Sawfish deaths on Gina Rinehart station kept quiet by WA government, FOI reveals

Emails show WA department wanted to prevent news of the protected sawfish deaths being reported by the media

The Western Australian government decided not to make public the death of 46 protected freshwater sawfish on a pastoral station owned by Gina Rinehart because they did not want to discourage station staff from reporting future fish kills, freedom of information documents reveal.

The fish died in a naturally drying pool at Bilna Creek, a tributary of the Fitzroy River, near Rinehart’s Liveringa Station in the Kimberley in December.

Staff at the station reported the issue to the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development on 10 December, saying there appeared to be “between 50 and 100” threatened sawfish in rapidly-drying pools that were disconnected from the main river system.

The department organised a rescue team made up of department staff, researchers from the Murdoch University and Nyikina Mangala Indigenous rangers.

But by the time they arrived at the pools on Friday 14 December, only two sawfish remained alive. They were relocated to a deeper pool in nearby Snake Creek.

A report by Murdoch University said the fish “most likely died from exposure to constant high ambient temperatures and resulting warm to hot water temperatures.”

The report was among documents released under freedom of information laws to Environs Kimberley and seen by Guardian Australia.

The sawfish had been stranded in two pools which had formed in the floods of the 2017 wet season, which were rapidly drying in record hot days across the Kimberley in December.

The species, Pristis pristis, is listed as vulnerable and protected under federal law, and is a “totally protected fish” under WA law. The Fitzroy is a globally significant nursery area.

The larger pool contained 33 dead sawfish and two live fish, and the smaller contained 13 dead sawfish. The water temperature at the deepest point of the ankle-depth bigger pool was 37.4C in the middle of the day and the report said the two live fish had signs of sunburn and their underside “appeared to be somewhat cooked”.

Three dead freshwater crocodiles and a range of other dead native fish were also found.

An email chain showed the department wanted to prevent news of the fish kill from being reported by the media.

“I would like to take a proactive and collaborative approach with Liveringa Station, and am trying to prevent this issue getting out to the media,” an email from the acting regional director said.

“If it does go to the media, then it will probably just prevent station staff from reporting it in the future. If we could work with the station to encourage them to monitor and report stranding early … we may be able to prevent this from happening in the future.”

The department said on Monday that it may choose to issue a media statement “when imperative to communicate information broadly to the general public, particularly if there are potential risks to the public (for example, a fish disease outbreak or algal bloom in a public location).”

“In this case, the cause of deaths was identified as likely being from environmental conditions in an area that was located on a pastoral property,” it said.

Queries about Liveringa Station’s irrigation licence were sent to the department of water and environment regulation, which said it had a permit to draw surface water from nearby Uralla Creek for its pivot irrigation system with obligations to monitor fish health. They said they had looked into the impact of the water licence and “formed no views in relation to culpability”.

Environs Kimberley executive director Martin Pritchard called for a full investigation into the potential impact of the irrigation licence on the fish deaths, and determine whether a push by Rinehart to access 325GL of surface water annually would increase the risk of fish deaths.

“We’re calling on the McGowan government to take responsibility for its international obligations to protect critically endangered species rather than turning the Kimberley’s national heritage-listed Fitzroy River, with its highly significant Aboriginal heritage values, into another Murray Darling,” Pritchard said.

Hundreds of thousands of Murray cod died in a series of mass mortality incidents in the hot and drying Darling River in December and January.

Contributor

Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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