As the Australian Tourist industry struggles, the popular Noosa River in Queensland is being threatened by bureaucratic inaction to stop the use of agricultural chemicals that are killing and deforming its fish. The same chemicals are used in Macadamia nut farms in many catchments from northern NSW through Queensland and are may be killing millions of fish annually.

According to commercial fishermen, golden eyed mullet — a freshwater species — has disappeared completely from the Upper Noosa river and that the incidental catch of Bass has declined 95% over the last 10-12 years.

On the same river, Gwen Gilson of Sunland Fish Hatchery has been breeding silver perch, bass and yellow belly for release in dams and waterways for the recreational fishing industry for more than two decades.

Over the last decade the Macadamia nut industry has also flourished. By 2005 Gwen’s fish farm was flanked by Macadamia plantations on three sides. In 2006 she experienced a total fish kill after spray drift from her new neighbours. She was paid compensation by the farmer with no admission of liability. In 2007 with a change of management of the adjacent farm, co-operation was lost and compensation payments ended — but the fish kills continued.

Gwen took photos of dying fish larvae through her microscope, some spinning uncontrollably and others hatching with two heads. She pressured the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries (QDPI&F). They could only provide a field officer who checked the spray operators’ log as to how he used the chemicals and when. He found all in order and according to the labelling. The use and labelling of these pesticides is regulated by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA).

Gwen wrote an article seeking help that was published in the aquaculture magazine Hatchery International and an aquaculture veterinarian, Dr Matt Landos, visited her farm in October 2008. He confirmed Gwen’s observations with separate trials and was at the fish farm to see the full effects of the spay drift from the Macadamia plantation. He identified three main chemicals used on Macadamia farms that were likely to have affected these fish — Carbendazim, Endosulfan and Methidathione — provided a case report and samples to QDPI&F.

Carbendazim has been included by the European Commission on a priority list of chemicals that are believed to affect hormone function and is one of the most likely causes of the two-headed fish deformities. The testing of chemicals on fish larvae is not a requirement of the APVMA which is only reviewing the wording on the labels — over the next six months. Carbendazim was removed from registration in USA in 2001 due to concerns over reproductive effects on humans.

Australia has ratified the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants under which Endosulfan is currently being assessed with the potential of being banned in 120 countries. This is the chemical Dr Landos believes may be associated with the mass mortalities observed and potentially with the deformities.

Dr Landos suggests the organophosphate, methidathione, is most likely the cause of the neurological toxicity observed in Gwen’s spinning larvae.

Frustrated by the lack of action by governments, State and Federal, locals made a video of the fish farm and the two headed fish and posted it on YouTube. They have campaigned hard for at least a moratorium to be put on the use of these chemicals until their affects on both fish larvae and people can be scientifically assessed. The QDPI&F want to establish a taskforce to ‘examine these chemicals’ — but there is no talk of banning their use in the interim.

The APVMA is currently reviewing the label used for Carbendazim — a review not due to be finished within six months. The failure of this body and the Queensland DPI&F to act is now threatening multi million dollar tourist and fishing industries — and women’s health — in both Queensland and NSW — and where ever else these chemicals are used.

In The Noosa News the Acting Premier Paul Lucas was quoted as saying “Fish don’t have two heads. They generally have one. And let’s find out why that is the case.” Let’s!

With Anna Bligh and Queensland Labor facing an imminent State Election and the tourism industry already facing a crisis, it will be fascinating to see if she will ‘stick a rocket’ under her under-performing agencies. A moratorium on the use of these chemicals would hold or increase combined green and fishing vote. A failure to act could cost many votes as the notoriety of two headed fish larvae continues to spread through Queensland.

For the embattled Federal Environment Minister there is the challenge of getting the Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicine Authority to declare a moratorium on the use of Carbendazim, Edosulfan and methidathione to protect both fish and mothers — at least until research on their affects of fish larvae and people is complete.

Peter Fray

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