Environmental water needs for the Daly River

25 March 2022

The Top End’s iconic Daly River is world-famous for its barramundi fishing. But being home to big barra is just one of many things that make the Daly special.

 An image of the Northern Territory’s Daly River. The top half of the image is clear blue sky, while the river winds down the centre of the photo with lots of snags and woody debris visible in the river. The left bank is noticeably sandy while the right bank is more of a mixture of grass, rocks and more woody debris.

The iconic Daly River is a favourite barramundi fishing spot but its water resources are attracting development attention. Photo: Alison King.

One of the few perennially flowing rivers in northern Australia, the Daly is home to more than 90 species of freshwater fish, 8 of the 9 freshwater turtle species found in the NT, as well as 3 elasmobranch species of conservation significance. Many of these species, as well as the Daly River and catchment themselves, hold significant value for the Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the area.

The Daly’s water resources are attracting increasing attention from the agricultural, forestry and mining industries. This Northern Australia Hub research project has generated critical new knowledge about the nature of the Daly’s flows and how they sustain the food web and animals living in the river. The project was led by researchers at Charles Darwin University and the Northern Territory Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security.

Map of the Daly River catchment showing the towns of Katherine, Pine Creek and Daly River.

The Daly River is in the Top End of the Northern Territory.

The project mapped and modelled where the water flows in the catchment in both the wet season and dry season, highlighting areas and habitats that are vulnerable to water extraction. The base of the river’s food web – the aquatic plants that are food for cherabin and fish – especially depends on dry-season flows to grow and thrive.

Juveniles of key fish species, including barramundi and sooty grunter, are likely to be impacted if water is taken from the river, particularly during the dry season. Juvenile sooty grunters prefer to live in riffles – shallow, fast-flowing, rocky habitats – which would shrink in the dry season, and there are likely to be fewer juvenile barramundi no matter when water is extracted.

And the iconic pig-nosed turtle may be particularly vulnerable to changes in flows, which could potentially reduce their access to nesting, feeding and basking areas. Pig-nosed turtles especially rely on the thermal groundwater springs that flow into the river, using them to stay warm during the colder dry-season months.

These and other important new findings about the environmental flow needs of the Daly River will help ensure the Daly’s waters and flows are sustainably managed into the future.

Read more about the outcomes from this research, including the final report, on the project page.

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