Links between Gulf rivers and coastal productivity

The Flinders, Gilbert and Mitchell Rivers flow into the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, supporting healthy ecosystems and nationally significant wetlands as well as important recreational and commercial fisheries. With increasing interest in developing water resources in northern Australia, further information is needed to understand how such developments will impact on the health and productivity of floodplains and coastal areas. Specifically, we need to know which flow characteristics of the rivers earmarked for future development are most important for the region’s plants and animals so we can make informed management decisions.

This study is helping us to better understand the downstream impacts of water resource development in Gulf of Carpentaria catchments. Information from the study is enabling State and Federal Government decision makers to identify which flows make the biggest contributions to aquatic production, wetland and coastal ecosystems, and biodiversity within the Gulf. The research is helping to inform future water allocation and improving our ability to ensure that development in the region is environmentally sustainable.

  • Identify mangrove and floodplain productivity ‘hotspots’ in the southern Gulf using remote sensing and other data, and undertake field work to ground truth these.
  • Determine the extent of feeding areas for migratory shorebirds and fisheries species in estuaries and coastal areas, and measure the rates of primary productivity that underpin their food supply.
  • Measure the densities of juvenile banana prawns in estuaries and determine if banana prawns in Gulf fisheries can be linked to their estuary of origin using trace element ‘fingerprinting.’
  • Examine the flow data from key southern Gulf rivers to quantify how flows from major rivers can affect ecological assets such as banana prawns.
  • Use fisheries data to assess how much of the coastal finfish catch can be explained by patterns of floodplain inundation.
  • Use barramundi earbones to compare barramundi growth rates in different years and in different Gulf rivers.
  • Use trace element and/or isotopic analysis to assess whether high growth rates of barramundi are associated with freshwater or marine/estuarine production.
  • Undertake trade-off analysis using data from fisheries, agriculture and environmental values to determine the relative benefits of river flow.

September 2019 project update.

Gulf rivers productivity and shorebirds update link jpg

September 2018 project update.

Gulf rivers project update

May 2017 project update.

1.4 update p1

Field work is beingwi undertaken in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, specifically in the rivers and catchments indicated for possible development, i.e. the Mitchell, Flinders and Gilbert Rivers. The estuaries and coastal areas of these major rivers are the focus of field work.

Additional research using remote sensing is being undertaken in selected sites in the southern Gulf to determine ‘hotspots’ of primary production.

Gulf rivers map


August 2021

The Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub addressed key research questions to come up with practical, on-ground solutions to some of the north’s most complex environmental challenges. A transdisciplinary research approach has been at the heart of the hub. Integrating key research users – policy-makers and land managers including Traditional Owners and ranger groups – into the co-design of research projects has led to rapid uptake of research outcomes into land management practices and decision-making. The hub has produced this wrap-up video outlining these impacts from the perspectives of research users.

August 2020

Did you know Gulf of Carpentaria coasts are critically important habitat for migratory shorebirds? These birds fly to Australia from as far away as Alaska every year, and rely on the worms, crabs, clams and other food of the Gulf mudflats and sandflats to fatten up for their journey. This collaboration between Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and Griffith University is showing just how important the Gulf is for these long-distance fliers.

August 2020

Flows from rivers into the Gulf of Carpentaria contain nutrients that support the growth and reproduction of important fisheries species like banana prawns and barramundi. This project investigated the importance of three rivers – the Mitchell, Flinders and Gilbert – to Gulf fisheries.

January 2019

Mike Venarsky presents at the December 2018 DES (Qld) Workshop about the community-level migration patterns of fish in the Mitchell River and some of its tributaries.

January 2019

David Crook discusses how otolith chemistry can help explain and document fish life history.

January 2019

Glenn McGregor presents on how environmental assessments contribute to the evaluation of Water Plans in Queensland at a DES Workshop from December 2018.

January 2019

Jonathan Marshall explains how paleo-ecological tracers can help understand past ecosystem variability to predict and manage now and into the future.

The project is led by Professor Michele Burford at Griffith University, with Associate Professor Jim Smart and Professor Stuart Bunn from Griffith University leading sub-projects.

The project leaders are being assisted by researchers from Griffith University, CSIRO, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Charles Darwin University and the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Resources.

This project is due for completion in June 2021.

Michele Burford, Griffith University
[email protected]
(07) 3735 6723

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  • Field work in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • The researchers will use banana prawns, which have a well understood life cycle, as an indicator species. Photo: Matthew Whittle.
  • Field work in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Field work in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Mitchell River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Field work in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Gilbert River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Mitchell River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Flinders River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Gilbert River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Flinders River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Stephen Faggotter.
  • Water covering floodplain near Norman River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, photo Michele Burford
  • Norman River in the Gulf of Carpentaria with floodwaters draining off floodplain, photo Michele Burford
  • Barramundi, photo NAER Hub
  • Norman River flooding near Normanton, photo Michele Burford
  • Norman River flooding across road near the town of Normanton in 2011, photo Michele Burford
  • Water draining off saltflats into Norman River in the Gulf of Carpentaria during flood, photo Michele Burford