Spotlight on river health: PHCC team hard at work during COVID-19 to protect and restore local waterways

It's been a challenging few months for everyone, but despite COVID-19, the Peel-Harvey Catchment Council (PHCC) has still been hard at work in an attempt to continue protecting and restoring local rivers.

After closing their doors to the public during the pandemic, the team cancelled all events and activities that involved public gatherings and took to working from home or via socially distant measures in the field.

With a focus on enhancing local fish habitats and implementing recommendations to improve the Serpentine River, they have kept themselves busy helping the local environment.

Last year, the Mandurah Mail started shining a spotlight on the health of the rivers in the Peel region, which continues to decline.

Previous assessments from the 1990s have revealed, of more than 4000 kilometres of waterways throughout the Swan Coastal Plain, only about 1 per cent is in "near pristine condition".

In an effort to uncover why local waterways are not in the condition they should be, the Mandurah Mail will be interviewing environmental experts to gauge the health of local rivers and report on the research being conducted and initiatives in place to help restore them.

After speaking with leaders from the PHCC, who sounded grave concerns about the condition of Mandurah's waterways, the series continues with an update on an aquaculture project designed to help restore the health of the Murray River.

Read more from the Spotlight on River Health series:

Adjusting plans as 2020 unfolded, the team behind the Peel region's leading environmental organisation has still been busy with activities to help local waterways.

Between January and June this year, the PHCC has undertaken a variety of activities funded by the Alcoa Foundation, under the Connecting Corridors and Communities Restoring the Serpentine River project.

The project, which includes formulating a River Action Plan previously reported on by the Mandurah Mail, aims to improve the overall ecological health of the Serpentine River through vegetation, restoration and community connection.

With the River Action Plan now complete, the project now focuses on following and implementing its recommendations and actions.

Under the PHCC's Peel-Harvey Estuary Grants program, funded by the state government, scientists have been working with local members of the community, Bindjareb Noongar elders, government and community organisations, and private landholders to help enhance the fish habitat of the Murray River.

Plans have been put in place to undertake in-stream actions, including installing artificial habitats to benefit native fish.

While the focus is mostly on black bream in the Murray River - an important recreational fish species and a key component of a healthy river and estuary - PHCC is working towards expanding its activities into the Serpentine River for species such as gilgies and freshwater cobbler, and the Harvey River to benefit the smooth marron in the future.

Read more from the Spotlight on River Health series:

There are a number of components of the project that have been undertaken by the PHCC during the COVID-19 pandemic and are still continuing:

Fish Friendly Farms project

Taking place in the Harvey, Murray and Serpentine Rivers, the Fish Friendly Farms initiative aims to enhance and re-create habitat for native aquatic species.

With the help of local stakeholders, Noongar groups, private landholders and the community, the project is set to have a larger scale impact on improving the health and biodiversity of the Peel-Harvey waterways.

For example, planning and approval processes are currently underway to progress a scoping study to identify potential sites on the Murray and Serpentine Rivers that may be suitable to deploy artificial habitat modules that will aim to enhance habitat for recreational fish species such as black bream.

Stock enhancement of black bream in the Murray River

Over the past 10 years the survival of black bream from their early life stages to adulthood in the Murray River has been poor.

To improve the survival rate, PHCC, researchers from Murdoch University, and students and teachers from John Tonkin College have been running an aquaculture program, which resulted in the release of 3000 black bream fingerlings into the river last summer.

This program is being repeated this year, starting last weekend with a fishing trip to catch adult fish from the Murray River from which the juvenile fish will be bred.

Mussels in Dams project

A collaborative project with Murdoch University researchers is also underway to engage private landholders in the Harvey, Murray and Serpentine River sub-catchments.

This project will rely on community members getting involved to assist the recovery of Carter's Freshwater Mussel, the only species of freshwater mussel native to the South West.

This species is listed as a threatened species, with the threat increasing from the drying climate and increasing salinity of streams.

More than 700 dams have been identified over the area of potential sites, with the aim to now reduce that number and target priority sites.