South Australia’s fish kills, dolphin deaths, algal blooms, desal brine and the way forward

My name’s Dan Monceaux, I’m a documentary filmmaker, and two years ago I started working full-time on a project called Cuttlefish Country. I began to investigate the decline in the Giant Australian Cuttlefish aggregation of Upper Spencer Gulf (near Whyalla) and have been on task since as both a concerned citizen and independent, unfunded filmmaker. I soon came to realise the complexity of marine investigations. Environmental change, human impacts to the sea and pollution sources all became topics of great interest to me. Since at least 2008, the cuttlefish population in Northern Spencer Gulf has been known to be dying a prolonged death with little effort spent investigating the cause until very recently (see PIRSA’s website for details). As far as the cuttlefish go, I am afraid that scientific efforts to help that species recover are coming too little and too late. Considering my focus these past two years, and as someone who cares deeply about the health of our waters, I was shocked and appalled with the beach-wrecked animals we’ve seen along the South Australian coast in March and April. The level of public concern is however, encouraging and shows that South Australians are ready to take responsibility for the health of our waters, and do all we can to prevent any such disasters in the future. 

A variety of dead fish on the beach at Moana

A variety of dead fish on the beach at Moana, AdelaideNow

Unprecedented fish kills wash up on our beaches

So, the last couple of days I’ve been revisiting accounts of fish kills in the media and in people’s comments. We all know tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands by now) of fish have been spotted and photographed on our State’s beaches in March and April. The majority have been small to medium-sized reef fish and leather-jackets, but globe fish, snapper, mullet and even a tuna have been reported as washing up. Crabs, shell-fish, leafy seadragons and sea cucumbers have washed up too. Glenelg Beach was inundated with tonnes of seaweed in late February. All is clearly not well beneath our waters, and in every beach-wrecked animal or plant, there are clues. As South Australians, we are all stakeholders in our local waters, and we all have a right to know what’s going on. The full story, not the sanitised version.

I’ve had no prior experience with fish kills as such, so my knowledge comes from conversations with scientists, and reading a variety of published papers. The more people I meet, the more aware I become that no living South Australians have seen anything quite like this before. While we’re gathered here at Port Noarlunga reef, this is clearly a statewide problem, and is effecting all users of the coast and marine environment as well as the marine life itself. Fishermen want to know if fish are safe to catch and eat. Health SA have been quick to say yes, but how strong is their scientific case? If someone eats a fish and doesn’t become ill within 24 hours, is that really enough to presume that no harm is done? If the fish are guaranteed by the State for us to eat, then what is killing our dolphins, young and old? Surely they would eat some of the same fish species we would? How concerned should we be about toxins in the fish we catch or purchase?

Fish kills have been reported from the West Coast of Eyre Peninsula down to the State’s South East. PIRSA has recently added a list of fish kill locations to their website, and we should thank them for that. Having a list is one thing of course, but knowing the full scale, that is, estimating the size of each kill and disclosing the time of discovery would be an excellent next step. We should be asking for this information immediately. The State’s current position on this matter presently is that the likely cause is algal bloom, which depleted oxygen levels or (as we heard from Government representatives at last night’s meeting) entered the gills of fish, stimulating mucus secretion which built up and effectively choking the fish to death. Apparently gills in at least some specimens appear to be inflamed, and fish have been washing up in unusually ‘fresh’ looking condition, with clear eyes and complete bodies.

A young bottlenosed dolphin lies dead on a suburban Adelaide beach

A young bottlenosed dolphin lies dead on a suburban Adelaide beach, AdelaideNow


Dead Dolphins & Penguins too

If the State’s algal bloom theory holds true, we must ask questions about the other beach-wrecked animals. What were the causes of death of penguins or dolphins? Media reports suggest that these deaths are not likely to be directly connected. So what else are dolphins vulnerable to? The scientists investigating the dead dolphins are waiting for lab results to be returned. They have found evidence of a ‘fungal pneumonia’ in the dolphins, and another AdelaideNow story described E.coli bacteria around the blowhole of at least one dolphin. The latest development shows scientists have discovered that dolphin morbillavirus claimed at least some of these lives by weakening the immune systems of particularly young or otherwise vulnerable animals.

I am hoping to hear from the SA Museum’s Dolphin Trauma Group soon, and when I do, I have some more questions to ask them. One of the forms of pollution whales and dolphins are vulnerable to is actually sound, referred to as ‘acoustic trauma’ and a mass dolphin kill in Peru in 2012 was attributed to such harm. I recommend you read about this acoustic trauma dolphin kill case. I have attempted (but not successfully as yet) to determine whether any seismic exploration for oil and gas has been conducted off our coast recently, or whether the DSTO has been conducting sonar tests in our waters (this report shows some preliminary plans for Naval sonar testing, circa 2011). Interestingly, the Department of Mines’ seismic survey database suggests there has been no seismic surveying activity at sea of this kind since the year 2009. This finding did surprise me though, as records show substantial seismic surveying works distributed over the previous 30 years. See for yourself at the SARIG website… the South Australian Resources Industry Geoserver.

Dolphins or whales exposed to the controlled explosions of seismic exploration can be stunned, have their balance impaired or be killed depending on the intensity and their proximity to the source of the blasts. Fish can also be harmed in this way. I would like to know, have any seismic surveys or Naval sonar tests been conducted in February, March or April of 2013? The Dolphin Trauma Group at the SA Museum has been conducting autopsies, but what have they been looking for? Was acoustic trauma on the list? If the Government is confident that no testing or surveying has occurred, why not prove that the animals have not suffered acoustic trauma, so we can eliminate this potential cause?

Most media reports covering this investigation count dolphin deaths from March 4th or 5th onwards… but looking back further, to February, dolphin kills were also reported in Upper Spencer Gulf near Whyalla and Port Augusta. In one case, four animals stranded at Port Augusta and 2 animals were able to saved at the rise of the tide. Apparently autopsies were conducted on the two dead Port Augusta animals, but what were they looking for, and what did they find? Were findings similar to those in Gulf St. Vincent?  

At the Port Noarlunga meeting, April 24th. Photo courtesy of Surfers Shak Photography

At the Port Noarlunga meeting, April 24th 2013. Photo courtesy of Surfers Shak Photography

Algal blooms & nutrient pollution are the likely candidate

Coming back to the topic of the algal blooms, the State has been quick to suggest we are seeing the results of a natural phenomenon. That would certainly be a convenient result for all users of the marine environment, but how honest an appraisal is this? Algal blooms need more than unusually warm water to thrive. They need fuel. Fuel in the form of nutrient. Human activities introduce nutrient to the sea in a variety of ways.

If we approach this issue with a mature outlook, we should be looking at identifying periods of high risk, the same way we look at the weather report to guage bush fire risk. The CFS doesn’t start controlled burns on hot days, when there is an increased risk of a fire getting out of control. I would like to suggest a similar approach to algal blooms. We must take responsibility for the nutrient outputs we can control, and attempt to develop a management plan which reduces risk when natural elements start to create the perfect storm.

So what are the main inputs of this fuel to our seas? Fortunately, there’s a convenient means to find out. It’s called the National Pollution Inventory. You can use it to search specifically for discharges of pollution to the sea. Here are South Australia’s results from the NPI: In South Australia, here’s the leaderboard by industry, per year for nutrient discharges (ammonia) to our seas for the year 2011/2012:

  • 5. Pulp, Paper and Paperboard Manufacturing  – 10 tonnes
  • 4. Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Services  – 180 tonnes
  • 3. Whyalla Steelworks (Coke Ovens) – 210 tonnes
  • 2. Penrice Soda – 690 tonnes* (this facility is scheduled to cease operating in June 2013)

So what’s the number one industry that dumps ammonia into the sea? The fuel for algal blooms? Here it gets interesting. I had to rely on other sources to gather this information, as this industry is not currently required to report to the National Pollution Inventory. The disappointing truth is this. Our state’s largest contributor of nutrient (ammonia) to the ocean does not disclose this pollution. A picture is worth a thousand words.


Major Sources of Nutrient Pollution to SA waters (2010-2011)

The state’s number one ammonia-to-water polluter is seapen aquaculture (Southern Bluefin Tuna and Yellowtail Kingfish). The combined total of nutrient outputs from these seapen fish farming activities in Spencer Gulf has been conservatively estimated to produce the above graph, using a combination of available data and independent scientific sources.

In respect to Allan Holmes from DEWNR, I owe him an apology for rudely interrupting him when he was trying to talk about wastewater treatment plants. With Penrice’s Soda production set to cease this June, the State’s big offender in Gulf St. Vincent will be the Christies Beach wastewater treatment plant. We should be particularly concerned about this for human health reasons too, considering its proximity to the desal plant’s water intake (roughly two kilometres). Let’s all hope that water is well treated, because some of it will inevitably make its way back to us via the desal plant’s intake mechanism. The graph below shows the ammonia output of the Christies’ plant along with the 3 next most significant plants by volume of ammonia discharged to water. You will see that they pale in comparison to the previously mentioned industrial inputs.

Nutrient discharge from wastewater treatment plants in SA

Someone at the Noarlunga meeting suggested that Upper Spencer Gulf had escaped algal blooms and fish kills this season, and PIRSA’s list of fish kill reports currently show none north of Cowell. Could this industry’s withdrawal from the Northern Spencer gulf region have helped protect its waters from the algal blooms and subsequent fish kills we’ve seen elsewhere? I noticed that the State representatives present, which included Allan Holmes (Chief Executive of the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources), Minister John Hill (Member for Kaurna), Vic Neverauskas (Manager, Aquatic Pests, BiosecuritySA) and others were reluctant to discuss aquaculture at the meeting. Allan Holmes also didn’t seem to appreciate being called out when providing misinformation directly to the public. Perhaps they weren’t expecting an informed public to ask a few pointy questions?

Now, back to nutrient. The State is suggesting that an upwelling of cold, nutrient rich water from the south is responsible for the nutrient input. The state admits that nutrient fuels algal blooms. Why not consider the hypothesis that the nutrient plumes from aquaculture (which are much closer to the very first reported fish kills in Spencer Gulf, which were near Port Neill) were transported to St Vincent Gulf, by wind and or current? Alternatively, could blooms in different locations have been fuelled by different, localised nutrient and warm water sources? This brings me to the importance of establishing what was known, by whom and when. I would also like to see solid evidence to support the theory of nutrient upwellings from the south contributing to this cause. I would also like to see the plumes of nutrient from known sources modelled to prove or disprove my alternative hypothese. In the very least, we should be asking several questions of the aquaculture industry. What did the tuna and kingfish growers know and when? Did their water quality analyses warn them of what was to come? Did their stock die off?

At the Noarlunga Meeting, April 24, 2013... Photo courtesy of Surfers Shak Photography

At the Noarlunga Meeting, April 24, 2013… Photo courtesy of Surfers Shak Photography

I was shocked when I found out our State’s largest contributor of nutrient to the sea wasn’t obliged to report to the National Pollution Inventory. This is something I believe we should call to have changed immediately. Pollution is pollution, no matter how it’s generated and this lack of disclosure from industry, under the protection of the State by ministerial representation is not on. Land-based industries have to report emissions of ammonia to water if they exceed 10 tonnes per annum. Seapen aquaculture exceeds this mandatory reporting threshold by over 160 times!

I believe it is critical for us to all know who’s sharing information, and who’s holding it back. Earlier today, I attempted to access the Aquaculture Industry’s Public Register to find out more about the existing leases and environmental monitoring programs. The link was broken sometime in April. Whether withholding of information in this way is intentional or coincidental, this is very poor form. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind quite so much if the Environment Protection Authority had released any long-term marine water quality data for SA waters since 2008. It’s been ‘coming soon’ for 5 years. I asked the EPA where it was and why it wasn’t available in July of 2012. I was told that it would become available in 2013. If you’re sitting at the EPA now and you’re reading this… now would be a great time for the EPA to make good on that promise.

Port Stanvac Desalination Plant during construction - Original image by User:Vmenkov. Remixed by Dan Monceaux. CC Sharealike licensed.

Port Stanvac Desalination Plant during construction – Original image by User:Vmenkov. Remixed by Dan Monceaux. CC Sharealike licensed.

The Port Stanvac Desalination Plant

 A lot of people have been asking questions about potential impacts from the desalination plant. While Gail Gago and others claim to have ‘categorically ruled out’ desalination plant impacts, I cannot accept this with such confidence. The EPA has recently made available salinity monitoring data from the plant at Port Stanvac. The March data from AdelaideAqua shows and notes a plant shutdown for three days in March, but leaves the reason for this unexplained. This is a step in the right direction, but this is only partial disclosure. Why was this plant shut down?

According to oceanographer Jochen Kaempf from Flinders University, it is possible for desalination plants’ brine, if not adequately mixed to create bodies of water which settle and can then be transported along the ocean floor. In these brine pools, available oxygen can be used up by the fish and plants which are exposed, leading to potential death by asphyxiation, or suffocation.   Symptoms of death by this means could potentially be similar to those shown by fish whose available oxygen was depleted by algal blooms. The available data also shows the intermittent operation of numerous monitoring points. Should this instill confidence in us? Even if the brine is mixing well and the salinity and oxygen levels in the water are good, desalination plants still return brine to the sea at an elevanted temperature. They also return a variety of treatment chemicals to the sea. Have these honestly been ‘categorically ruled out’? I find this conclusion, and the speed at which it was reached unscientific. Any contribution from the Port Stanvac desalination plant to recent fish kills simply cannot be ‘categorically’ ruled out, because it interacts with our wonderful marine environment and biodiversity in so many different ways- heat, salinity, oxygen levels and chemical contaminants. If you want to learn more from Jochen, I interviewed him back in 2011 about desalination. Take a look.

I believe that it is reasonable, when faced with a complex scientific problem such as this, we should only believe based on available evidence, not on bold, unsubstantiated assertions by politicians. When critical information is withheld from public view, is it appropriate to be skeptical and expect honest and informed answers to every relevant question. Considering the peculiarities and complexities of desalination I do not believe it to be either responsible or scientific to state that the desalination plant can be ‘categorically rule out’ as a contributor to fish kills or the development of algal bloom.    

We're not mushrooms - Photo courtesy of Surfers Shak Photography

We’re not mushrooms – Photo courtesy of Surfers Shak Photography

My vision for our gulfs

So where are we heading at the moment? Disclosure of more detailed information from government (on April 24th, the same day as the community led meeting at Port Noarlunga) is a promising start. Honest disclosure of the relative risks of all human pollution sources to the sea (including aquaculture) would be a good next step. Then we deserve a detailed briefing from the staff of the desalination plant on the operation of the plant in February and March, stepping us through their graphs with explanations. We should continue to listen to the Dolphin Trauma Group and see what evidence their tests reveal. We should ask for disclosure of seismic and naval testing practices which could be harmful to whales and dolphins… and finally and most importantly… we need to see full cooperation between all users of the marine environment. That means everyone from coastal residents, surfers, divers and fishermen through to port operators, explorers, oil and gas companies, aquaculturists and fisheries. With collaboration, perhaps the State could lead the development of an early-response plan to prevent such waste of life and personal distress as we’ve seen these past two months.

There are people and businesses out there who each hold a piece of the puzzle, and if we collaborate and bring those pieces together, we can start to see the full picture. Nobody likes being kept in the dark and being fed half the story. For those of us who love the sea and the life it supports, this is a very sensitive issue that needs immediate attention. My vision is for thriving gulfs, teeming with life for us all to enjoy, but getting there will take honesty, cooperation and a lot of hard work.

The Search for the Answer Continues...

The Search for the Answer Continues… Photo courtesy of Surfers Shak Photography


Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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