows …

        (EHN via contaminated rainbow trout stockings (that, of course, should never have occurred) is strong suspected … )

        I think it is really good for rec-fishers to be finally focussing (or being suggested to focus) on the bigger environmental issues, and how rec-fishing can fit into a sustainable environment and lifestyle.



        • August 26, 2015 at 2:19 pm

          Sorry for the confusion. I’m am totally pro protected areas, I just think conservation has to be so much broader than that to be successful. I don’t think its possible to achieve really good outcomes without massively improving the outcomes outside of protected areas, in working landscapes. I feel that sometimes, its really easy for groups to get caught up say protecting pristine old growth forests, while say southern temperate grasslands, which are under greater threat and contain a huge amount of biodiversity continue to disappear without people even noticing…

          I think thats where taking a broader approach, involving communities and the rest of it can be really useful. If we want to these ecosystems around in 50 years, involvement of communities and rehabilitation in “working” environments done in partnership with famers, foresters etc etc will be necessary. In terms of fisheries, as is probably obvious by now, I think that recreational anglers (and education, engagement of anglers) can play a really important role in that in freshwater ecosystems. Its obviously all devilishly complex, without any easy answers, but we need to start somewhere 🙂

          Yeah, those Shoalhaven tribs are pretty spectacular. Some great habitat and absolutely stunning country out that way. Pity to hear about the decline of the translocated MDB pop though. My grandparents used to live in Braidwood, so did a fair bit of exploring back in the day… Its such a pity that the Shoalhaven Maccas seem to be done and dusted, especially given that they were potentially a distinct subspecies (http://www.molecularecology.flinders.edu.au/uploads/54834/ufiles/pdf/63-mp-coge09.pdf).


          • August 27, 2015 at 10:29 am

            Yes mate, I have read Faulksie’s papers and chatted to hear about them. Poor old Shoalhaven Macs. Possibly our first extinct fish species. Certainly an extinct sub-species. And they went from common in the 90s to functionally extinct by the mid 2000s. It has been pointed out that their extinction happened as fish stockings started … it has been suggested that an exotic viral pathogen introduced by fish stockings may be the cause … and I do think the crash of Burrinjuck/ACT Murrumbidgee silver perch population was also due to an exotic viral pathogen …

            When you consider the number of headwater galaxias populations we’ve lost due to invasive predator trout — some of which research by Raadik suggests were almost certainly distinct species, plus the endemic cod of the Brisbane/Albert/Coomera River systems, plus Shoalhaven macs, the oft repeated claim that Australia doesn’t have any extinct species of native freshwater fish suddenly seems rather questionable.

  • August 28, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    Hi Hamish, an enjoyable and very though provoking post. One of the most pressing questions for me is ‘what are we trying to conserve?’. I think the fundamental goal, before tackling this question, is that we want to ensure species don’t go extinct and to maintain sustainable populations of as many species as a system will sustainably support. The bigger question for me is how this relates to equilibrium and resilience in a system. Following on from this is whether the highest level of equilibrium and resilience necessarily means trying to return the system to a ‘natural’ state – or as close as possible. Like you say, humans are a huge part in pretty much all systems on Earth, and these systems are highly modified as a result.

    I have been thinking a lot about my little plot of land in Burra (in southern NSW), which you know well. As you know, we have some yellowbox/snowgum grassy woodland, with decent numbers of native grass species and various other plants. It’s regarded as ‘valuable’ from a conservation perspective, which is understandable given how much of these kinds of systems have been lost. And as you also know, we have 10 cattle, 10 sheep, a horse, about 200 kangaroos, 5 wombats, 4 foxes, 2 (domestic) cats, 1 feral cat, one domestic dog, about 30 rabbits, a couple of hares, a few rats and mice, a couple of possums, and two humans. There is probably the odd native marsupial mouse, rat or glider. And that’s just the mammals.

    What I am grappling with is a scenario in which a traditional view of conservation suggests that removing all of the non-native animals would necessarily increase the resilience of the system. It may be that this system is in equilibrium, particularly if we consider that humans are living in it, continually modifying it, and that is not going to change any time soon. There are many things that I could do to improve the system’s biodiversity; planting native shrubs, regenerating the eroded gully, leaving timber on the ground and so on. And classical ecological theory generally suggest that the more biodiversity in a system, the better its resilience to perturbations. But returning this system to some semblance of ‘natural’ is highly subjective, and probably downright impossible, so it largely comes down to the values of people living in the system and how they project their ideas of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ onto that system around them.

    What’s really interesting to me is this classical view of conservation; namely that cat, dog and fox equals ‘bad’, yet at the same time this view of conservation doesn’t recognise the impact of historical landclearing, the suppression of native grass habitat for reptiles and native mammals by grazing ruminants and so on. Something people around here don’t seem to understand is the question of what happens if you remove all of the feral cats. It seems intuitively like a good thing to do, but what will probably happen is that the rabbit population will explode, the fox population will explode with it, and eventually people will start losing lambs and complaining about it. A similar scenario might be if we were to kill all the rabbits. What might happen is that the cats and the foxes will turn their attention to something else, such as small native marsuipials, reptiles, frogs and birds. Obviously these scenarios are a bit simplistic, because we’re talking about highly coxmplex systems, but the point I’m trying to make is about equilibrium and resilience. I think this needs to be at the forefront of contemporary thinking about ‘conservation’.

    I think the analogy for aquatic habitats helps add some weight to what you are suggesting. If an east flowing catchment of the great dividing range that currently supports a healthy population of trout was replaced with the same catchment containing a population of a more diverse mix of iconic native species from the Murray-Darling Basin, then one could make the argument that even though this system isn’t natural, it is more diverse and thus more resilient, and perhaps more ‘valuable’ from a conservation perspective than the current system.

    Anyway, looking forward to catching up for a beer soon and discussing some of this stuff…it’s super interesting!

    • August 31, 2015 at 10:20 am

      Totally! This stuff is hard.

      Looking forward to catching up and discussing this stuff while having a beer on the NSW trout opening weekend 🙂

      (Also, the above would be a good post)


  • October 26, 2015 at 7:50 pm

    this is all kinds of good, so keen to see how it evolves… you’ve succeeded in sending me into a spiral of internet links, nothing productive will be getting done around here tonight

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