Murray Cod

Last updated on 23 May 2017 
Maccullochella peelii

The story of the Murray Cod mirrors that of most Australian endangered species. Because of its abundance, the cod was commercially fished from the early years of European settlement. Changes to its natural habitat and competition from introduced fish have also had a big impact on cod numbers.

Murray Cod. Photo Guo Chai Lim (flickr.com/photos/guochai/1292824702/)*.
Murray Cod. Photo Guo Chai Lim (flickr.com/photos/guochai/1292824702/)*.
In 1883, commercial fisheries sent 147,000kg of cod from the Murray River town of Moama to Melbourne for sale. By the 1920s cod were in short supply and the commercial fishing industry ceased.

The fish was an important source of food to Indigenous people. Its cultural significance differs depending on the Indigenous nation and the area that they inhabited. 

One of the most common stories comes from Ngarrindjeri Country, close to the mouth of the Murray in South Australia. It concerns Ponde or Pondi, a giant ancestral cod. Ngurunderi, a great hunter, chased Ponde. Ponde’s thrashes and gyrations while trying to escape formed the bends and billabongs of the Murray. Ngurunderi speared the fish at Lake Alexandrina, cut it up and threw some of the parts into the water. These then became other Murray River fish species. One part of Ponde, which was also thrown into the water, remained the Murray cod.

Appearance

Beautiful 93cm Murray Cod discovered during electrofishing surveys at Scottsdale Reserve (yes, it was returned unharmed!) Photo Dylan van der Muelen.
Beautiful 93cm Murray Cod discovered during electrofishing surveys at Scottsdale Reserve (yes, it was returned unharmed!) Photo Dylan van der Muelen.
The Murray Cod is Australia’s largest freshwater fish. The biggest recorded was 1.8m long and weighed 113kg! The cod’s size depends on its habitat, with those living in smaller waterways reaching at least 60cm and between 3kg to 4kg. In larger waterways they grow to 100 cm or more and weigh up to 20kg.

The cod is one of Australia’s prettiest fish. It's white underneath and yellowish-green to green on its back. This is overlaid with darker green mottling, which gives the fish the appearance of a leopard. 

It's one of four sub-species in the genus Maccullochella. The others are:

  • the Mary River Cod
  • the Trout Cod
  • the Eastern Freshwater Cod.
None of these are related to the northern hemisphere cod, which is part of the Gadus species.

Where do Murray Cod live?

The Murrumbidgee River at Scottsdale Reserve, NSW. Photo Peter Saunders.
The Murrumbidgee River at Scottsdale Reserve, NSW. Photo Peter Saunders.
The Murray Cod inhabits the Murray-Darling basin, which spreads through New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. Thousands of interconnected creeks and rivers run through the basin. Some of the basin’s major rivers are the Murray, Darling, Warrego, Murrumbidgee, Lachlan, Goulburn, Campaspe, Mitta Mitta, and Loddon.

Below the basin is a complex system of aquifers and groundwater. Most of the waterways eventually connect to the Murray River. The cod lives in warm water habitats ranging from clear, rocky streams to slow-flowing turbid rivers and billabongs.

Murray Cod behaviour

The fish have been called the 'pigs of the waterways'. They're very aggressive and highly territorial. The cod eats almost anything that gets in its way. Its diet is mostly other fish including introduced species such as perch, juvenile carp and goldfish. It's also been known to eat ducks, cormorants, freshwater turtles, water dragons, snakes, mice, and frogs.

ACT Parks staff member pulling out fish net from the Murrumbidgee River on Scottsdale Reserve. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
ACT Parks staff member pulling out fish net from the Murrumbidgee River on Scottsdale Reserve. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
A Murray Cod can live for more than 50 years, which gives it a greater chance of reproducing despite extreme weather events such as droughts. The cod reaches sexual maturity between four and six years old. It moves upstream to spawn, often travelling as far as 120km. This usually occurs in late winter or early spring when river levels are high.

Eggs are adhesive and placed on a hard surface such as logs, rocks or clay banks. Once the eggs are laid, the fish will move back downstream, usually to exactly the same place it began. The male guards the eggs, which hatch between 5 and 13 days after being laid.

Threats to Murray Cod

Murray Cod are listed as 'Critically Endangered' on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. They're listed as 'Vulnerable' under the Environmental Protection of Biodiversity and Conservation Act, and by the Australian Society for Fish Biology. According to some estimates, cod numbers are only 10% of those that existed before European settlement.

The cod has moved from being considered as a plentiful source of food to an important but threatened part of the Murray Darling ecosystem.

What’s Bush Heritage doing?

The tiny dots on the left are hundreds of new native plants put in at Scottsdale Reserve to help improve river health. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
The tiny dots on the left are hundreds of new native plants put in at Scottsdale Reserve to help improve river health. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Our efforts to protect the cod centre on Scottsdale Reserve, just 40km from Canberra. We acquired Scottsdale, on the upper reaches of the Murrumbidgee, in 2006. The Murrumbidgee forms the western and northern boundaries of the property for a distance of about 4.5km.

Bush Heritage is involved in a regional partnership that aims to improve water quality and habitat along a 100km stretch of the river called the Upper Murray Demonstration Reach. Amongst the projects this group has undertaken, is work focused on European carp control.

Since the carp was introduced about 150 years ago, it's become a pest. More than 96 out of every 100 fish caught in the demonstration reach is a carp. The effects of carp on native fish populations are not well understood. It's thought, however, that high carp numbers are preventing the recovery of native fish such as the nationally threatened Murray Cod, Macquarie Perch and Trout Cod, as well as locally (ACT) threatened Murray River Crayfish, Silver Perch and Two‑spined Blackfish.  

The project involves:

  1. Trapping and tagging carp then recording their movements using acoustic telemetry. 
  2. Trapping and removing carp. This eases pressure on the aquatic habitat.
  3. Enlisting the local community to collect information about where carp are breeding and gathering. 
* Image reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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