Global fish passage forum to include first symposium on hydropower and fish, December, Australia

The American Fisheries Society and the Environmental and Water Resources Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers are holding this year's annual Fish Passage conference in Australia in December in collaboration with hosts Charles Sturt University and the New South Wales Government. The International Conference on River Connectivity, to be held in Albury from December 10 to 14 includes the First International Symposium on Hydropower and Fish Management.

The latter is scheduled to be chaired by Luiz Silva, a Brazilian freshwater fish scientist now based at the university's Institute for Land, Water and Society in Albury, located at the headwaters of the Murray River which forms part of the largest river basin in Australia. Dr Silva has contributed significantly to the understanding of fish passage in tropical regions and is credited with developing strong links to the hydropower industry in Brazil.

The overall conference is scheduled to be jointly chaired by Lee Baumgartner, associate professor at the Institute, and Matthew Gordos, fish passage manager at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.

Global significance

The separate symposium is part of an initiative of the Technology Collaboration Programme on Hydropower of the Paris-based International Energy Agency (specifically its working group on hydropower and fish, known as Annex XIII). According to the conference website launched by the University of Massachusetts during the second week of January "there is an increasing goal worldwide to seek multidisciplinary tools and solutions for the hydropower development and fish management nexus.

Hydroelectricity is a major economic activity, especially in developing countries, but also a major threat for the aquatic biota, especially fish. In many cases, the lack of knowledge on the ecology of fish species affected by dams is the main factor constraining the ability to provide more informed decisions and management plans for hydropower."

The symposium is expected to focus on global issues related to hydropower and impacts on fish biology and ecology, bringing perspectives from different countries, especially those where such development is a major economic activity. The five main topics are:

  • Hydropower dams and impacts on habitat availability for fish.
  • Hydropower structures/operation and direct impacts on fish.
  • Hydropower monitoring and management for fish.
  • Design, development and monitoring of mitigation measures.
  • Hydropower policies and decision-making.

Relevance to Mekong Basin

Dr Baumgartner, one of the two co-chairs of the conference, said organisers were aiming for strong attendance from the Mekong region.

"River development will greatly impact aquatic resources and water use in the Lower Mekong Basin," he told Terra Daily.

"Current hydropower output of about 3,325 MW is expected to rise seven percent per year over the next two decades with the construction of 134 new dams. Irrigation networks are expected to expand by more than 250 percent over the same period. This growing number of large-scale water resource development projects in the basin is challenging the long-term sustainability of the world's most productive inland fishery."

The Australian freshwater fish ecologist currently leads a five-year project on quantifying the biophysical and community impacts of improved fish passage in Laos. The project - financed by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) - was launched in 2016. "The Lower Mekong capture fishery is extremely important," Dr Baumgartner said.

"It contributes more than 50 percent of the animal protein and supports the livelihoods of close to 70 million people living in the basin. But river development threatens this productivity. "

"In South America, similar development in the Amazon River depleted fisheries production by 70 percent. In North America, the Columbia River salmon fishery also collapsed following dam construction. To partly restore the associated fisheries, $7 billion was invested from hydropower earnings into applied research over 50 years." Dr Baumgartner said these cases highlighted how robust science was needed to identify, evaluate and mitigate the effects of river development.

"It is far cheaper to do so before investing in water resource development rather than responding to subsequent fish declines after construction has taken place," he said.

"Without effective mitigation strategies, capture fisheries production will fall substantially, impacting a major source of animal protein and income."

The conference in Albury in December follows a regional gathering organised by ACIAR and the United States Department of the Interior in Vientiane in 2016 in which a wide range of experts working in the Lower Mekong discussed fish passage issues for the first time. The conference provides a forum to raise these issues on the international stage.

According to Dr Baumgartner, the December conference will bring together international experts in riverine development, fish passage and aquatic ecosystem management to show how research can be applied to enhance global policy and decision-making.

"It's open to government agencies, developers, researchers, local provincial and district leaders and natural resource managers as well as recreational fishers to help share knowledge of successes and opportunities for sustainable fisheries," he said.

"The broad aim is to ensure economic development is furthered while maintaining, and where necessary, restoring healthy fisheries."

Initially known as the National Conference on Engineering and Ecohydrology for Fish Passage, the annual gathering of experts was hosted by the University of Massachusetts, Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin between 2011 and 2014 as well as in 2016 and 2017. The first conference outside of the United States was in the Dutch city of Groningen in cooperation with various European organisations in 2015.

The conference call for abstracts opens on February 1 and closes on April 30. Readers interested in being placed on the mailing list for the conference should contact Dr Baumgartner directly (lbaumgartner ‘at’ csu.edu.au).

The author is editor of Catch and Culture - Environment, the fisheries and environment research and development newsletter of the Mekong River Commission.