Category Archives: Interviews

A candid interview with a freshwater fish ecologist.


A spritely Howard Gill, literally gone fishing.

Interviewed by Ebb (October 2016)

Ebb: Welcome good sir, how have you been keeping?

Howard: Bloody great, I love retirement! Have become trailer trash in Augusta, no house to worry about, just have to wear wellies all the time as they reckon it’s the wettest (and coldest) year in forty years down here. It is wet, it is cold but once I move to a new site that isn’t constantly under water (tomorrow) I will be fine. Great fishing too!

Ebb: Howard, our east-coast readers may well be acquainted with your work but may not necessarily have heard your most entertaining accent. Would you mind letting us know a little of your upbringing and country of origin?

Howard: What accent, before her death my mum reckoned I had a dinky-di Aussie accent? Born in Blackburn, at one time a great town – 3 breweries (all good), more pubs per head of population than anywhere else in the world probably, good open-air market etc, etc. Now one brewery making shitehouse beer, most of the small pubs gone for beer barns, market gone. Been voted the worst town in the UK for the last decade or so according to my brother who still lives there. Last time I was there I was returning from work in Canada, two nights was two nights too long.

Ebb: What is your favourite Blackburn Rover’s moment in time?

Howard: Listening to the radio of the last game of the 1994-95 season, Blackburn lost to Liverpool, but United only managed a draw to West Ham and we won the Premier League. With the time delay and starting beers early, I seem to recall that I didn’t go to work the next day. Probably even more beers to celebrate. What a day! Other than that all the days spent at Ewood and following them all over England – even when they were playing awful football, but days with mates made it worth it, well almost.

Ebb: Your PhD was on gobies, care to tell us about the study?

Howard: Started off as an ecological study but found a goby that everyone was calling Favonigobius lateralis, and it obviously wasn’t , so I contacted Barry and Doug who agreed, and apart from the first chapter, which was not an intro but the ecological work, the rest became a taxonomic and systematic thesis. Weird as I always thought taxonomy was for boring old farts. Maybe that’s what I became.

Ebb: Why do you find fish larvae so interesting?

Howard: Pancho I suppose, and they are neat. Especially salamander fish. Spent ages looking for them, couldn’t find them with the usual methods, then needed a pee by the side of the vehicle and looked down in the roadside drain slash pool and saw them sitting on their fins just like adults, neat.


Ebb: And you did quite a lot of work on Lampreys. What is so interesting about these beasts?

Howard: For a craniate 500 million years old and still here, no jaws and still here, beat that! Cool, cool animals, ooh and they taste real good.

Ebb: I’ve asked you to provide us with a photo that you value. Care to tell us why this image is important to you?

howardgrandsoncroppedHoward: One of my grandsons and my bike, love them both. Would have loved to have shown you my other grandson and his bike. Also my grandad either fishing or with his bike, or both, he taught me to love, and respect, fish, fishing and bikes but, in his eyes at least, could unfortunately not teach me to appreciate good scotch – his third love.

Ebb: Wedged between Potter and Morgan, what was that like?

Howard: Absolutely great, I learned a great deal from both of them. Ian gave me my opportunity and taught me about rigour, writing and believing in your convictions. Even if it took me nine years to convince him of some, and longer about cladistics (not sure if he believes now). As far as Morgs, what can I say, he was an undergraduate, honours and Ph.D student of mine but more importantly a friend to me and my family. Couldn’t have asked for better bookends!

Ebb: And I hear rumours you are wetting a line. Where do you fish and what are your fishing rituals now that you have escaped the nine to five?

Howard: I will fish for anything. But my favourites are surface lures for yellow-fin whiting – they shouldn’t do it with that inferior mouth. The other is any jigging, but especially for sambos – love em, pull like a train, eat well (belly flaps raw are supreme) and release well. (See attached paper on why).

Ebb: Whilst I am revered for asking the soft hitting questions, I also try to throw in one that might turn-in-the-rough on a fourth day wicket. Dr Gill, what is your stance on colourful language in the lecture theatre? Are you for or against? (I heard you could captivate the undergrads if the tide was right).

Howard: All for it, and who is Dr Gill? Anything that makes students sit up and listen rather than talk to their mates about what happened on the X-Factor last night is worth doing. I used to give them an answer to a question in their first practical assessment and told them if most got it wrong I would write DICKHEADS across the board in the next practical. It often got wrote, but their next exam was way, way better.

Ebb: If there was one of your papers you recommend the Australian freshwater fish fraternity would read – which one are you most proud of?

Howard: I think the work that I would most want freshwater people to read is Ian’s, Claude’s, Dalal ‘s and my chapter on lampreys in Freshwater Fishes of North America, if you want to know anything about lampreys from evolution to conservation it is a great overview. The other paper, which all fish biologists should read, is our account of the discovery of a new type of swim bladder (I’ve attached it to the email mate).

Ebb: Well thanks for sharing some of what has been a stellar career with fellow fish research folk. Is there any chance we might see a cameo from you at the ASFB conference in Albany, WA next year? Surely an ale and a chat is on the cards there……….

Howard: Sounds like a good idea, when is it, can I give a talk, and how many ales? And off for another few now!


Editor’s note: The details for the paper Howard refers to in this interview are provided below. I highly recommend reading this paper. It is really neat and you can download it from his Researchgate page.
Hughes, J. M., Rowland, A. J., Stewart, J., & Gill, H. S. (2016). Discovery of a specialised anatomical structure in some physoclistous carangid fishes which permits rapid ascent without barotrauma. Marine Biology163(8), 1-12.
Morgs cartoon Jan 2016

One of the west’s best: David Morgan

(From a chat in late January 2016)


Ebb – Hi David, welcome to the Lair, thanks for agreeing to this interview at short notice, I know it must be difficult for you to open up to Dr Phil?

David – Thanks Ebb (aka Dr Phil), I’ve opened up to you many times so this shouldn’t be too hard, unless the Bundy Bear is in your ear.


Ebb – Tell us a little about your early years growing up in WA and how fish were a part of your life?

David- Well I had a pretty lucky childhood, where my parents, sister and I spent school holidays at Rottnest Island, Busselton and Dunsborough, as well as nights prawning on the Swan River. So I was always around the water and dad loved spearing cobbler, squiding, crabbing and prawning. I learnt pretty early to use a gidgee and was a dab hand with a crab net. Thanks to dad teaching me. I grew up in Rossmoyne on the banks of the Canning River and we lived near a small creek and some wetlands (now built on) where mates and I used to chase gilgies. I still remember catching a monster flounder at a young age off the Busselton Jetty, with dad telling me it was just weed. I still am partial to a crab sandwich and fresh squid.


Ebb- So when did you know you wanted to go to university to study fish biology?

David- From a young age I wanted to be a marine biologist. I almost made it and do dabble in the salty water a bit, but opportunities arose to do an Honours on Balston’s Pygmy Perch, a species that I still work on. I guess the early years drove me in this direction.


Ebb – David can you tell me why it is you’re such a big fan of the Australian Society for Fish Biology?

David –I think that the main reason is that the Society members are easy going, welcoming to young fish biologists and it is a non-pretentious group. Plus, being from WA, where we used to feel a bit isolated before emails, web and cheap flights, we never really knew what was happening on the east coast unless it was on a Rex Hunt show. A big bonus is that I have met a number of people, like yourself, that have become really good friends, and collaborations are easy to forge within the society.


Ebb – Pleasantries out of the way and because I know you reasonably well, I believe I owe it to our following to mix it up a little. Can you explain the two-seine theory to other fish research folk?

David – “Second-seine theory” I believe you are referring to. Although probably not scientifically robust, it is a great method to collect fish for specific samples. Whether it is the disturbing of sediment, I’m not sure, but predatory fishes appear over the disturbed ground following the first seine; although it may also be from the screaming of thousands of small fish being captured and released in a dazed state. All I know is it works!


Ebb – If you could have been a dual international and played cricket for Australia and been a fish ecologist but was forced to live on the east coast, which state would you choose to play for? Where in the order would you have preferred to bat? What would you have bowled? And in which fish province would you have liked to have spent some serious time?

David –Cricket was more of a hobby for me, and although my left-arm-round-the-wicket poop, as a mate calls it, was OK, I did have a good inswinging yorker; taking 3/0 for the VC’s 11 versus the students with a bung hip was my career highlight. Although for the last 30 years my school mates and I play a Boxing Dax cricket match in our old stomping ground. I was more of an Aussie Rules ruckman in terms of talent. Unlike modern day players that change States regularly, my parochialism wouldn’t have allowed me to do that. In terms of fish, the gulf country interested me after a trip with yourself and Stirling Peverell, although the wet tropics would make a great contrast to WA and the work that you guys are doing is fascinating. I also really would like to see the fish fauna of the Tasmanian lakes and around Fraser Island.


Ebb – Dave, who are some of the old and new contributors to Western Australian specifically (and perhaps further afield) in freshwater fish science and management that you admire and why?

David –When I started Honours on Balston’s Pygmy Perch in 1992, I met with the then Curator of Fishes at the Western Australian Museum, Gerry Allen. He was eager to help me in locating this rare fish and he has inspired so many. Other WA products, such as the late Luke Pen gave me a great deal of support and he assisted in me getting a post-doc in 1998. Other freshwater fish scientists that have really supported me include, early on, Ian Potter and Howard Gill (my PhD supervisors) in learning techniques and publishing, while Stephen Beatty and Mark Allen have been really supportive collaborators. Paul Close in recent times has also been doing some great work in the west. No one in the freshwater scene can ignore the passion of yourself, Adam Kerezsy, Mark Lintermans, Michael Hammer, Peter Unmack or John Koehn.


Ebb – David, I can vouch for your ability to take good fish photos, but a few individuals such as Steve Beatty, myself and some guy named Viss, to name a few, are curious as to how so many good photos are attributed to your lens?

David –Photo S. Visser! Look, in my defense, a few Viss photos that I sent to people were given my credit, but I have never purposely claimed someone else’s photos. Viss and Mark Allen taught me a few techniques, but I don’t take many fish photos these days, perhaps I’m scared (or scarred).


Ebb – I’ve done a little back ground check and come to realise you now have published in the order of a hundred journal papers. Doesn’t this make you feel old? I mean, are there any of these papers you are especially proud of?

Dave – I guess I’m most proud of the early papers on the biology of Balston’s Pygmy Perch, Salamanderfish and Trout Minnow, mainly as they took years to collect monthly samples of length-frequency, GSI, aging, histology and collection was often difficult. Nowadays I like a short note, and there are a recent couple on sawfish that I am pretty happy with. I am also really pleased with the two field guides (Pilbara and South-west) as they are pretty good summaries of the fauna and involved some great colleagues such as Beats, Mark Allen, Ash Ramsay and James Keleher, as well as yourself. A recent overview of the fishes in WA also is a good extension of these field guides.


Ebb- Together, you and Stephen Beatty seem to have really been productive together. Is it important to you guys to churn out heaps of papers, I guess I’m keen to know what is your motivation and how have you managed to keep this up for an extended period?

Dave – We have been working together for about 15 years now, and we are both singing the same tune for our supper, have young families and a similar background. We are both on partial contracts at Murdoch University and the powers that be require a somewhat productive output. With the inevitable expiry of contracts looming, we have been well aware of the need to produce some outputs that the University recognises. But we also are aware of the community perception and we have been driven to provide information or tools for the general public and take the research to the people. Unfortunately universities are now blinkered into looking at those possessing ARC grants and high impact publications, so it will be interesting to see if we survive far into the future.


Ebb – I realise you are a family man. Is it important for you that your children understand in some way your passion for conservation science , or do you try to keep work and family stuff separate?

Dave – As a single parent, kids are the most important thing to me and they are all pretty well in touch with conservation things. I have taken them on many field trips to the Pilbara or Kimberley and they are pretty good helpers. They are getting a bit older now so hopefully they want to keep coming. I give their class talks most years and they get pretty excited about that. They also like a crab sandwich.


Ebb – Which picture have you chosen to provide and tell us about?

morgs and kids

David and his three children

Dave – I chose a picture from a Pilbara trip in 2014, which was in an effort to fill in some gaps in photos, film and species distributions for the field guide, and the kids had a great time. Beats, MA and family, James Keleher and Ash Ramsay and kids came along to that inspiring part of the world. A great field trip and a great memory for all.


Ebb – Morgs, I’ve been fortunate enough to be your sidekick on a few occasions in the Kimberley. So I know the Fitzroy River region is special for you. Would you mind conveying some of your feelings about that part of the Kimberley to our readers?

Dave – I started working on the Fitzroy River in 2001, and there have been so many field trips to the region. You can run, but you can’t hide in the Kimberley. Everyone knows when you are there, and the people have been so accommodating to us. I am so lucky to have work with many different language groups and ranger groups in determining language names for fish and in the Team Sawfish project. It is a very special river, and it is a place I hope to work in for a long time. Nothing beats camping next to the Fitzroy River and catching a barra or a sawfish with great people around. It is a river that we really need to look after, but the constant calls for water abstraction, damming, agriculture and impacts of climate change will continue to challenge us.


Ebb – Dave without trying to kick the crap out of you publicly, you have clearly slowed up physically in recent years. However, you show no signs of slowing up professionally. Do you mind if I ask, what is coming up for D. Lloyd Morgan? Have you got some itches to scratch, science and/or conservation challenges and aspirations yet to be reached?

Dave – The hip replacement slowed me down a few years ago, and the requirement to feed, develop and school three wonderful kids has been a challenge. I think one of the challenges that we all face is the ability to attract funds and a salary. The constant need to pay to work is not ideal and places a lot of pressure on researchers like me that are finding funding for most of their own salary; as I’m sure you are familiar with. I have been fortunate to ‘survive’ for about 17 years as a partially self-funded post-doc, so future is never certain under this scenario. When I look back, WA freshwater fishes were not on any radar, and now they are well-known and the threats are being understood. I hope to continue to be involved in freshwater fish conservation at Murdoch University for a few years yet!

Morgs on the tools

Morgs on the tools near Onslow, WA

Ebb – Dr Morgan, thank you for giving up your time and for being forthright in your responses to my at times informal questioning. Undoubtedly, I would have preferred to use electricity to extract some answers. Keep on swinging mate and take care.

Dave Roberts

A few more sleeps until ASFB

Compiled by Ebb, with backing vocals from: Gary Ogston, Jonas Bylemans, Allswell, Sausage Broadhurst, Sneaky Suitor, Listy Ellis, Dave Cough-a-Lungfish Roberts, The Kosternaut, and special guest T. Clark.

Well it’s just about that time again, and a bunch of us will be milling around endless powerpoint presentations, drinking excessive amounts of coffee in hallways and chatting over the occasional ale.

With the pending absence of a few of my personal favourite characters from the scene this year, I am reminded of just how damn lucky some of us are to be attending. I don’t have a job beyond December but I have a boss who forks up the cash to get me to this shin dig to network and absorb science. Around the traps I hear plenty of organisations that won’t support their staff getting to ASFB, and that is truly a shame.

Anyways, I just want to plug a few talks that will be on show, including a few by the up and comers and some by old school Lair faithful. I guess my sermon is basically show-up to those you know, sure, I get it, but really try and get to those you don’t, the young slash newbie crew. Regarding the new, Gary Ogston has recently completed Honours on Salamanderfish. When I contacted him a short time ago and introduced myself and the Lair, he sent back a Species Spotlight the following day (check it out). I reckon that deserves a beer and probably one or two from Lara Suitor, since she finally got me one after last’ year’s promise in Darwin.


Beware of the Salamanderfish says Gary Ogston

Another relative new comer is Jonas Bylemans. Although many fish biologists might frown at the idea of genetic presentations at the ASFB conference, environmental DNA (eDNA) based detection of fish species is revolutionizing fisheries management. Jonas was adamant that with eDNA based surveys the distribution of fish species can be determined more accurately. And Jonas contends, ‘This increased knowledge has the potential to dramatically improve on-ground management actions’. During his presentation “Combining traditional and environmental DNA based monitoring to improve the management of native and invasive fish species” Jonas will explain how the magical world of eDNA works and how it can be used to assist with on-ground species management. Make sure you introduce yourself to the University of Canberra’s latest successor.


Jonas refusing to use a net (old technology)

Speaking of Canberra, and perhaps not surprisingly, Assistant editor at the Lair, Danswell Starrs will be persisting with his interest in otoliths. He is going to give us a glimpse into the future in terms of possibilities with CT scanning ear bits to reveal a fish’s darkest inner (ear) secrets? Allswell tells of ‘Current practises to extract the information stored in fish otoliths involve sectioning the otolith with a diamond-bladed saw to reveal the inner growth increments’. He reminded me that this is a painstaking process that is slow, laborious and hence, costly. So apparently, his presentation will be a walk through a trial application of Computed X-ray Tomography (Micro CT) to reveal the inner structure of fish otoliths without the need for sectioning.

CT Scan Allswell

Caption. Snapper otolith image captured using a Bruker skyscan 1174 MicroCT scanner. Want to know what’s inside this otolith? Catch Allswell in action.

Apparently there will be a special session on threatened fishes facilitated by stalwart Mark Lintermans. And there is to be the occasional talk about Murray-Darling fishes this year according to NSW Fisheries juggernaut, Craig Boys.

Wayne Koster, will be speaking about movement and habitat use of Australian grayling. The study led by Kosternaut made use of radio- and acoustic telemetry to investigate the day-to-day activity, habitat use, and spawning season movement behaviours of the nationally threatened Australian grayling in the Tarago-Bunyip River system. The results showed that Australian grayling were often located within glide habitats, but also used a range of other mesohabitats (pool, riffle and run), and moved over larger ranges at night. When pushed on what is special about this study Wayne said ‘It also demonstrated synchronised migratory behaviour to specific locations during the spawning season, including movement responses to targeted environmental flows’. ‘This information has the potential to improve our capacity to provide the conditions required to conserve and restore Australian grayling populations’. Koster will be quietly spoken and professional as usual. He is without doubt, one of Australia’s real threatened fish telemetry specialists to emerge from the ARI stable in past decades.

Photo_David_Dawson of Grayling 

Grayling Photo: David Dawson

Ben Broadhurst is always an entertaining speaker, especially when given a tight timeline. Yep finishing the introductory slide at the 8 minute mark is a sure sign of a man on a mission to wrap it up in a hurry. And it wouldn’t be an ASFB conference without a deer in the headlights and a Cotter Reservoir Macquarie perch presentation. 2015 will be no exception (insert sigh of relief). Ben told me ‘An enlarged Cotter Reservoir is filling, and the resident population of endangered Macquarie perch are loving it, with abundant adults as fat as mud dining on newly available terrestrial prey items (mostly juicy earthworms!!). With increased body condition should come increased fecundity and recruitment right? Well so far monitoring indicates that this hasn’t been the case.’

To find out why (well possibly why, we are fish biologists and the more we learn the less we know) head along to Sausage Broadhurst’s presentation entitled “Early response of Macquarie perch to enlargement of an upland reservoir” in the Fish Biology, Ecology and Management session, 11:15 on Monday morning. It will be the only talk with a Barry White reference (except for potentially Barry Bruce’s presentation on White sharks).

Andrew Berghuis Macca fish passage

One of two “Hands on” fish passage enhancements the team constructed to help get Macquarie perch to suitable spawning habitat in the Cotter River upstream of Cotter Reservoir (Photo: Andrew Berghuis)

Dave Roberts is a dual medallist with regular contributions at ASFB and the Lair; and this year will see him reporting on work conducted with the likes of Doug Harding, Tess Mullins, Kris Pitman, Ross Dwyer and the prodigious Mark Kennard.

Dave Roberst Crew

The crew at work in South East Queensland

This project has had it all, National television coverage (albeit targeted to a sub-teen demographic), unexplained electronic gadgets turning up in seafood processing plants, a qualified horse veterinarian, floods, broken fishway. But Dave tells me ‘the most memorable of all was the awesome field trips with a great bunch of researchers and new insights into catadromous fish migration’. Dave elaborated ‘The Logan River system is not a unique Australian river by any stretch, with several fish migration barriers and a Water Resource Plan that dictates water use’. ‘The system does have some hope though, with 4 of the 5 major barriers have the latest fishway designs, and while the system is heavily allocated, water abstraction is low being reserved for future urban demand’. ‘We set about understanding the flow migration needs of three catadromous species and discovered that despite the assumption fishways provided effective passage for migrating fish, some preferred to leap off a cliff then use the fishway to get to the sea’. Which just goes to show, you can get Dave talking – if only you ask the right questions.

A big appearance in the Energetics session will be the exuberant Tim Clark. I asked him why is research is important and got a pretty hardcore science response. ‘Appropriately balancing energy acquisition and energy expenditure is fundamental to the fitness of all animals including fishes. By pairing robust lab-based experiments with novel electronic tagging technologies, scientists may gain an unprecedented understanding of the energetics of wild fishes and pave the way for deciphering the impacts of short- and long-term environmental challenges’. Well nice to meet you Tim. I reckon those who really like there science should get to Tim’s Keynote. Then I thought, no this is simply not good enough. We need to know more about this guy. So I peppered him for some more information about what he is going to discuss next week:

photo Tim Clark

Tim Clark (Photo courtesy of African Safari Magazine)

Ebb, I’m trying to get a Linkage grant together by Friday so sorry if this is a complete information dump, but here’s some stuff you can reshape as necessary…depending on how controversial you want to be!:

[Editor’s note: no edits required this is the human-science nectar the Moray suckles.....]

I got into science for the cheesiest of reasons – I always had a love of animals.  I used to collect spiders, watch pet tadpoles morph into frogs, spend hours watching my pet birds build nests in my aviary, the list goes on.  At that stage, I had aspirations of being a park ranger because I had no idea about the possibilities that existed in scientific research.  I stumbled my way into university and was contently “average” for the first 1.5 years of undergrad.  The defining moment for me was when friends of the family seemed over-the-top excited and congratulatory when I told them I passed the first semester of second-year undergrad with around a C-grade average.  I guess they were expecting me to fail.  They were incredibly polite people, but I couldn’t help to sense some mockery.  That was the spark I needed; I pulled my finger out and battled through the final 1.5 years of undergrad with nothing but A-grades.

My interest in physiology was initiated by Dr Peter Frappell, with whom I ended up doing my Honours and PhD projects.  The thing that attracted me to physiology was that it was conceptual and often over-arching across animal taxa; for example, the concepts behind haemoglobin-oxygen binding and cardiovascular function were applicable across nearly all vertebrates.  On the other hand, my initial training in ecology generally seemed to be context-specific and I struggled to grasp how I could transfer the skills to other species and systems.  Since those days, I have recognised the power of combining physiology with ecology to more comprehensive address research questions.

I’ve realised over time that science suits my personality.  I’m very particular, inquisitive, and I like to do things properly and comprehensively (much to the frustration of my students and colleagues!).  I naively thought that science was exclusively made up of similar personality types, but that proved to be a very inaccurate assumption.  Consequently, I’ve become very passionate about morals and ethics in science, as I believe that the public perception of scientists is continually being tainted by the publication of poor research.  For example, a recent analysis in the biomedical field alone estimated that over $50 billion per year is spent on research that ultimately proves to be irreproducible (i.e., independent researchers cannot achieve the same findings).  There are some big steps that have to be taken to improve the way science is conducted and reviewed, and to more smartly distribute research funding, but I hope to help facilitate these steps in the coming years!

When I sent out a scattered plea for a blurb about a presentation by a South Australian researcher, Lara Suitor responded with excessive vigour. Lara is a regular at ASFB and a good chat. She has teamed up with crowd favourite Listy Ellis to tell a heart warming story about one of our most imperilled Australian fishes. This cross border protection of a species in exile is one not to miss and Lara and Listy have posted a more comprehensive teaser as the recent Species Spotlight on The Lair. Knock ‘em dead Lara.

Lara and Listy dragging

Lara and Listy dragging for hardyheads

Well, time to pack your best frock or shirt (and I realise this creates indecision for you Listy) for the Thursday evening. Don’t forget the toothbrush, flashstick, and maybe a panadol just in case. Look forward to listening to you all, and maybe saying the odd word myself. We all know there ain’t any money about, but for this next week at least, fish science can be in a happy place.

Lady Flow Toon June 2015ColourBlack bGround

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.

sam with pedder trout

Glimpses of a limnologist: Sam Lake

Interviewed by Ebb in December 2014


Welcome to the Moray’s Lair, Professor Sam Lake. How are you?

I’m fine–still fairly intact and supposed to be retired. Besides doing some travelling, fishing and grandfatherly duties, I’ve maintained an active research scope mainly concentrating on the restoration ecology of stream ecosystems, and on the effects that hydrological extreme events (floods, droughts, catchment bushfires) have on these ecosystems.

Sam, I first heard of you when I transitioned to the freshwater world, and my first boss with freshwater leanings, the aquatic botanist, Dr Jane Roberts, mentioned you. She spoke very highly of this Sam Lake guy from Monash University and said that I should read his limnological writings along with those of Keith Walker. At the same time she dangled the carrot that you had started you’re career out studying fishes, including galaxiids in Tasmania. I seemed to recall something about you netting or setting traps from a rowboat, however, this could be the fog settling into my mind. How much of this is true, were you a pretty serious fisho in your day? Was there a rowboat?

I grew up in a rowboat. Watching my grandfather row and it was mesmerizing. Borderline Torvill and Dean stuff.

For my Honours from ANU, I investigated the heavy metal pollution of the Molonglo River near Canberra and subsequently won a British Commonwealth Scholarship to the University of Southampton.

I did my Ph.D. on the neurosecretory system of a fairy shrimp for which I received the Thomas Henry Huxley Prize of the Royal Zoological Society of London. In the Zoology Department of the University of Tasmania, initially I did research on the neurosecretory systems of some crabs and shrimps and lectured in ecology, freshwater ecology and cell ultrastructure—a quite bizarre mixture. Then steadily with enthusiastic, and oft unruly, students, colleagues and very capable technicians (Ron Mawbey, Tas Sward), I moved on to research on freshwater crustacean ecology, the biology of the Bastard Trumpeter, on freshwater fish diversity, and on heavy metal pollution in the South Esk River and in streams of western Tasmania. While I came across galaxiids in places, I definitely did not start my research career studying fish per se. Also at this time, I became very involved in the conservation campaigns such as trying to save the original Lake Pedder and to resist the establishment of a woodchip industry in Tasmania.

Colleague of Sam Lake's fishing in Penstock Lagoon Reduced

One of Sam’s colleagues angling in Penstock Lagoon

Thus, I would say that in my day and throughout my travails, I’ve definitely not been a serious “fisho”. Sure, I’ve encountered many fish in my research, but I tend to see them as a component, sometimes a major one, of freshwater ecosystems. Indeed, one of the many things missing in Australian freshwater ecological research is an understanding of where fish fit into the structure of freshwater ecosystems. How do they influence the trophic structure and productivity of such systems, how are they themselves influenced by the structure and productivity of freshwater ecosystems?

On the use of rowboats, I used to row a dinghy during the trumpeter research while the boat master, Tas Sward, set or hauled in nets off Bruny Island. In investigating the changes in the littoral fauna of Lake Pedder, before and after it was flooded, I along with a range of colleagues—Ron Mawbey, Richard Norris, Dave Coleman, Alastair Richardson, Rob Sloane et al., —used a variety of boats, including one owned by Ron’s dad, to sample the littoral fauna for 15 years. Sampling went on in spite of the weather, hot calm fly-rich days and days of storms, even when surrounded by waterspouts.

Please tell us a little more of what was going on in your mind, back then, with regard to fishes and limnology? I’m especially interested in your thinking broadly about freshwater systems and whether you were focussed on local systems and particular taxa?

At ANU, Alan Weatherley, a very notable fish biologist, taught a course in freshwater ecology. This covered the basic physico-chemical attributes of both standing and running waters along with the biology of the major fauna. He certainly encouraged an ecosystem approach to the study of freshwater systems. So, for example, while he studied the effects of heavy metal pollution on fish in the Molonglo system, he encouraged me to investigate the invertebrates, and these two components combined with the water chemistry from John Beever, formed a chapter in the book “ Australian Inland Waters and their Fauna” edited by Alan. So, I would say that while the Molonglo was a local stream; the approach was system directed.

Alan along with colleagues such as Ian Bayly and Bill Williams promoted the ecosystem approach to freshwater systems. This influence was particularly marked in the 60 and 70’s when limnology in Australia was mainly concentrated on lentic (standing water) systems. Ecological investigations of flowing waters did not really emerge until the 80’s, and initially it was concentrated on the dynamics of particular populations, species and assemblages rather the dynamics of flowing water ecosystems. This was no doubt due to the ignorance of the biota in waterways, but also possibly to the difficulty of trying to understand such dynamic and non-equilibrial systems. Indeed even now, in Australia we know much more about how to degrade streams and their catchments than we know about how they function as ecosystems.

One of the countries more experienced fish ecologists, Wayne Fulton, must have been cutting his teeth in the trade around that time, how did you two work together?

Wayne Fulton was a student in the mid 70’s with a scholarship from the Inland Fisheries Commission and he subsequently did a Master’s degree (partly supervised by me) on the biology and distribution of freshwater fish in Tasmania. From his thesis he produced a book for the Fauna of Tasmania Series published by the University.

Wayne was a collaborator on a study of fish distribution in a small coastal stream, Parsons Bay Creek, near Nubeena; from where Wayne hailed. The study was published in Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania and data from that study and a few others was to discern spatial patterns of diversity in small streams. Also when doing his M.SC., Wayne discovered that the genus Paragalaxias was represented not by one species but four. I remember discussions about this notable discovery.

Wayne went on to become the Commissioner of the Inland Fisheries Commission followed by being a Program Leader in Fisheries Victoria. The last time I met him was at a workshop at Snobs Creek on fish restoration. I gather that he is now a Consultant based in Bendigo.

It seemed like you had a few prominent limnologists around you in Tasmania, including Richard Norris. In the absence of the internet and presumably in a time where publication turn around time was relatively slow, did you have a sense of other researchers beyond your university and elsewhere in Australia in those days? I mean I’m guessing coming together for an Australian Society for Limnology Meeting must have been a major chance for knowledge exchange?

Sure, even before going to Tasmania I knew quite a few limnologists, either through Alan Weatherley or through going to ASL meetings. Such notables include Aubrey Nicholls, John Lake, Ian Bayly, Bill Williams, Ron Strahan, Hamar Midgeley and many more. ASL meetings were very friendly and warm-hearted in those days. And yes, at the conferences there were many exchanges of knowledge, information, opinions and other more secretive deals and activities along with the odd disagreement. In all, they were very enjoyable meetings.

In Tasmania I supervised quite a few honours students working on freshwater problems, and some worked on fish-related topics (e.g. Mick Cassidy, Rob Sloane, Gary Bennison). However, I only supervised four Ph.D. students with the final one being the late Richard Norris. He did Honours with Alan Weatherley and sometime over Christmas in 1973 (I think) he phoned me and said he wanted to talk with me. He very promptly turned up and over a meal and some wine in the dark watching the shimmering wonders of the Aurora Australis, he decided to do his Ph.D with me. He worked on the ecological effects of cadmium-zinc pollution of the South Esk River and produced an excellent thesis and then went onto remarkable success.

I still have the hardcopy sent from a librarian of one of your papers, describing the electro-fishing of Brown trout and a number of native fishes in a stream in the Hobart area. Amongst the catch was the Tupong (Congoli) a species that was featured recently by Chris Bice here at the Lair. Can you give us a sense of what you thought of that species at the time – and relate it to what we now know of its ecology thanks to the recent work of Crook et al. and Zampatti and colleagues?

The paper was the one mentioned earlier in relation to Wayne Fulton. And yes, Tupong were found at sites near the estuary. I knew that they were tolerant of a wide range of salinity, were related to Antarctic Icefish, and that little was known of their biology. Later on Mick Hortle and Dave Crook worked out aspects of their biology and their catadromous life cycle.

I think pretty much all of our audience will realise that you are a heavyweight of the limnology scene, but here at the Lair we crave information in the ichthyosphere. So I’m going to try and keep you hemmed in. Apparently, you visited one of our spiritual homes, the Narrandera Fisheries Centre in the 1960’s. Are you able to give us a sense of what that was like back when?

I only visited Narranderra Fisheries Centre once and that was to attend the 2nd ASL conference in 1963. I gave a paper on my pollution work and was very embarrassed by the revelation that I’d misidentified one of the key trichopteran families. It was a cold and rainy conference and I remember a fine array of gabardine overcoats being worn as delegates watched Golden perch being caught out of one of the breeding ponds, and the clouds of cigarette smoke at tea breaks. It was an enjoyable and inspiring conference at a venue with a big influence on freshwater fish ecology and aquaculture.

Did you have much to do with the other famous Lake, Dr John Lake?

Perhaps not all that much, I’m afraid. I did meet John quite a few times, especially when he visited Canberra to see and work with Alan Weatherley, and also at ASL conferences (Narranderra, Canberra, Lismore). I had quite a few conversations with him, especially in the early 60’s, and I always found him to be very helpful and inspiring. He was a gentle and generous person with a wide and profound knowledge of freshwater fish biology. He lost his house and precious belongings when Cyclone Tracey hit Darwin in 1974.

sam starting research at Lake pedder 1972

Sam in 1972 starting his research in Lake Pedder

You have supervised a number of the who’s-who of Australian freshwater fish ecology scene, including Paul Humphries, Gerry Closs, Alison King and Nick Bond. Care to give us some insights into how some of these researchers have shaped you’re thinking about the roles fish play in ecosystems, or perhaps how you have influenced them?

I suppose that during the 80’s I got interested in the fauna of temporary freshwater systems. Work by the MMBW drew my attention to the fish Galaxiella pusilla. This fishwas regarded as being unusual in that it lived in temporary wetlands east of Melbourne. Thus, Paul Humphries studied the biology of the fish for his Honours. It appeared that while the fish readily tolerated low quality water and low water levels, it was uncertain if it was truly desiccation-resistant. His thesis was unfairly marked. However, this setback did not extinguish his interest in fish as he did an M. Sc. in Tasmania on Galaxias truttaceus and a Ph.D in Western Australia on estuarine fish ecology.

After a stint in Tasmania, Paul was recruited by the CRC for Freshwater Ecology to head the environmental flow program. Originally, the flows were to come from Eildon, but this proved to be totally unfeasible, and so the focus was shifted to releases from Eppalock Dam on the Campaspe River, with the Broken River as the partly regulated control. For various reasons related to dam operations, the environmental flows never eventuated. However, Paul managed to gather a large amount of information on the biology of fish in these two systems, notably knowledge on larval fish ecology. Subsequently Paul joined the Charles Sturt University at Albury. We regularly meet and plan things.

It was by way of Paul that I met Alison King who consequently did a great Ph.D. on larval fish ecology and breeding patterns of fish in relation to flow and floodplain access.

Gerry Closs (“Clossy’) was an ardent “fisho” who came across from La Trobe University to Monash to do a Ph.D. Andrew Boulton (of all-weather thong fame) had worked in the intermittent upper Lerderderg River and, with various forms of persuasion, had compiled an amazing understanding of how the invertebrate assemblages changed with flow. And so a rather crestfallen “Clossy” was set to describe the food web dynamics (invertebrates and fish) in the river as the flows rose and fell. It was a remarkable and detailed piece of work, subsequently published in Ecological Monographs and highly cited. Coincidentally with this work, he managed to show that cease-to-flow episodes and drought removed trout populations and allowed galaxiids to return. Clossy subsequently went to the University of Otago—a very productive centre of freshwater ecology.

Nick Bond came across to Monash from the University of Melbourne as a post-doc. At that time I was venturing into the restoration ecology of streams. Nick has some elements of wanting to become a “fisho” and thus worked on the possible restoration of fish in the Granite Creeks. He elucidated the habitat structures favoured by the species and we managed to get a positive response to habitat restoration before the Millennial Drought struck. Subsequently, he compiled data on the survival and recovery of fish populations in the creeks and from this along with the skills of George Perry drew up a robust model of how the fish populations coped with the fluctuations of flow and water availability. Nowadays, he works at Griffith University on a variety of projects.

I’m not sure whether the interactions with my colleagues have actually shaped my ideas about how fish influence ecosystems. In the intermittent systems we’ve worked on, the fish comprise the most sensitive component to changes in flow, especially when droughts occur. Whether they have a strong influence on food web structure and productivity is uncertain, but I sense that in these intermittent systems their effects are minor.

The environment flow (or lack of) work did reveal that heavy river regulation, such as in the Campaspe, can have powerful effects on fish biology and thus on community structure. The importance of both floods and low flows for reproduction and population growth was borne out by the comparison between heavy and low levels of flow regulation in the work by Paul Humphries and Alison King.

So, overall, in these intermittent systems fish may be a spasmodic player and the major active elements in such ecosystem range from the microbial to the invertebrates.

Sam, now for a biggie. Where do you see Australian freshwater fish ecologists making a difference in say the next 20 years?

This is a hard one to answer as it requires me knowing what fish ecologists want to do and what they are skilled in doing. The big gap in my opinion lies in the ecosystems dependency of fish. What do they do to influence both the structure and function of aquatic ecosystems in Australia and what needs to be supplied by ecosystems to engender and maintain viable fish populations.

While there is knowledge of basic fish biology, important areas such as linkages between primary and secondary productivity (including fish), the influence of invaders on productivity and food web structure, the roles of extreme events (floods and droughts) on trophic structure, ecosystem production and fish populations, and the influence of catchment systems (including riparian zones) on fish assemblages need to be addressed. There are many more areas, but the key point is that the understanding of the role of fish in freshwater ecosystem structure and dynamics is critical, but it remains poorly understood and un-investigated in Australia.

While I ‘ve stressed research in running waters, it is somewhat surprising to see that fish ecology, especially in relation to production and trophic ecology, in lakes and impoundments appears to be also neglected. Even if such research deals with introduced fish (such as the work by R. Tilzey on trout in Lake Eucumbene) knowledge of production dynamics could greatly help fishery management.

A lot of my suggested areas for research require attention in order to guide the restoration of flowing and standing waters in Australia. This particularly applies to the restoration of fish populations, where in many cases fish have been the sole concern without consideration of the structure and production characteristics of the ecosystem. Fish can be very tough and versatile, but being in most cases apex predators, their success is critically linked to ecosystem trophic structure and levels of production.

Thanks for your insights and recollections Sam. I’m sure our following appreciate you taking the time to put your tales on the record. And may others have the same joy of randomly meeting you at airports from time to time.


Anatomy of a fish taxonomist: Helen Larson

Interviewed by Ebb
June 2014

Dr Larson, welcome to the Lair, how would you be?

Thanks for the lairy welcome. Although that open-mouthed moray in the banner doesn’t quite look like you – it’s very good to have a website for fabulous fish tales.

When we last caught up you were heading off with your husband to help out with a nearby school group. Can you tell us a little more about what that involved?

The Mission Beach School has adopted the wetland beside it (part of Wheatley Creek) – the creek was choked with dense weeds and grass and it kept flooding the neighbouring grounds and caravan park in the wet season. So the school is restoring it with the help of local council, Girringun rangers and a collection of volunteers. The first workshop got all the groups together – I gave a talk about fish and creeks and what they all needed to thrive well and a number of us locals sat on a panel for the students to have a Q&A (the headmistress subbed for Tony Jones). The school has had two planting workshops, with Girringun workers doing the heavy clearing and re-planting of the banks. This June the very first monitoring day by students happened. We showed students how to collect data on water quality, fish, birds and aquatic macroinvertebrates. It was great fun, as the students are just buzzing with enthusiasm for their wetland/creek and what lives in it.


Dr Larson

So what have been the big differences for you moving from Darwin to Mission Beach? I see you have not slowed down with publishing or reviewing manuscripts.

I have lost my quick access to a fabulous collection of fishes – instead of walking across the parking lot from my room at the NT Museum I now have to get on a plane and fly to Darwin first. So I have to plan what I am doing a bit more carefully. Luckily the Museum hired Michael Hammer to take over my old job as curator up there, and he loves gobies. Yes, he does like cutting bits off them for genetic analysis but he has a good eye and loves catching and keeping gobies. I am trying to teach him how to look at pickled goby features which has been a bit of an uphill battle until he rigged up a camera to his microscope so he can see what I am doing and I can show him certain characters or specific tooth forms. I think he has been spying on Doug Hoese with the same method recently.

One good thing about being a retired ichthyologist is that I am no longer a public servant and can hit the delete button on emails I don’t wish to know about – with no qualms at all.

Helen, you are world renowned for taxonomic revisions of gobies and descriptions of new species. Which group or groups are you currently attending to?

I do like to work on generic reviews because so many goby genera exist by general consensus with no or only vague supporting characters. Am presently still trying to sort out the gobionellines – the fascinating mangrove/estuarine gobies such as Pandaka, Brachygobius, Pseudogobius, Oligolepis and their cousins. There are lots of names used and mis-used out there. Generic revisions take up a lot of time as type specimens must be examined as well as specimens from all over, but they are very satisfying to do.

Also Doug Hoese and I have finally started on our mega-book “Gobioids of the World” – an illustrated guide to all the gobies and gudgeons and mudskippers etc. Doing this makes one realise how poor some species descriptions are (and I mean modern ones too) and reminds us how essential it is to examine type specimens. Mind you, some of the old goby types are pretty battered and it takes some practice to interpret what you see – sometimes you just cannot work out what this beaten-up brown fish is and it goes in the “too hard” basket for a while. For example – it took some years between my examining Nichol’s 1951-vintage types of Gobius tigrellus from Mamberamo River in West Papua (they looked like someone had sat upon them then left them in the sun to dry) and working out that they were a spectacular species of Pseudogobiopsis – after Gerry Allen sent me photos of live fish from Mamberamo.

Our audience are mainly of a freshwater persuasion, so are you able to give us some insight into your relevant goby and fish achievements and experiences? And don’t leave out the Blind cave gudgeon stuff, or you won’t be asked back.

Freshwater gobies are a little bit “simpler” than marine ones in Australia only because there are fewer of them – but there are still many problems to be unkinked. There are some chaps who like climbing up steep slopes and getting into remote Far North Queensland streams and finding sicydiine gobies all over the place, when the books say they aren’t there.

And yes, the Milyeringa or Cave gudgeons are very amazing and wonderful fish – and I did enjoy working up the Barrow Island new species description as it was just so different from M. veritas though very tiny. Having co-authors Bill Humphries and Ralph Foster was terrific – the cave fauna ecology and genetic data just made the paper much better. I would really like to know how the Barrow fish actually gets around – all the known specimens have come up in bores. As long as someone else does the looking – I am not particularly fond of caves. I dived in Marbo Cave on Guam many years ago searching for additional specimens of a blind white Eleotris, and that was spooky diving, with the scuba tank knocking bits of the ceiling off onto you. The only Eleotris we found had eyes and brown colouring.

Clearly, you have spent some time observing certain goby groups, such as Redigobius spp., that occupy marine, estuarine and freshwater habitats. Are you able to give us any insights into the morphology and function of these groups that has facilitated their success across biomes?

My sex-obsessed colleague Kassi Cole (I must point out that she is obsessed with sexual function in gobioids, not sex in general) has found that all the estuarine gobies, the gobionellines, don’t change sex, as do most gobiines (typical gobies as you’d find on a coral reef). Maybe this has something to do with their success in such a range of habitats? They are also very tolerant of a wide range of conditions and some have worked out how to live well in an urban ditch full of unpleasant nutrients just as well as in a healthy mangrove. Some of them have long larval stages (months) while others have hardly any. Gobionellines seem to have experimented with a very wide range of life-styles.

Righteo, things have been getting progressively intense. How about I get to some of the nougat that is Helen Larson: can you tell us a little about how you got into this game? And if you had any mentors in your time, if that is not sticking my beak in too much?

In the 1960-70s I attended the University of Guam (in the Mariana Islands, for those geographically challenged) for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and worked part-time at the new Marine Laboratory there, built beside Togcha Bay. And there was Bob Jones, a coral reef fish ecologist, who recognised that I was very partial to fish – I was his first master’s degree student. Bob set me to work assisting him in carrying out fish transect surveys, which meant I had to learn to recognise a lot of species quickly and try not to laugh while using the tape-recorders duct-taped to our horrible double-hose regulators (otherwise you choked). He encouraged me when I told him that I thought I’d collected a new species of Eviota and suggested I send the manuscript I’d written to his university buddy Doug Hoese. Doug politely pointed out all the mistakes I’d made and suggested how to fix it. The paper was accepted in Copeia in 1976 and was my first goby description. When my family left Guam Bob wrote a recommendation to Doug for me – six months after we moved back to Sydney I had Connie Allen’s (Gerry’s wife) old job as Doug’s assistant (Gerry and Connie were then on their way to WAM for his new job). Doug and I have a partnership/friendship that has lasted since then. So I have been very lucky in fish mentors.

And would you be so kind as to share a tale or two from some of your more memorable fishy days?

Doug Hoese and I collected gobies in many places and worked together at the Australian Museum for over 7 years. We are rather different people but both love gobies, science fiction, gobies, good food and gobies. Doug made an interesting companion in the field as he is very good at finding accidents to happen to him. Such as going out to check a gill net across the Wickham River in a dinghy by himself, some distance from camp, becoming impaled upon a forktailed catfish wrapped in the net and having to sit there and call out like a lost sheep until I happened to come down to the river bank. So I had to swim out to him with wire-cutters trying not to think what else was swimming near me. I have had the good fortune to have collected and dived in some amazingly wonderful places, from reefs in the Coral Sea inhabited by fish that apparently had never seen humans, to snorkelling in clear tectonic lakes in Sulawesi full of telmatherinids (Celebes sailfish) dancing in the sunlight, to climbing and slithering through a Brunei Nypa forest to finally get to see a live Brachygobius xanthozona (a giant bumble-bee goby).

Right, that’s enough of the deep and meaningful for the moment. I have borne the brunt of your red pen occasionally. For which journals do you typically serve in an editorial and reviewing capacity?

I am now on only two journal boards: aqua, International Journal of Ichthyology and Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters. I like editorial work but it takes up a great deal of time and nobody ever acknowledges the work you’ve done. But I review papers for Zootaxa, Copeia, Ichthyological Research, Zoological Studies, Raffles Bulletin of Zoology and others – I get sent taxonomic goby papers usually. I am kindest with my red pen towards people for whom English is not their first langauge. And I share my hate of misplaced apostrophes with a great many others.

What are some of the common mistakes or pet dislikes you have with manuscripts that you review?

People who describe new species without examining relevant type specimens and just rely on what someone else said about them. This is understandable if you live in a third-world country but not when you have access to funds and aeroplanes.

I get most annoyed at those who describe new species or genera of gobies but do the minimal possible amount of work – omitting important information such as tooth form and arrangement, scalation, sensory pore and papillae patterns. There have been some recent papers published in which the fish being described apparently don’t have jaws or teeth as these are never mentioned – and belong to a group in which teeth are useful features and are sexually dimorphic.

Do you have any favourite papers that inspired or inspire you?

Some of my favourite works are pretty old. I am amazed at how Pieter Bleeker managed to do all the goby work that he did, nearly 200 years ago with an elderly microscope that was probably not in the best shape after being in Jakarta under less than ideal conditions. His 1874 Esquisse d’un système naturel des Gobioïdes, although very dated today (though not always inaccurate), is an amazing summary of characters he considered to be useful in distinguishing all gobies, gudgeons, mudskippers and worm-gobies etc. When I was an undergraduate I came across Fowler’s 1928 The Fishes of Oceania, which was chock-full of species names, descriptions, locations and references for marine and freshwater Pacific fishes. I found it a fascinating work – at the time I was at the University of Guam with access to very few goby references. Of course now I know that Fowler was famous for making lots of mistakes. But his book taught me how to hunt literature and to follow up original references.

Any chance that you can find time to do some more goby work with me?
(Whoops, that was entirely unprofessional, I must have been thinking out loud again). What I meant to say was, I realise you are very busy and your skills are in demand. How do you prioritize what you work on, and what are your longer-term aspirations in fish taxonomy and especially if there is any relevance to the groups involving Australian freshwater representatives?

I have a list on my wall of things I want to work on or actually started ages ago then stopped for various reasons. There’s 18 projects on the list and it doesn’t include some of the things I am working on right now. The projects include things like the fabulous scaleless goby Schismatogobius, that hide in gravel in swift streams – I would like to sort them out. I am watching what various people do with the various sicydiines (stream-gobies) with interest – they are difficult fish to work on and their names are rather a mess. And again, there’s these ecology-minded chaps who keep finding more and more sicydiines in FNQ and trying to confuse us innocent taxonomists. Long-term – I want to get all the Indo-Pacific gobionellines solved to some sort of satisfaction – the bumble-bee gobies and Pandaka and their relatives. And finish the Big Goby Book.

Helen, clearly we are short on fish taxonomists at the present time, and yet Australian freshwater fishes are showing little sign of slowing with regard to the discovery of new critters. Crystal ball things for me, where do you see things heading – what are the ramifications of insufficient numbers of ichthyos and how do we train up a new brigade? Seriously, even Hammer is no spring chicken any more.

That’s a difficult one to answer as we presently have a very conservative government that is moving funding away from research and science in general. Institutions that used to provide jobs for young scientists are no longer able to do so – positions are lost in all museums around the country (and the world) and university research being more and more focussed on what makes money or medical-relevant. Long-term work on our landscape and sea is slowing at a time when it should not be – as there’s so much yet unknown and more of us humans getting in the way. There are some very good younger minds out there but there’s no way that they can get jobs working with fish, especially taxonomy. So much money goes to fund genetic work but nothing to support the taxonomists who have to identify the organisms the geneticists are working on (because the geneticists can’t identify anything). It means that people like me must talk to younglings about what we do and why.

Helen, nearing the end of this interrogation, I feel it is only polite to give you 50 words or less to explain why gobies are your group of choice. Bear in mind that this is my chance to counter red pen you, should you step one word over the limit.

Because they are small, beautiful and have charming faces. Not because they are an immense phylogenetic problem waiting to be solved. The first goby I fell in love with was Asterropteryx semipunctatus, as it was gorgeous and would come right up to me and almost sit on my fingers.

I’ve also asked you to provide a photograph that means something to you. Care to talk us through it?

Ocean Spray Guam_Small

It’s a scan of a slightly mouldy colour slide taken on Guam in 1972. I’m sitting on one of the raised cut bench reef flats on the eastern side of the island not far from the University of Guam Marine Laboratory, counting gobies in a metre-square grid (gathering data as part of my master’s thesis). I had a tiny taperecorder and spent many many hours crouched over tiny fish muttering into it, to the bemusement of passing reef fishermen. Notice my lack of safety equipment other than a shady hat. More than once the waves snuck up on me and picked me up and knocked me over or flung me against the limestone cliff behind. I absolutely loved sitting out on those reef flats and cut benches – focussed on the gobies and their behaviour, as well as passing birds, blennies, whales, etc. My husband, who I met and married on Guam, learned that I am easy to entertain: just provide a tropical island with reef and rocks to sit on and fish and birds to look at. Luckily he is easy to entertain also. He took the photo.

Thanks again for you and Jeff having me down to your spectacular Mission Beach retreat, again; the laid back feel, balcony view of Dunk Island and simply the best cup of teas that I ever get these days; and as always the warmest of people and witty charm. I realise that I am not the only budding fish ecologist that has received your taxonomic support over the years. Best of luck and I’ll bug you again soon enough, no doubt.

You are welcome to come and have another goby-lesson day!

HelenJamesYoda copy Reduced Res

James Donaldson receiving the Blue eye lesson

Ama Dablan summit

Anatomy of a fish ecologist: Gerry Allen

Hi Gerry, welcome to the lair. How are you?

Thanks Ebbs, it’s a pleasure to join. Thankfully, all is going well at the ripe age of 72 and I’m enthusiastic and active as ever.

Please give us an idea of where you grew up and your interest in fish before your career got underway.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a fairly remote, mountainous area of northern California – Trinity County. So I gained an early appreciation of the natural world. I was fascinated with all sorts of wild critters, including fishes, as a youngster. My parents gave me my first aquarium when I was seven and that was the start of a life-long love affair. I was a fish nerd as a young teenager, but my main interest soon shifted to American football and by the time I graduated from high school was offered a football scholarship to attend uni. Although this might seem a huge career distraction, I’m really thankful for my football days, as I may not have gone to uni if it were not for that.

After my playing days were over I went to Hawaii (home of some of my footy team mates) to finish my degree requirements. That’s where I discovered coral reef fishes and also met the other love of my life, wife Connie. Hawaii turned out to be a fantastic place to cultivate a rapidly growing interest in coral fishes and in 1966 I enrolled in grad school at the University. During those formative years I was greatly influenced by Dr. Bill Gosline and especially Dr. John (“Jack Randall”), who were instrumental in my becoming an ichthyologist. I was Dr. Randall’s assistant at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and did my first field trips under his tutelage (to the Marshall Islands and remote Easter Island). After graduation I worked a short stint as a fisheries officer at Palau and then migrated to Australia with Connie and our six year old son Tony aboard the El Torito, a fantastic “mini” research ship. I eventually got a job as Curator of Fishes at the Western Australian Museum, where I worked until 1998. During that period I travelled and dived extensively around the Pacific and Indian oceans, developing a strong interest in documenting the fish fauna of previously unknown (or at least unreported) areas. My real passion is publishing popular, well illustrated books, that enable the reader to become an “instant expert” of the fishes of a particular location. I left the WA Museum in 1998 to become a private consultant, mainly with Conservation International, but also occasional field survey jobs for The Nature Conservancy and WWF.

You were the fish curator at the Western Australian Museum for a fair chunk of time, and obviously discovered, catalogued and pondered over more than a few Australian freshwater fishes. Are there any particular Australian freshwater taxa that still hold your interest?

Although my early training and most of my career has been geared towards coral reef fish studies, I became interested in freshwater fishes as a result of my first field trip with the WA Museum in 1974. Although I didn’t know anything about FW fishes or how to catch them, I was “ordered “ to join a month-long expedition to the Kimberleys. This was a brilliant introduction to WA and a chance to experience some real wilderness, using helicopter access. I got lots of fishes and when I returned to the museum and began processing the collections I was amazed that several of the fishes, including a Melanotaenia rainbowfish (e.g. M. pygmaea) were new to science. That was the beginning of my freshwater studies, which continue to be a major interest. From the beginning I’ve been fascinated with rainbowfishes, which eventually took me to all sorts of remote destinations around the island of New Guinea, where I’m still actively working and finding new ones at an alarming rate. So, definitely rainbowfishes would be at the top of the list followed closely by Mogurnda.

And if you could have another lifetime after this current one, is there a group of freshwater fishes outside of Australia and New Guinea that might cajole your interest?

That’s an interesting question. I can’t really think of any other groups that I would choose to work on, but I think I could use another lifetime to come to grips with what is going on with Australian and New Guinea fishes now that we are using genetic analysis as an important taxonomic tool. If only I would have known what was coming around the corner with genetics. I would love to re-visit all those remote places I’ve been to for critical genetic samples. But who knows, there may be enough time still as one of my close associates in West Papua has just purchased a helicopter and is learning to fly it in New Guinea conditions. We’ve already drawn up a wish list of collecting destinations we hope to tick off once the chopper is operational.

I have always wanted to know, since you have seen so many different fishes in your lifetime, can you describe a few of the magic moments?  

There have been so many of those moments it’s difficult to pinpoint any that are particularly special. I get a huge buzz when I spot something, either diving on reefs or collecting in freshwater environments, that based on my experience I know immediately is a new species. The excitement factor is directly proportional to the beauty of the fish. In the marine realm there is no question about it – Flasherwrasses of the genus Paracheilinus take center stage. For freshwater fishes it would definitely be rainbows and blue-eyes. A few of the standout species I’ve had the good fortune to discover include Pseudomugil connieae, P. cyanodorsalis, Melanotaenia angfa, M. herbertaxelrodi, and Chilatherina bleheri.

At the ripe old age of twenty, I remember my supervisor Dave Bellwood encouraging me to ring you and ask you a question in 1993 when I was undertaking an honours project on blennies. I remember being scared out of my wits (despite not being a shy lad). And then getting 30 seconds into the phone conversation and instantly feeling at ease due to your amazingly calm and hospitable demeanour. Do you have any advice for the young postgraduates of today when it comes to seeking out the pioneers in their field and did you ever have such an occasion yourself?

That’s a good one Ebbs! Reminds me of my first personal encounter with the man who ended up being my PhD advisor at the University of Hawaii – the legendary Dr. Jack Randall. This fellow was my absolute idol, having already published volumes on reef fishes by the early 60s (and still going strong – he’ll be 90 this year!). I found out his daily routine from other students. He worked at Coconut Island research station, a 25 minute commute to the other side of Oahu from Honolulu. Anyway, I deliberately planned a “chance” meeting on the dock where small boats took out researchers to the station. Talk about nervous, while waiting for his arrival! But it worked. I had a quick conversation and managed to extract his home phone number. About three weeks later Jack offered me a job as his assistant at the Bishop Museum. So my advice is to always be bold and think of positive outcomes. It never hurts to put yourself out there and who knows – if the desire is strong enough dreams have a way of coming true.

Similarly can you give some advice to the big wigs with regard to interacting with the younger guard?

I know everyone is busy and wrapped up in their own world, but a number one priority should always be to offer maximum advice and encouragement to young students coming through the ranks. I really think it’s an obligation of senior scientists to show this courtesy. I only have to look back at my own career to realize how important this was to me when people like Jack Randall and Bill Gosline would drop whatever they were doing to answer my questions and offer advice. Dr. Gosline (the ichthyologist at the U. of Hawaii and expert on fish physiology and taxonomy of Hawaiian fishes) generously gave me a huge portion of his personal library when he retired and I still use some of these books almost daily.

Are there any freshwater fish ecologists in Australia that have surprised you with particular findings or their endeavours?

To be totally honest I’m a bit out of touch with the ecological scene, at least on a personal level, as most of my time these days is spent grinding out papers or books and doing field work. But I must say, I’m very impressed by both the level of science and quality of research, judging from the ever increasing amount of publications. I know that several universities have specialized fish ecology sections, something that did not exist until fairly recently. Thanks to my son’s involvement I’m most familiar with the brilliant work that is being carried out by David Morgan’s group at Murdoch University, here in Perth.

Mark, is active in the fish ecology arena, and like you is a humble and easy to like character. He was at Okinawa when you received a prestigious award mid last year. Can you comment on that experience and what it is like to have a family member sharing a professional career in fish science?

I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am that Mark is involved in ecological studies of fishes. It’s something we never really talked a lot about, but I could see from a very young age he loved the outdoors and the natural world. So it was not surprising that his career took off in that direction. It meant the world to me to have him there at Okinawa to see the old man receive that award. He’s always taken a big interest in my work and we have been very lucky to share special moments doing field work in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Hang in there Gerry, we are almost done. Can you take a risk or two and tell us what you think freshwater fish ecologists in Australia are doing well and what we could really be doing better?

I’m not just saying this to rack up points, I honestly believe that freshwater fish ecology is in the best shape it’s ever been. Lots of good people coming through and plenty of interesting projects to keep us occupied in the future. We are very lucky to live in country that has such an amazing ecology. Genetic results are showing us that the fish fauna is even more diverse than we ever imagined and therefore we need to expand ecological and taxonomic studies to validate what geneticists are telling us.

Earlier I asked you to supply one of your favourite photos. Care to talk us through what makes this shot so special to you?

I’ve actually supplied two. One shows Mark and myself collecting in a small creek in the upper Fly River system of PNG. This was a great trip for fishes and also a wonderful opportunity to work with my son. Suprisingly, I don’t have that many action shots of us together, so this one is special. The other captures an amazing moment on the summit of Ama Dablan, a spectacular Himalayan peak in the Everest region that I climbed with 4 others at the age of 65.

Fly River 2007

Gerry I would like to end with a comment, rather than a question. Your work and you as a person, have influenced my career. In this regard I am very confident that I am not the Lone Ranger. Please keep doing what you do, and thanks for making time for the interview.

I’m very humbled by your praise. Not sure I deserve this. Thank you very much for inviting me.


Anatomy of a fish ecologist: Dr Adam Kerezsy

Interviewed by Ebb January 2014

 Gidday Adam, welcome to The Lair, how are you?

‘Pretty good. I don’t think I’ve offended anyone too much in the last few weeks and all my small battles with government agencies finally seem to be bearing fruit’.

I have to ask, what led you to publish your book: ’Kerezsy in the Desert’?

 Before I became involved in science I’d never read a science paper but was still interested and read lots of other things. I figured there were other people out there who were similar – curious but not in-deep enough to trawl the literature. All the people I ran into during field trips seemed fairly interested, and so did anglers, but again, they’re not connected with the science world and are unlikely to download a paper. Also I’m lucky because I had plenty of stories, enjoy writing and had a good editor

It must be nice to have a bunch of people read your words as distinct from what seems to happen in science journal world. Any plans for another book?

I think we’re all in the same boat really. Whenever somebody puts a lot of work into a piece of writing and makes it available for public consumption it’s always better if people actually read it. The good thing about a natural history book as opposed to a paper is that it reaches a wider audience. In science departments and agencies there’s a lot of talk about improving science communication, but despite the courses and consultant’s fees I’m not convinced we’re getting that much better at it, so this is my attempt.

With regard to another book, there are certainly ideas floating around but books take ages (a lot longer than a paper) and the publishing industry is pretty depressed, so there’s not a lot of incentive. That said, back in the nineties James Woodford (he’s written books about Wollemi pines and wombats) and I spent two months in complete isolation exploring the Berkeley River in the east Kimberley, and we’re finally getting around to putting that down – not 100% fish-related but a pretty crazy story.

Can you briefly tell us about your main interests in Australian freshwater fish ecology?

I’m pretty basic. Australia’s the driest inhabited continent, and if you look at a map there’s that really big dry section in the middle. How do fish manage to live there when even Homo sapiens have a hard time? That pretty much sums it up – no rocket science, I’m just interested in how the arid zone works.


You came to fish ecological research relatively late in life. How do you think that helps you operate differently, from say someone like me that went almost straight through from school to university to research?

As you’d expect at first it was really intimidating because it involves learning a whole new discipline when you’re over 30. But after you get the degrees and the feelings of inadequacy out of the way it’s good because you realise you have plenty of skills that have been acquired in other areas that can be put to good use. So for me that’s things like photography, writing and presenting. It’s also handy because you end up with what might be termed ‘career security blankets’ – things you’ve done that you know you can go back to if everything stuffs up.

From what I have seen, you have the gift of the gab. Care to elaborate on your experiences with public speaking and communicating fish ecology and specifically fish conservation messages?

Public speaking (and more accurately doing any performance in front of other people) is not easy and I think we all still get nervous before doing a presentation or a lecture – but that’s the way it should be. I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a lot of practice – things like teaching and playing music – and that definitely helps. Also I do a lot of talks to non-science audiences which means keeping everything straight-forward and on-message rather than getting too mired in detail.

I think the formulaic way we (as a group) present at conferences has the potential to be pretty dull, and I’m sure we’ve all seen senior researchers do a crap talk and students do a really good one. Presenting really is a completely different skill or discipline to research and writing, and it has the potential to be far more immediate and powerful. If the universities and agencies want to get messages out there – especially given how competitive news cycles and media in-general is/are nowadays – putting more effort into communications is probably the way to go. The best research in the world means diddley-squat if nobody can understand it.

Given that you were a school-teacher prior to becoming a fish ecologist, would you jump at the opportunity to lecture aquatic ecology at a university?

I’d like to give it a try one day. The best day teaching is about the best work day you’ll ever have. Unfortunately the opposite is also true. But if there’s a theme emerging from these questions it’s definitely the value of communication, and teaching pretty-much epitomises everything to do with it.

Your best, known work is centred on understanding fish populations or assemblages in the context of our desert country. Are there any past or contemporary Australian or overseas based fish ecologists that have influenced your research, and what do you think are some of the next steps in studying fishes in Australian desert systems?

Jim Puckridge’s work is what originally inspired me to work in the desert. He did a great job of looking at the flood-pulse concept – which was basically a northern hemisphere/temperate idea – and picking it apart by pointing out why it didn’t apply in our highly variable and unpredictable inland systems. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I’ve come to know a lot of his colleagues and we often talk about him. To be honest I’m inspired by my other colleagues in the arid country as much as I am by fish people. Jen Silcock is probably the best arid zone botanist our country will ever know, and Max Tischler is the same with terrestrial fauna. Then there’s Angus Emmott, a grazier from south-west of Longreach who’s had about six or seven species named after him. Because there’s comparatively few of us working in the desert we all know each other and often work together rather than being solely fish or bug or plant people – in fact it’s probably not a bad model for other areas. It certainly keeps everything interesting because you keep learning from everyone else.

Next steps for the desert? Take your pick. We’re still way, way back. We have these wonderful systems that are un-regulated and as close to natural as you’ll find anywhere on the planet and we really don’t know much about them. That said, I’m pretty-much fixated on the most immediate arid-zone-fishy management challenge at present, which is trying to stop gambusia wiping out the last few populations of red-finned blue-eye. Getting there, but it’s like taking two steps forward and three back a lot of the time.

Righteo, the questions were never all going to be easy. I’ll soften you up and then hit you hard good sir. One of the things I admire about you is that you speak your mind. What are we doing well in fish ecology in Australia at the moment, and where do you suggest we need to really improve in say the next 5-10 years?

This will sound like a predictable answer given the rest of this interview. Collectively we produce some of the best biology and ecology in the world. I’m sure we’ve all had the same problem of getting our papers back from reviewers when they want more of a global focus and realising that 95% of the work has been done in Australia, and usually by people we know and respect. This is probably why all our best PhDs end up in the US or Scandinavia.

But we’re watching the government sector go into freefall – so there’ll be no jobs, and currently we don’t even have a science minister, so the demand for science jobs is likely to fall rather than rise. So our best PhDs will have no choice but to re-locate to the US and Scandinavia.

So we can sit around blaming the government or the funding bodies or the economy or we can get out there and sell ourselves better, make ourselves visible, and raise our profile. It certainly can’t hurt. Improving our communication and our ability to make our science resonate in wider society is the number one thing we have to do better if we are to retain a vibrant research community.

Many may not know that you are a handy musician, with a surprisingly rich voice. If you ever get to organise an Australian Society for Fish Biology annual conference, which all time act would you have play at the conference dinner, and throw in a support act while your at it.

Don’t know about an act but the best song would be the original version of My Island Home, which (rather ironically) was written by the only white member of the Warumpi Band, Neil Murray. So we could ask Neil along, and for a support act Listy Ellis’s mob from Mildura would have to be a walk-up start given they won some golden-oldies ABC comp recently.

Adam, thanks for taking the time. Look forward to chasing catties with you in a waterhole sometime soon.