Media Statement, December 1, 2009
Spangled perch found in the waterways of the Kimberley desert have an infection unlike any other observed or recorded in the world.
The infection, which causes the spangled perch to become infested with worms, is threatening Indigenous cultural and traditional practices.
The spangled perch is only one of three fish found in the desert waters of Paruku (Lake Gregory), Lake Stretch and Sturt Creek and is an important source of food for the Tjurabalan people.
In a bid to investigate the cause of the infestation, why it occurs and what can be done to solve the massive problem, the local Indigenous community has joined forces with the Kimberley Land Council’s Paruku IPA rangers, the Department of Water, World Wildlife Fund and the University of Canberra.
University of Canberra research student Sam Walker said: “The infection is unlike any ever observed or recorded in the world, with 80 per cent of the fish carrying the parasitic nematodes. One of the fish studied was found to be carrying more than 250 worms on the inside and outside of its body.’’
Tjurabalan Traditional Owner Veronica Lulu said the worms started infecting the spangled perch in 2005 but the prevalence of the infestation had forced them to stop eating the fish, for fear they may get sick.
“The fish are hurt. They were alright before, long time ago,’’ she said.
“We can’t eat them with red worm. It might make us sick inside.’’
Ms Lulu and a group of women elders said the spangled perch came from fish dreaming, connecting the surrounding waterways of Lake Gregory, Lake Stretch and Sturt Creek. She said fishing for Yaku (spangled perch) had formed a large part of cultural practices for thousands of years and included teaching children about country, language, history, story-telling and visiting sacred sites.
“We miss the fish. We take the kids out swimming now,’’ she said.
“We believe the fish will get healthy when we get rain, when the river gets full and is flowing. Big rains will kill all this red worm in the fish.’’
Department of Water Waterways Coordinator Rob Cossart said the research project was extremely important to the community and Traditional Owners and Paruku IPA rangers had been assisting scientists in their investigation.
“Paruku (Lake Gregory) is of high cultural significance to the local and surrounding communities and is a key waterway in the desert region of the Kimberley. From an ecological perspective it is considered as an oasis in an otherwise dry landscape,’’ he said.
“It is likely that the parasite infestation is a result of high migratory bird numbers, reduced water quality, changes in water temperature and the long-term wetting and drying patterns of the lakes. Preliminary research suggests that these processes have worked simultaneously to produce the extreme levels of infections present at Paruku.
“This project is not going to solve the problem but it helps researchers, government agencies and Traditional Owners move a step closer in uncovering the secrets of this significant inland terminal lake system.’’
Kimberley Land Council Deputy Director Nolan Hunter said the infection created a new challenge for Indigenous people and ranger groups looking after country and the research project would provide answers on how best to manage the problem.
“This is a new phenomenon that is impacting not only our environment but threatening the daily social fabric of people’s lives. The spangled perch is of monumental importance to the Tjurabalan people and this infection is transforming the way they live. It is impacting on their diet, their culture and their traditional practices,’’ he said.
“The onset of global warming provides new challenges for our people and our ranger groups who work on country, to protect country and leave a lasting legacy for future generations.
“This project has combined traditional ecological knowledge with western scientific methods to achieve results that are paramount to all involved.”