Fish, flows and flood plains: links between freshwater fishes and their environment in the Murray-Darling River system, Australia

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Synopsis

Knowledge of the biology of native fishes of the Murray-Darling Basin is based largely on studies conducted under hatchery conditions and on a limited number of recreationally important species. From observations that increases in water level in aquaculture ponds initiate spawning in some species, and from limited studies of wild fishes and studies in overseas floodplain river systems, a perception has emerged of the importance of flooding and the flood plain in the life cycles of Murray-Darling fishes in general. However, there is little confirmatory evidence of the use of temporary floodplain habitats by larvae, juveniles or adults. The significance of in-channel habitats, especially for rearing, has received little attention. Murray-Darling fish species can be placed into three life history modes, based mainly on spawning style and time and developmental intervals of larvae at first feeding. Fish in each group may be able to take advantage of floods if the timing is right and prey are plentiful, however, the larvae of some species are able to recruit under non-flood conditions within the main river channel. This forms the basis of the ‘low flow recruitment hypothesis’, which attempts to explain why some species spawn during the warmest months and lowest flows and how they are able to recruit under these conditions. This hypothesis is then placed in the context of the current state of knowledge of the relationships between flow and the biology of Murray-Darling fishes, specifically cues for spawning, movement and recruitment. The lack of widespread evidence for floodplain use by any life history interval of fish may be due to a paucity of study, however, there are some fundamental factors, such as the predictability of timing and duration of high flow events as well as the lack of coincidence of high flows and high temperatures in some regions of the Basin, which may be important in determining the use of floodplain habitats by fish.