'We Can't Take It Anymore': Farmers Holding Dead 'Century-Old Fish' Want Answers
Two farmers stand knee-deep in water on the banks of the Darling River lined with dead fish. The smell is "unbearable".
Coughing and dry-retching, they struggle to pick up a 'century-old' fish that they have for years worked to protect.
One of them, Dick Arnold, said it makes him "feel like crying".
The other, Rob McCribe, called it an "environmental disaster".
"This is a bloody disgrace... this is the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in my life," he said.
The farmers, from nearby Tolarno Station in Menindee, just below the Menindee Lakes in far-western NSW, appeared in a Facebook video posted on Tuesday night after up to one million fish, including Murray cod, washed up on the banks of the Darling River this week.
"It's beyond heartbreaking," Kate McBride told 10 daily, a farmer who filmed the video that has since been watched over 2.5 million times.
"These are just two Aussie blokes who have seen their river destroyed by mismanagement."
Some of the fish are said to be between 80 and 100 years old.
It's the second such incident in a month and is being called a "devastating ecological event" by NSW Minister for Primary Industries Niall Blair.
“It’s devastating to see the hundreds of thousands of fish killed earlier this week and we believe this is one of the largest fish kills ever seen,” Blair said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.
The immediate cause for the deaths is said to be a cold snap over the weekend and a subsequent blue-green algal bloom that took out large volumes of oxygen from the water.
Quickly, the blame has turned to the drought conditions plaguing the region.
Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud, who has federal responsibility for the Murray-Darling, told 10 daily "the ongoing East Coast drought has put the entire Basin's river system under pressure", noting the Menindee Lakes have been managed by the state government since December 2017.
“You can’t dismiss the impact of drought when in the last six months, we have had 30 gigalitres of water flow in the Northern System, while in an average year we would expect 4,000 gigalitres," Minister Blair said.
"The numbers speak for themselves."
But locals insist this isn't the full story.
"We are undoubtedly in drought but these fish have survived decades of drought. They know what to do," McBride said.
Locals are blaming the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which acts on the request of the state government, for draining the Menindee Lakes twice in four years.
"The lakes are now at approximately four percent, so there's no water left. In the past, they would have been a refuge for these fish," McBride said.
"It's through mismanagement that they have been drained and the fish have had nowhere to go."
'We Want Answers'
Minister Blair has committed to helping the community and its ecosystem recover from the fish kill "as quickly as possible".
“We realise the clean-up from this event is significant and we will provide whatever help we can to the local communities," he said on Wednesday afternoon.
But the community was less than impressed when about 160 residents from across western NSW gathered on a boat ramp earlier on Wednesday to meet with the minister.
"We were all lined up because we want some answers. He saw us, and he drove past us on his boat. He went upstream and did some media," McBride said.
The minister reportedly did not meet the group over "security concerns". But McBride insisted the crowd was "as peaceful as it comes".
"All we want are some answers as to what they are going to do," she said.
Minister Blair has requested an urgent report be prepared by the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and Water NSW that will be made public.
He said Water NSW will deliver water to restock fish "when more water is available in the Darling River", adding it will continue to monitor dams and river systems across the Basin as the drought continues.
“We really need significant rain to generate replenishment flows otherwise these impacts will persist and possibly increase throughout summer,” Blair said.
McBride said the interests of the Menindee and the greater community had not been supported.
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Featured image: Facebook via Tolarno Station