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Anatomy of a fish ecologist: Emeritus Professor Angela H. Arthington

Interviewed by Ebb, June 2015


Hello Angela, thanks for agreeing to tell us your life’s story. From the professional side of things at least!

Angela, I remember meeting you for the first time at the University of Sydney in the lunch queue during my first ever attendance at an ASFB conference in 1995. I knew very few people at that conference, and was feeling pretty small and insignificant. Not much has changed, I still have my insecurity and you have your fame. Seriously, you were a delight that day. I remember you chatting away and asking me what I was up to, and after a while I stopped looking around to wonder who all the other researchers were. Did you have any trouble making contact with the big names early on in your career and did you have any special guidance from anyone in particular?

Hi Ebb,

I had a similar experience at an early ASL conference when I was just getting started, working on the ecology of dune lakes of Queensland’s coastal sand islands and lowlands. I was introduced to Professor Ian Bayly, whose paper on Fraser Island lakes I had read. I was terrified but he was kind and supportive. My advice is this – everyone fears these early meetings, and making contact with bigwigs – so just grit your teeth and get on with it, but arm yourself with a few interesting questions to get them started. After writing to many prominent taxonomists for help with identifying invertebrates I became good mates with several, wrote papers with them and stimulated three taxonomic revisions. I even had a species of freshwater worm from Brown Lake named after me – Rhyacodrilus (now Rhizodrilus) arthingtonae. I also became interested in fish in the lakes and wetlands, and with more help from taxonomists I became aware of two threatened fish species. I was awarded Commonwealth grants (ANPWS) to work on recovery plans for both of them – Pseudomugil mellis and Nannoperca oxleyana. Sand dune landscapes and wetlands have remained one of my favourite ecosystem types and I have been able to keep publishing in that space since the 1980s.


When I slinked into freshwater fish ecology in the mid 1990s to work on Carp, I had a perception that you were very much the go-to person for alien species. Is that a fair assessment, and how do you see the eras within your own career thus far?

Working on dune lakes also introduced me to Gambusia, so when I was invited (and funded by ANPWS) to research the ecology and impacts of alien species in Queensland I was already thinking about these issues. My era with aliens culminated in a number of papers on Gambusia holbrooki, other poeciliids and the cichlid Oreochromis mossambicus – the Mozambique mouthbrooder. After several years of good funding, my attempts to build a larger research program on aliens in Queensland waterways were not successful, mainly because the agencies I approached for funding and collaboration told me the issues I was raising about the impacts of aliens were unimportant. By the time that Queensland authorities took notice, Oreochromis mossambicus and other alien fisheswere out of control in streams and rivers of northern Queensland. That period of work led to an invitation to join the Global Invasive Species Program (GISP) Expert Consultation (2003) hosted by GISP and The Nature Conservancy at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, and develop a ‘white paper’ on the problems and solutions to alien species in freshwater systems. The scientific product of that wonderful meeting was a global review of “The effects of introduced tilapias on native biodiversity” (Canonico et al. 2005).


In recent decades you have really carved out a niche in the flows space. Can you give us a brief run down on what we have learnt about fish and flows, and provide some insight into what you have contributed?

Environmental flows came to my attention in the late 1980s when I was asked to give the Queensland Water Commission advice on the effects of a new dam on downstream aquatic ecosystems. My study area was Barker-Barambah Creek near Murgon and the site of the new Bjelke-Petersen Dam. With my research team I wrote six huge reports for the QWC documenting potential and actual effects of altered flows, water quality changes, barrier effects, methods for river monitoring and environmental flow management. Years later a senior engineer from the Commission told me that he had never read them, instead using the heavy volumes as doorstops. That experience taught me that a scientist must honour their reporting obligations to clients, but always try to get a journal publication out of contract / commissioned studies. After this, funding from the LWRRDC enabled me to assemble a team of fishos (Brad Pusey, Mark Kennard, Steve Mackay, Darren Renouf) to study fundamental aspects of fish communities, habitat requirements and life history strategies in the coastal rivers of Queensland, with special emphasis on flow requirements and implications for environmental flow management. We wrote many papers and a book together based on those studies. In 2005, Pusey, Kennard and Arthington won the Whitley Medal – the most sought after prize in zoological publishing in Australia – for “Freshwater Fishes of North-Eastern Australia, CSIRO Publishing, 2004. David Pollard delivered a memorable commentary at the award ceremony held in the Australian Museum great hall where we were surrounded by fish and dinosaur skeletons, and many good colleagues.

The photo below is special because it reminds me of working with Brad and Mark. It was taken in Madrid in 2004 during the Fifth International Symposium on Ecohydraulics, and we were celebrating publication of the fish book. After this we had a fabulous paella dinner.


Freshwater fish need water flows, obviously, but how much, when, how often and to what purpose? The Bunn and Arthington (2002) flow-ecology ‘principles paper’ gets to the heart of the ‘so what’ question: flow shapes and maintains habitat and connectivity, drives recruitment strategies, triggers movement and migration and sets the stage for biotic interactions with native and alien species. The deeper questions concern the importance of flow variability across those dimensions and what happens when any or all characteristics of a flow regime are altered by dams, water abstraction or inter-basin transfers. My own work in SE Queensland suggests that fish in sub-tropical streams with intermittent and variable flow regimes are sensitive to low flow conditions yet fairly resilient to disturbances associated with variable channel and flood flows. However, some species do not cope well when the temporal patterns of wet and dry season flows and low flow recruitment processes are disturbed by untimely water releases from dams (Rolls and Arthington 2014).


What’s looming on the horizon for fish and flows work? What are the real chestnuts?

Can we set limits to levels of alteration or restoration of particular flow characteristics and have confidence in our predictions of ecological outcomes, even for individual species? Are there thresholds of flow regime change that must be avoided to protect fish recruitment and assemblage composition? How transferable are our understandings from one river system to another? Will today’s knowledge serve us well into a future of shifting climates, greater demands for water off-stream, and multiple stressors arising from disturbed and developed catchments? I believe the science of e-flows and river ecology is robust enough to generate scenarios of fish response to flow disturbances and other stressors. The greatest urgency is to expand the implementation of e-flows and monitor their ecological outcomes in diverse climatic settings, so that the e-flow scientists and managers of the future inherit detailed (preferably long-term) records of ecological processes during times of change that will fortify their efforts to protect and restore rivers in changing environments. Far too many e-flow prescriptions are not implemented, many studies are short-term one-off investigations, and the outcomes of most e-flow prescriptions are never monitored.


You have obviously influenced a long list of Australian freshwater fish ecologists. From your stable, I have long been impressed with the outback research of Harry Balcombe. Can you give us a feel for what your collaborations with Harry have been like?

I got to know Harry through working with him in the Lake Eyre Basin on the ‘Dryland Refugium Project’ funded by the Freshwater CRC. We worked on fish diversity patterns and recruitment in Cooper Creek, camping out or staying in abandoned shearing sheds. Harry organised all of our trips, and led the fish sampling program. Many sweaty hours were spent setting nets, measuring and weighing our catches and swatting flies, but Harry never lost his cool even when he swam into a dead pelican while setting fyke nets. I fell over dragging a seine net loaded with mud through a drying waterhole, but fortunately only two people witnessed this debacle. Evenings around our campfire were good fun, and the places we visited were beautiful (if you like arid landscapes, turbid waterholes, majestic old river redgums and bird watching). I loved it all and really enjoyed working with Harry in ‘the outback’ and on many publications from that study. As a member of the Scientific Advisory Panel for the Lake Eyre Basin I draw constantly on the insights gleaned while working with Harry on the ‘boom and bust’ ecology of fish Cooper Creek.


Now that I am in the Wet Tropics, I have also come to appreciate your collaborations with Richard Pearson and Paul Godfrey. Care to give us some insights into the successes of those collaborative partnerships?

Most of my research has involved collaboration of one form or another, and most of those partnerships have been rewarding and productive. Research on fish and flow regimes in the Wet Tropics with Brad and Mark (through the Rainforest CRC) led on to projects with Richard and his team at JCU with funding from MTSRF (a branch of the national CERF program). I joined Richard and Jim Wallace from CSIRO in an ambitious project on floodplain hydrology and ecology, with the Tully-Murray system our focus. Paul Godfrey stepped aside from his Ph D to sample fish and invertebrates in floodplain lagoons, and together with Fazlul Karim, we workshopped four papers, with two more to come. I loved our days spent nutting over Fazlul’s flood inundation and channel connectivity models, and interpreting our fish assemblage data in relation to connectivity patterns on the floodplain. When that funding ran out we scraped up a partial salary for Paul to complete his Ph D. Richard always kept us entertained with his wonderful puns, and to this day calls me ‘Lady Flow’. I miss my trips to Townsville, our workshops, dinners around town and Jim’s stories, but the collaboration continues. Our next goal is papers from Paul’s Ph D.


Earlier in your career, you did some neat fish biology in the greater Brisbane area. Clearly, there has been a human population explosion in that region in the past few decades. Where are some of the local endemics up to, and do you think it would be worth someone revisiting some of your early field sites to take stock?

In the early 1980s I worked on fish communities and life history patterns with David Milton and Roley Mckay (Qld Museum), initially with a focus on alien species in urban streams. In recent years, streams and rivers of the SE Queensland mainland have been monitored through the EHMP (Environmental Health Monitoring Program), using nifty fish metrics ground-truthed by Mark Kennard. Routine monitoring tracks the effects of pressures associated with human population growth on the mainland. For example, in 2013, fish indicators showed improvement on previous years as a result of increased water flowing through streams and improved waterway connectivity. Revisiting our original urban sites in the lower Brisbane catchment would be very interesting, and certainly feasible, using the raw data from the 1980s as a benchmark (Arthington et al. 1983). There is patchy data on the fate of rare and threatened species on the coastal islands, but no equivalent aquatic health monitoring program. Gambusia seems to be spreading,


Angela, I’m sure you have sat on your share of interview panels as the lone female, what have we got to do to attract and retain more women in Australian freshwater fish ecology? Please do not comment on my tacky aftershave, as I am obliged to print word for word what you say.

I have sat on many panels but rarely as the lone female. Usually there are two in a group with four or more male members. One of my recent committees was half and half but that was when Julia Gillard was our PM and she had insisted on gender equality. I think that having more women at all levels of government, university and public endeavour is an important part of attracting women into career pathways. It should be the norm, not the exception, so that women have inspiring examples of men and women working together. Flexibility of employment, study programs, leave arrangements etc., is important for women and men, especially at critical times like doing a Ph D, when so many study and life demands coincide. Attracting women into science should start when they are very young, to embed consciousness of environment, plants and animals. Camping, fossicking on beaches and fishing for fun in NZ led me into aquatic ecology and fishing for science, after a few detours when I was fascinated by invertebrates, especially insects and above all, dragonflies.


I just have a couple more questions and you are free from the repressive cologne. What have you enjoyed the most about researching Australian freshwater fishes?

Becoming familiar with particular ecosystems and how fish have adapted to environmental regimes. I have enjoyed working in extreme environments best of all, even though fish diversity therein has been low. My favourite systems are the lakes and wetlands of sand dune islands where dystrophic conditions and isolation limit the range of species, but rare and threatened species persist. Of equal interest are the floodplain rivers of the Lake Eyre Basin, where aquatic life can flourish in spite of the harshest of conditions during dry times, and the waterscapes are rich and beautiful during the wet. Colleagues and friends, birdwatching and beer have enhanced my fishy experiences in these special environments.


And finally, do you have any papers written by others that really shaped your thinking that you can tell us a little about?

Bayly IAE, Ebsworth EP. and Wan HF (1975). Studies on the lakes of Fraser Island, Queensland. Aust. J. mar. Freshwater. Res. 26: 1-13.

This paper by Ian Bayly about the ecology of lakes on Fraser Island inspired me when I was just getting started, because it was the only good reference, and his writing style was exceptional. My own first paper was about two lakes on North Stradbroke Island, one brown and one blue, with contrasting biota and ecology.

Next I admired “The Stream and its Valley” by HBN Hynes (Edgardo Baldi Memorial Lecture, Verh. Internat. Verein. Limnol. 19: 1-15, 1975). It was one of the early readings that helped me as I shifted from lake studies to the ecology of streams and rivers.

Poff NL, Allan DJ, Bain MB, Karr JR, Prestegaard KL Richter BD, Sparks RE, Stromberg JC (1997). The natural flow regime – a paradigm for river conservation and restoration. BioScience 47: 769–784.

LeRoy Poff’s seminal paper on the natural flow paradigm was a truly wonderful read when I was becoming embedded in environmental flows science. Working and publishing with LeRoy has been a career highlight.


Professor Arthington, it has been an honour and a pleasure. Your influence has been widespread and well received. No doubt you are pretending to be retired. I look forward to many more of your written contributions, both peer-reviewed and more casually here at the Lair.