Murray crayfish

Managing the recovery of Murray crayfish in the southern Murray-Darling Basin

Murray crayfish (Euastacus armatus) is the world’s second largest freshwater crayfish and naturally occurs across 12,500km of Victorian and New South Wales waterways of the southern Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), including the River Murray. Yet, this iconic and recreationally fished species has undergone considerable declines in distribution and abundance over the past 50 years due to river regulation, habitat degradation and overfishing.

The mighty Murray crayfish

Most recently, the species has been severely impacted by a hypoxic blackwater event that occurring following drought-breaking flooding over the MDB during 2010-11. Hypoxic blackwater can result as microbes breakdown accumulated leaf litter when floodplains are inundated and can lead to oxygen concentrations (<2mg/l) that are and is lethal to aquatic fauna. In the River Murray, the blackwater originated in the floodplain wetlands, including the Barmah-Millewa and Koondrook-Perricoota redgum forests, as well as along tributary rivers such as the Goulburn and Murrumbidgee rivers, with  hypoxic conditions extending for approximately 1800km and persisted for almost six months.

Dead Murray crayfish during blackwater event (A King)

During the 2010-11 blackwater event,  fish and yabby kills and the emergence  of Murray crayfish  were noted. Concerns raised by these observations prompted targeted sampling in 2012 (after data) to allow comparison with data obtained before the blackwater event (in 2010). This study highlighted an alarming reduction (81%) in crayfish abundance in areas affected by the blackwater event  whereas abundance remained similar in unaffected upstream areas. Consistently, surveys by NSW DPI have revealed low and patchy numbers of Murray crayfish across other MDB waterways after the blackwater event. These impacts  prompted major changes to the recreational fishing regulations for Murray crayfish, including complete closure in blackwater affected areas.

Since this time, research and monitoring as part of a collaborative project (NSW Fisheries and Aquasave–NGT) has shed light on the status of the species. A population genetics study revealed that populations across much its present range are generally in good genetic condition (broad gene flow and moderate genetic diversity), but recolonisation of areas impacted by the blackwater impact will occur gradually. Other components of the project that are currently being finalised, involve construction of a population model to forecast recovery trajectories and assess management scenarios to assist management of the species. Further, we have continued the target blackwater monitoring (in 2014, 2015 and 2016), which is showing positive results for the species. We are also working through the most comprehensive benchmarking of the status of populations across Victoria ever conducted.

Components of the research and monitoring have been funded through the NSW Recreational Fishing Freshwater Trust and the Victorian Recreational Fishing Grants Program, with additional funding from the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Please contact  or see publications below for more information:

Whiterod N.S., Zukowski S., Asmus M., Gilligan D., & Miller A.D. (2016). Genetic analyses reveal limited dispersal and recovery potential in the large freshwater crayfish Euastacus armatus from the southern Murray–Darling Basin. Marine and Freshwater Research,

McCarthy, B., Zukowski, S., Whiterod, N., Vilizzi, L., Beesley, L. & King, A. (2014). Hypoxic blackwater event severely impacts Murray crayfish (Euastacus armatus) populations in the Murray River, Australia. Austral Ecology, 39, 491–500.

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