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What is the future of the Critically Endangered Elizabeth Springs Goby?

By Dave Roberts

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Picture 1: Photograph of the Elizabeth Springs Goby thanks to Gunther Schmida (www.guntherschmida.com.au). Note: any self-respecting freshwater fisho should have a copy of Gunther’s Pictorial books. Go buy them! NOW!

It might not be the biggest, most colourful, or charismatic of our native freshwater fish. Quite the opposite, being one of the smallest, least adorned by colour and an expert at concealing itself in shallow water. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in heart and determination. The Elizabeth Spring Goby (Chlamydogobius. micropterus ) lives in far western Queensland, a harsh region with little permanent surface water, other than the Elizabeth Springs themselves (23°20’45.35″S, 140°34’56.78″E). These springs were listed on the National Heritage List in 2009, being protected under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) due to their ‘outstanding heritage value to the nation” (DEWHA, 2009). Tragically, over 75% of the artesian springs in Qld are extinct (no longer flowing) and for this reason the Elizabeth Springs are ‘regarded as one of the most important GAB artesian springs’ (DE, 2015). It is the same uniqueness and scarcity of the Springs that are also the Goby’s greatest threat. Why? Water is life in far west Qld and these springs provide one of the few reliable water sources for all animals in this isolated part of Queensland, including cattle, one of their greatest threats.

I made it my mission to visit Elizabeth Springs during a recent holiday to far west Qld. My desire to see the springs was one of discovery, not having seen a Great Artesian Basin spring before, or an Elizabeth Spring Goby in the flesh. I knew very little about the springs or the goby, other than a few brief mentions of them in some of the more comprehensive Australian fish texts (Allen, et al., 2002). I had wondered what the springs would be like and was full of anticipation to see them for the first time. Having heard and seen a lot about the other infamous springs in west Qld, the Edgbaston Springs (thanks to one media tart Dr Adam Kerezsy) I recalled some of Adams past talks and pictures of Edgbaston spring pools fringed with emergent macrophytes, scattered in clusters amongst the impossibly dry landscape.

I carefully studied my topographic maps to narrow down where they were, somewhere about half way between our camp at Diamantina National Park and Boulia, but how would I know I was there? I had visions of approaching a lush green oasis amongst the dry dusty grasslands clearly signalling their presence. However, on arrival, there was just a rusty street sign standing amongst the black pea gravel and a few stunted gidgee bushes. Had I blinked I would have missed it. Off in the distance I could just make out a smudge of green, just a thin line of low growing bushes surrounded by brown parched land. It turns out this was actually Spring Creek, not the Springs. The anticipation!

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Picture 2: Elizabeth Springs sign post, far, far west Qld.

We parked alongside a property boundary fence and started the 1 km walk to the springs. About 300 m into the walk we came across a historic relic in an old hand drawn sign and turnstile. I could just make out the faded wording, “Home of endangered flora and fauna”. Hell yeah, this is what I travelled hours for! It was encouraging to see this sign, knowing these unique springs were recognised way back when, with a sign and fence demarcating an otherwise hidden gem. I could forgive the presence of a mere remnant of this early fence, a relic of pioneering conservation efforts, as surely there would be a gleaming new fence somewhere in the distance surrounding the springs. I then wondered for a moment, were the springs ever that popular to require a turnstile? Probably not, I suspect it was just a convenient way to keep the cows out.

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Picture 3: Old sign announcing the Springs and a turn style?

So on we walked hoping we were heading in the right direction to the springs, not simply wandering around in the dry and dusty landscape. In fact the springs were dead ahead of us a few more hundred meters from this turnstile. Where you ask? Well I was asking myself the same thing. I could see no green oasis, no gleaming pools of spring water. However, I was not deterred. We then came across a second sign. Wow, this was more like it, a much newer sign with copious facts and pictures and plenty of state, federal and local NRM logos. Text panels highlighting the ‘Oasis’ that is the springs, the presence of Endangered Species only found here, highlighting the plight and Risks….

Wait! What? No pictures of the Elizabeth Springs Goby. Disappointing given this species is only found at this one isolated location. How more endangered can you get! At least they got a mention.

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Picture 4: The new sign for Elizabeth Springs.

I read every word, absorbing every drop of the experience. I read how the springs are endangered and are threatened by stock, water extraction, and conversion of springs into dams for stock watering. The panels go on to say “You can help by remaining on the marked walking tracks”. Ok great, walking tracks. I can handle sticking to a marked out walking track for such an important site. We looked around but there was no sign of a track, however I’m sure one would appear as we get closer to the springs. I then read the last of the text, the “Management” which states “The Elizabeth Springs has been fenced as part of its ongoing management. This fence has been designed to exclude domestic stock and feral animals while allowing smaller native species to utilise the spring area”. Oh thank god, I was worried for a moment that the old fence post and turnstile were the extent of the protection. Not to mention the copious quantities of cow poo we passed on the way here, sure signs of herds of cattle circling the spring complex. Brimming with anticipation we push on. We walked another 100 m, 200 m, still no sign of water and no sign of a marked walking track. The first sign of water we saw was small refuge pool in Spring Creek. The dry creek bed can just be made out from the surrounding land, with a thin strip of vegetation along its banks.

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Picture 5: Spring Creek with an isolated waterhole.

Beyond Spring Creek I could just make out some patches of green low growing vegetation surrounding a large depression. Was this the first spring. Not so, this pool was more like a waterhole, possibly an overflow billabong of Spring Creek. Considering the step sides and lack of permanent vegetation growing around the fringes, it resembled a man-made dam, cut into the earth’s surface to provide a collection point for water. There were obvious signs of cattle using this dam regularly with cattle tracks and dung all around. Hang on! I thought cattle, dams and the conversion of springs into watering points was a threat to the springs.

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Picture 6: A small muddy waterhole (or dam) adjacent Spring Creek.

We walked on. Finally, could that be, no, maybe, yes it is! My first very mound spring! But where’s the water? Is that it? Surely not!

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Picture 7: My first mound spring, barely detectable in the distance.

I approached the mound spring, still no sign of a walking track, my eyes fixed to the centre of the mound of green vegetation distinct from the brown grassy surrounds, I was willing to see some surface water. What would it be like? A crystal clear pool perched in the centre of the mound, water gently gurgling up from the earth, rare and exotic plants abound, and gobies skiting to and fro. Well reality set in fast. Here was the first spring I came across.

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Picture 8: The reality of a mound spring in the Elizabeth Spring complex.

What I found was a mere puddle of water with barely a dribble of water trickling out like a slow leaking garden hose. In the distance I could see a second mound (Pic 8 top right), smaller than the first, and then to the east, a third more substantial mound. Beyond that, not another sign of a spring within eye shot.

I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I thought there had to be more. Was I in the wrong place, maybe the real springs are further away? I went to the largest of the three springs that I could see. This larger spring had more water than the other two, but still only a dismal amount of surface water, with barely a detectable trickle coming from it, only enough to wet the surrounding sedges. I strained to look into the surface water of the spring, not wanting to step too close to the wetted area. I could just make out the occasional darting motion from what I assumed to be Elizabeth Spring Gobies, maybe 20 individuals in total. That was encouraging, not having seen another sign of a fish in the other smaller springs or in the wetted sedges areas surrounding the spring mounds.

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Picture 9: The largest of three springs that were in the area nearest the entry gate and signs.

As I surveyed the surrounds, trying to make sense of the scene in front of me, I remembered, the “Management” actions on the sign, talking about fencing and staying on the walking tracks. Well where is the fence? There was no fence, not at least between the property boundary near the road where we parked and the springs. Neither was there a walking track. It was clearly evident that the springs were accessible by cattle with hoof divots throughout the wetland and fresh dung scattered around. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And to rub salt into my emotional wounds, there was a herd of cattle running off in the distance. Is this normal? I must be in the wrong place.

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Picture 10: Obvious signs of cattle damage and the general state of the wetlands surrounding the spring mounds.

I was left a little stunned and disappointed that such a unique and endangered spring ecosystem listed on the National Heritage List 6 years ago, had seemingly little or no protection at all. Is this normal or was the cattle damage just from a few rouge cattle that broke through the fence line far off in the distance? There were clear signs of cattle accessing the springs and with such little remaining surface water, the risk of damage would be greatly elevated. I was only able to observe gobies in one of the three springs and did not see gobies in any of the wetted areas surrounding the mound springs.

I stood there thinking about the real risks to the goby form these obvious signs of cattle accessing the springs. They could defecate directly into the spring, or worse, a beast could die in or near a single spring. Worst case would be to send the whole wetland anoxic and potentially wiping out a sub-population of the gobies, at best making the spring eutrophic and smothering the area with algae. Then there was the obvious cattle pugging (deep footprints) that were present throughout the springs and surround wetland areas (Pic 10) potentially altering the depth and microhabitat structures for the goby. I spent a good hour, much to my family’s disgust, looking around and photographing the signs of cattle damage and looking for more signs of gobies, but seeing the precarious situation, I dare not go too close to the limited areas of free surface water in fear of further damaging to these seemingly ‘egg shell’ fragile springs.

I revisited the sign on leaving, reading the facts again, but with less of a sense of encouragement, and more of despair. I read about the historical changes to spring flow rates from 4.5 ML/day in the late 1800’s, down to 0.68 ML/day in the 1950’s. Most concerning of all was the results of a survey in 2000 that found only one of the 16 springs were still flowing. Sadly, I feared that I may have been standing right in front of that one remaining flowing spring. The flow was barely detectable, only becoming obvious as it dribbled across the parched earth, draining toward the dam about 50 m from the spring mound.

On return home I wanted to find out more. My first questions was this normal for the springs and was I expecting too much? What about the dramatic reduction in flow rates over time? I read some of the historical accounts and was quite astounded to read about and see photographs of the springs historically. Fairfax and Fensham (2002) reported the springs had flows in the 1890’s that charged Spring Creek (Pic 5) with water for 32 km downstream of the spring complex, and possibly up to 128 km during pre-artesian bore drilling periods. Other reports state the flow was probably much less, providing enough water to recharge the creek for around 4.8 km. In either case there was certainly no spring water making it into Spring Creek in 2015. I also read how in 1896 there were up to 20 mound springs with surface water pools 1.5 – 3 m across, and one single large spring with a pool of water 4.6 – 6.1 m across (Fairfax and Fensham, 2002). Astonishingly the authors report an observation that a plumb line sank 17.4 m deep into the main spring without reaching the bottom. This article also has pictures of the Springs in 1915, showing large areas of surface water within a much more pronounced mound than occurs today. Curtis, et al. (2012) reports the results of recent surveys (~2002) that found goby numbers were highly variable and may only occur in five springs. I only saw signs of gobies in one spring out of three. This book also highlights the many threats from reduced flow rates, trampling and faeces from cattle and the tell-tale signs of eutrophication. I somehow feel what I saw was not normal and might well be a system in terminal decline and on the edge of collapse.

I could not help but wonder if what I saw in 2015 might be close to the end for the Elizabeth Springs Goby and that the ongoing drought and the damage occurring from cattle accessing the springs, puts these gobies one step away from extinction. How long do they have left? I tried to remind myself that this fish has evolved over a few million years to these unique and harsh conditions in west Qld. They are undoubtedly tough and have endured the worst of historical droughts before European settlement, but are there adaptations able to withstand the onslaught of natural drought combined with water extraction and pastoral activities.

When I was there in April 2015 the region looked impossibly dry as did the rest of far west Qld. Certainly the nearby Spring Creek had barely a puddle of water in it, so I suspect the patchy rain in far west Qld has done little for aquifers and the long term flow rates from the springs. Since my trip in April, some areas of western Qld have received good rain, but the Autumn average rainfall of the nearest town of Boulia (2.4 mm) was well below the autumn average of 62 mm suggesting the Springvale region has not received much of that rain, let alone any break in the long running drought of west Qld.

I am certainly sympathetic to the plight of graziers in this region and the need to find water for cattle and people. However, protecting the spring mounds is paramount and surely there are other options for accessing this precious water flowing from the springs other than allowing cattle to directly access the mounds. It was a sobering experience to see this country at its worst. I only hope I can return some time in the near future when it is at its best and get to experience an Elizabeth Spring Goby up close without fear of contributing to its precarious position.

 

Bibliography

Allen, G.R., Midgley, S.H. & Allen, M. (2002). Field Guide to the Freshwater Fishes of Australia. Western Australian Museum, Perth.

Curtis, L. K., Dennis, A. J., McDonald, K. R., Kyne, P. M., & Debus, S. J. (2012). Queensland’s Threatened Animals. CSIRO Publishing.

Department of the Environment, (2015). Department of the Environment – Great Artesian Basin Springs: Elizabeth. Website (accessed 21/08/15): http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/1a7f202c-7b55-4062-bf3e-308c502bb9a5/files/elizabeth-springs.pdf; & http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/ddcc29a3-81ac-44fd-a7f4-fecb21351a7e/files/elizabeth-springs-factsheet.pdf; & http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;place_id=105821.

Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (2009). Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, No P 3, Tuesday, 4 August 2009. 332358 Cat. No. P309. ISSN 1032-2345.

Schmida, G. (2015). The Australian Freshwater Fishes Pictorial 2. Edition 6-14. GuntherSchmida.com.au.

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Mud Map of area visited.

Editor’s note: The Lair is generally a pretty up beat place, however, this article prepared by Dave Roberts is stirring and soul destroying stuff in parts. I would like to thank Dave for making the effort to explain what he witnessed. Let’s hope there is some follow up on this one. I have included some means for contacting Dave below, and checking out what else he gets up to.

(email: [email protected])

ResearchGate (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Roberts16)

Web Site (http://www.burford-group.com/david-t-roberts/)