Mission ecological

Tuesday 21 September, 2010

Not everyone’s job description includes ‘save a species’ as a key responsibility, but that’s just what Adam Kerezsy signed up for.

Red-finned blue-eyeInland Australia's most threatened fish: the red-finned blue-eye.

If you'd been looking for Dr Adam Kerezsy in the past two years you may well have found him ankle-deep in water in the small springs of western Queensland's Edgbaston Reserve.

In his hands, you might have seen a net and a bucket, and on his face a look of intense concentration.

Adam Kerezsy is Bush Heritage's Freshwater Ecologist. He is also a man on a mission – to protect and restore populations of a small native fish, the red-finned blue-eye.

At present, it is struggling to survive in the only place it calls home: the unique environment of Edgbaston's freshwater springs.

A dangerous threat

The immediate threat to the blue-eye is from the invasive gambusia (mosquito fish), which was introduced in the 1930s to Australia's waterways in a failed attempt to control mosquitos.

'Gambusia probably travelled via floodwaters a number of years ago into the springs at Edgbaston and the problem is they seem to out-compete the blue-eyes,' says Adam. 'They are as destructive as carp to the Australian environment.'

Adam KerezsyOur secret weapon: Dr Adam Kerezsy, Queensland's arid zone fish specialist. Photo: Mick Brigden.

Why Adam's the man for the job

Adam's PhD work has focussed on surveying fish communities in western Queensland. Few scientists specialise in arid zone fish species and fewer still have such expertise in Queensland.

'Getting rid of a pest fish is one of the hardest things you can do. But I like a challenge. And it seemed like a good one.

'I recognised that it was going to take a lot of work. But I thought somebody's gotta do this job and it's probably a perfect fit for me. I was really interested in how these fish get by in a relatively harsh environment and I knew if we got a start on something positive we would have a good chance of saving the red-finned blue-eye.'

A very special species

The red-finned blue-eye is a unique species. Its closest cousins inhabit coastal draining catchments on the eastern seaboard. Somewhere back in the distant past, blue-eyes or their ancestors made the move to Edgbaston – and Edgbston is where they stayed.

However their future is not so certain.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List contains arguably the most comprehensive worldwide listing of species and their conservation status. On its Critically Endangered list are iconic species like the western gorilla and Sumatran tiger. Alongside them, facing a similar likelihood of extinction, is the red-finned blue-eye.

The one thing in its favour? The fact that its habitat is within the protected lands of Bush Heritage's Edgbaston Reserve. Right now, thousands of our supporters nationwide are getting behind Adam and his team's efforts to stop this tiny fish jumping from Critically Endangered to Extinct.

'We've done a lot of work in the last two years to protect this species from gambusia, much of it thanks to the support of our donors. If we were to stop now, the only place you might see one of these rare fish in years to come would be on the extinct list.'

Sample of gambusiaFeral gambusia at Edgbaston. Pregnant females give birth to 50 young, nine times a year. Photo: Adam Kerezsy.

It's all in the numbers

Gambusia give birth to live young while most fish – including the red-finned blue-eye – lay eggs. This gives them a huge competitive advantage. And the figures say it all.

'Since 1990 the number of populations of red-finned blue-eye has declined from seven to four – although since Bush Heritage supporters helped us buy the property in 2008, these four populations have remained intact.'

'In contrast, gambusia now inhabit 25 springs,' says Adam. 'The fact is that where there are now gambusia, there are no blue-eyes.'

What we're doing

The springs at Edgbaston range in size from what Adam describes as a 'small soak' to around the size of a public swimming pool.

This means that a range of protection strategies are required to save the blue-eye.

For instance, in one of the smaller springs, Adam spent many painstaking hours hunched over the water catching and removing gambusia by hand using a small net – one of a range of techniques Adam's team has been developing to protect the blue-eye.

That spring has now been 'quarantined' from reinfestation with a plastic buffer system. Adam has since returned to Edgbaston following the heavy rains in March and found no evidence of reinfestation.

Artestian springs at Edgbaston ReserveThe artestian springs at Edgbaston Reserve. Photo: Wayne Lawler.

An incredible achievement within reach

Adam and the Bush Heritage ecology team are working on other strategies to eradicate gambusia and restore the populations of red-finned blue-eye. Working with endangered species is particularly complicated because an equal amount of effort needs to be directed towards dealing with legislative requirements and on-ground works.

'There are a lot of people who are understandably interested in our efforts to protect the blue-eye. Scientists don't work alone – we all learn from each other and there are so many elements to consider. What Bush Heritage has though, which is unique, is the opportunity to make it happen'.

'If we save this species from the brink of extinction it will be an incredible accomplishment for all of us, especially our donors, who are the ones who make this possible.'

Adam and his team's work to save the red-finned blue-eye at Edgbaston Reserve is only possible thanks to the generosity of Bush Heritage supporters like you. Thanks for allowing us to continue protecting endangered species like the red-finned blue-eye.

By Lucy Ashley

Edgbaston Reserve was purchased for the purpose of nature conservation with the assistance of The Nature Conservancy and the Australian Government under the Maintaining Australia's Biodiversity Hotspots Programme. Thanks also to the Elizabeth Gabler Charitable Trust, managed by Trust Company Ltd. for their support of Adam's work in the last year.

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