Brackish behaviour

By Ebb

It’s not that long now until fish and fisheries researchers, managers and associated types will be gearing up to attend the Australian Society for Fish Biology conference in Sydney. Early bird registration has passed and the diehards are reminded that it has been a year or more since the previous annual migration has come to pass. New-comers are nervous with expectation and up for a great experience. Darwin was a success, and for mine they almost always are. I suspect I’ve missed maybe two conferences in twenty years, which is not necessarily a badge of honour, but has certainly given me regular opportunity to meet friends and colleagues and to stay somewhat up to date with bits and bobs. For the record, at least one of those conference absences was due to the birth of a child when I was living in Mildura and the conference took place merely a few hours down the road in Bendigo. Nevertheless we are expected to love our children.

This year there will be a full day of Murray-Darling Basin centric presentations. For the Basin crowd this will be a chance to mix in an interstate manner, and champion collaborative initiatives fused at the hip by a river system, a common fauna and funding. For the freshwater fish fraternity that operates outside of the Basin this presents an opportunity to watch on at what happens at the Basin buffet, or to pretend to grab a smoke outside.

I’ve spent my fair share of time a while back swirling around in the Basin inertia. On a good day it is intoxicating with the applied challenges that go with large-scale agriculture in dry country and a fish fauna stacked with some of the big species and the imperilled. Clearly, there is a critical mass of fishy professionals focussed on this part of Australia.

Step outside of the Basin and things can be a little thinner on the ground in places. And to be sure there is a real chance that those of a freshwater persuasion based outside the Basin can be cast adrift, seemingly ostracised from the heartland, the cortex. Clearly, a few pulses of the opercula, some O2 to the gills and a pinch of perspective, is all that it is required to see that ‘ostracised’ is a perilous interpretation, that simply requires an attitude readjustment. In a progressive society, mixed shoals are to be encouraged and even cherished. Smoking is to be frowned upon.

Which brings me to the issue of the fresh and the saltwater shoaling. There is indeed advantage to be had in chatting with our marine fish colleagues. For some this will be as natural as skinny-dipping on a Canberra summer day (There are reports of Beluga as far up as Bendora). For others, deeply indoctrinated into freshwater fish ecology it may seem theoretically sound but in practice a little unnatural to mix with marine fish types.

Brackish Colour_2015

The theory goes something like this: broadening horizons is good, a widened perspective arms us with more knowledge and potentially new ideas, and you may already be operating in marine fish work partly anyway. And then there’s diadromy. A quiet silence. Yeh diadromy! It is like taking your opponent’s queen. Check mate is imminent. So without labouring the point, I think we can all concede that there are benefits to mixing with the salties. But can the salties see benefit in mixing with us? Is there really an us and them? Should websites like the Lair be put on notice for instigating racial tension? Let’s calm down and make believe we are all reasonable people.

Essentially, the same arguments should apply to the marine folk looking back at the inlanders, one would think. There is only one way to find out. When we storm the Sydney conference, attend a swag of marine talks, stray from your beaten path, share a beer, or have a coffee with one or a bunch of them. But tread carefully if they don’t like neither coffee or beer. For to offer to share a water, a pure fresh water, well this is a long way from Switzerland, and could indeed represent potential professional suicide. At worst it is a move that can only be interpreted as aggressive, at best seen as a rookie mistake.

Brackish_Great_White_Barry_Bruce 2015_colour

With the aid of Scott Hardie, I previously mentioned the inspirational presentation that Gavin Butler gave at ASFB several years ago (see the Magic Moments section of the Lair, a bunch of contributions back). Here I’d like to add that I’ve attended some exceptional marine talks at ASFB as well. Fondly, I recall entering a room that was literally standing room only and Barry Bruce putting up an image at the start of his talk in Hobart many moons ago. The picture was of a goliath great white nosing the back of a research vessel, and three scientists standing shoulder to shoulder at the stern, their collective shoulder widths roughly as wide as the snout of this beast. Not sure what the ever charismatic Dr Bruce said from that point on, but I’ve never been able to shake that shark image from my mind. And Renae Tobin gave a talk during her PhD candidature that simply changed how I perceived fish science. That day, she convinced me that biology was just one part of the fish and fisheries story and demonstrated social science could be done effectively (much to the disgust of at least one old school biologist in the crowd), and she did it by eloquently not buying into any form of audience pressure.


In conclusion, I’m all for encouraging the mixing of the freshwater and the saltwater fish crowds. How about a little brackish socialising in Sydney? – I hope to see you there, umm, for a coffee.


Associate Editor’s note: Ebb is the ASFB workshop convener and special session co-ordinator. If you have an idea for a workshop or a special session in Hobart, 2016, grab a beer or a coffee with him in Sydney, and chew his ear off.  Allswell