Going back to the future to tackle Tilapia threat

Traditional knowledge is being harnessed to fight the growing tilapia threat in the Lower Burdekin.

NQ Dry Tropics and Traditional Owners are partnering to trial an indigenous technique that uses native plant material to capture fish without impacting water quality. A pilot project is about to begin, focused on removing the pest species from a recycle pit on cane farmer Frank Mugica’s property in Ayr.

“We will put the bark and leaves of certain native trees in the water to temporarily lower oxygen levels, making it hard for the fish to breathe, but without damaging the environment”, explained Bandjin elder Russell Butler, who is part of the project alongside Gudjuda Ranger Eddie Smallwood, of the Bindal people.

“Once the fish come to the surface for air the plan is to remove the tilapia and give native species such as rainbow fish, spangled perch, sleepy cod and barramundi a chance to thrive once again.

“It’s using a natural method to deal with a major problem, and I’m glad we have the opportunity to work with NQ Dry Tropics and ensure that our traditional knowledge is put to good use.

“I learned how to do this from my elders, and I want to make sure that everything I know is passed on to the younger generation”, Mr Butler said.

The trial is a joint initiative involving two NQ Dry Tropics projects –  Engaging Traditional Owners, funded through the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program, and Reef Rescue Systems Repair, funded through the Australian Government’s Reef Program.

NQ Dry Tropics project officer Ian Sinclair explained how tilapia damages waterways and impacts agriculture.  

“It outcompetes native species, and builds nests on the banks of creeks or recycle pits, causing erosion and sediment loss, which affects water quality”, Mr Sinclair said.

“It is causing issues for cane growers, and in Frank Mugica’s case the disturbed sediment impacts his irrigation efficiency by clogging up his fluming (a black plastic flat hose).

“If this technique proves successful and scaleable we’d be interested to try it in other locations”, he said.

And Russell Butler agreed: “There are water holes boiling with tilapia and we have to start somewhere. I’m excited about the possibilities”, he said.

Main photo: Eddie Smallwood (Gudjuda Rangers), Frank Mugica,  Russell Butler (Bandjin), Scott Fry (NQ Dry Tropics).