Trout, Sediment and Loss by Peter Clynes

Trout and Carp in the Molonglo and the Yarra; a Tale of Terror, Sediment and Loss

We’ve teamed up with RMIT’s School and Media and Communication and asked students to respond to the themes of Melbourne Knowledge Week and reflect Melbourne’s future. This response by Peter Clynes reflects on change in our cities waters. 

Peter has fished for trout since he was in primary school, and he is now completing an honours in creative writing at RMIT. He wrote this piece to express his anxiety and sadness about the progress of global warming. ‘Two degrees past where we are now is too many, so much will have to change and I’m not sure how much I’ll like what this all becomes’.

I am frightened and I have been worried about the flowers blooming in California’s deserts. There are thousands of tiny, beautiful and totally ephemeral flowers blooming in California’s deserts, where it shouldn’t really rain so much. There’s been a big dump of rain out there, where usually there would only be so much rain every decade or so, where usually it’s bone dry and lifeless, and this frightens and worries me terribly.

Where I grew up, in Canberra, I used to ride my bike down to the dam wall which holds back the Molonglo river. This dam wall, Scrivener Dam, is the wall which functions to create Lake Burley Griffin. The National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra is built next to Scrivener dam. I would ride down there after school some days with Robbie, or with Nic sometimes, and we could hear the lions roaring as the sun went down, and we would fish for carp. Big, dirty, golden carp that over-populate the shallow tailrace of the Molonglo there, where it gets so warm and still on hot 40 degree Canberra summer days.

In the 1960s, my dad and his little brother (both men are nearly seventy now) would ride their bikes down to the same spot, and they would catch fat, precious trout, both brown and rainbow. Dad and uncle Ade would throw little brass celtas into the water there, two boys only maybe thirteen or so, hauling out fish that would make most modern anglers cringe with envy. Robbie and I, sometimes maybe Nic and I, we’ve caught carp in there the size of toddlers. It’s not at all the same. The glory of those huge trout, that’s buried somewhere in the sediment below the river.

Buried below so many urban rivers, you will find the sediment of old fish populations, buried there with old stories from old codgers who knew. These fish have been moved on, displaced or decimated by industrial encroachment and global warming. The city breathed down the backs of their necks until the fish wriggled and squirmed off somewhere else. Much like the terrifying flowers which sleep under California’s desert sands, after unusually wet winters it is logically possible that you could find the fertilised ovum of trout knocking about some of the intermittent streams which flow into Lilydale lake and, I suspect, even Merri Creek. Once upon a time, the Yarra, which still holds strapping great mulloway under the Westgate Bridge and the world’s smartest bream behind Etihad Stadium, held trout all the way down to Dight falls. These were big fat fish, like the ones my father caught before that memory was buried below the Molonglo.

Buried below Elizabeth street, you’ll find a swampy little drainage that we once called Williams creek. There isn’t anyone alive who could remember fishing in this creek, though I’m certain plenty of kayakers have pulled bream and pinkie snapper from the mouth where it drains into the Yarra today, not far from Flinders station. The creek still flows, and even with Elizabeth street squatting on its rightful path, the rain still collects along that line and washes down into the Yarra, down out into the ocean where the water needs to go. In the event of a sudden and torrential dump of rain, the ghost of Williams creek will rush down Elizabeth street, swamping the table legs and the shop fronts.

You can’t really pave over a river, at least you can’t kill one. You can reroute a river, as we’ve done with the Snowy, and so many other and rivers tumbling down from the Snowy Mountains. You can’t just make a river stop existing, however. An topographically engrained process like the movement of water downhill can only be contained or confused, made melancholic or hysterical. These engrained, natural processes are locked into the curves and crevices of the landscape, the decision has been made already that something must stand in their places. The landscape’s processes and the lives of creatures around them are locked into an order that is only so motile; the living creatures will give way long before the landscape ever will.

Actually, trout aren’t a native component of any natural system in Australia, or anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere, and neither are carp. Trout were brought here for sport by an Englishman; the browns are from Scotland, the rainbows and the brook trout are from America. Trout are remarkably fragile fish; trout can only survive in the purest, coldest waters from the cleanest streams and lakes. As the natural processes of this landscape have been first disturbed by the introduction of European pests (all sorts of English beasts), then bastardised and subjugated into ugly shapes by urban development and climate change, the far more robust carp have muscled their way into the now turgid lower and middle reaches of most southern rivers.

Carp don’t always replace trout completely, the way they did in that stretch of the Molonglo below Scrivener Dam. In the Yarra, the carp live all the way from the CBD up to somewhere around Woori Yallock. From Launching Place up into the Yarra Ranges, brown trout sip at termites in stormy weather, they share pools with the native blackfish and Macquarie perch. All around the Murray Darling basin, slower lowland waters team with dirty carp, and the trout have been pushed up into the cleanest and coldest waters in the highest gutters of the Australian Alps.

I am so worried about the flowers in California’s deserts, precisely because of this migratory movement. I am worried because it might indicate another El Nino year for Australia. Warm ocean currents and unusually large dumps of rain across the other side of the Pacific, means that our flooding winter rains have gone eastward to the Americas, now their droughts will break and their rivers will swell. In the Americas, this will mean anything from green grass, desert flowers and fat trout in California, to landslides and destructive floods in the Amazon Basin. In Australia, it will mean slow flowing rivers get too warm in summer, the carp will push that much further up into the Alps, and the trout will have to retreat further and further uphill, away from the cities and towns.

I am so worried about all of this, because each year, bit by bit, global warming makes the difference that much more extreme, the effects that much more irreparable. Each year, boom and bust ecosystems like California’s desert flowers and Australia’s fresh water rivers will boom harder than they ever have and bust beyond recognition or repair. The processes are being distorted and made dangerous; things are slipping out of the bounds of our conscious design. Within this century, trout will be banished to the far altitudinal corners of the Australian Alps, if these rivers run through the summer months at all. Within this century, it’s been suggested that we may have to tear up the bitumen on  Elizabeth street, peel out the tram tracks like the spine of a cooked fish, so that Williams creek can run its course during torrential rains and save the CBD from flooding.

Actually, I think we hate carp so much because we’re scared to see them thrive. The carp that swim around the Murray Darling Basin were brought over for scientific reasons in the 1960’s. Scientists wished to conduct experiments on these fish that were specially bred to survive in the horrible, warm, eutrophic waters of a fish farm. This disease proof, heat proof, pollution proof fish is perfectly suited to the nutrient rich, slow flowing waters of the drought affected, global warming affected and over-allocated waters of the Murray Darling Basin. I think we hate these carp because every meter of altitude they climb towards Mt Bogong and Mt Kosciuszko is another nail in the coffin of the world’s meteorological homeostasis. The carp flourish in our warm rivers and wave their shovel tails; they muck about unsettling the waters while clouds of uprooted sediment bloom behind them like desert flowers. Knowing that carp took up in the Molonglo below Scrivner where my father caught so many trout, knowing that carp took up in the Yarra, where trout once splashed below the Abbotsford convent, makes me feel stressed, guilty, worried and depressed.

I resent the beautiful trout somewhat and I am afraid of it too. I am afraid of trout, because their superb beauty causes me to begrudge their unavoidable demise in Australia. At some point in the future, whether it’s two degrees warmer on average, or far worse, most if not all Australian trout will take up the same sedimentary position as those lying below the Molonglo, there behind Scrivener Dam. These will be the days that Williams creek will gush like a slashed carotid artery, Elizabeth street now completely torn away and the banks of the Yarra walled and redeveloped to allow for winter floods. At some juncture, prior to this time, the layout of Melbourne will need to be amended to allow for winter flooding, summer bushfires and a higher average sea level. We will need to pave over the topographies of coffee shops and laneway stores to rehome the displaced beach-dwellers and those whose houses stood in the way of inarguable natural processes made mad by industrial mistreatment. Our memories of beach days and boardwalks will be displaced, the old things will be buried in sediment and the new things will be standing in some rarefied corner we’ve yet to appropriate. Natural beauty will be relegated to melancholic zoos and the hysterical resplendence of ephemeral desert flowers. The landscape’s processes which we’ve tried for so long to subjugate and contain will win over us, and we will ultimately be the ones to budge.

In his book, On White Writing, JM Coetzee says that the white South African poets were hungry to systematise Africa’s wild plains and harsh savannahs by creating a language and lyric of their own, with which they could speak about and even speak to Africa itself. I think that white men brought the trout to Australia so they could understand the place, systematise its rivers and learn to extract that ultimate alluvial prize, the butter-gold brown trout. They wanted to speak to Australia, listen to the waters and feel some kind of a living response telecommunicated through a long fishing pole. I think it’s a sad irony and perfect poetic justice, that white men brought the trout here to further gazette and partition these lands, make Australia bend and morph not only to produce crops and materials, but to produce the psychical satiation of an English fish pulled from a eucalyptus lined river. It is a sad irony and perfect poetic justice, now that the pollutive expulsions of our avaricious conquest have begun to finally decimate these populations of a prized and foreign fish, that ultimately it is the white men like me who will be left crying about how few trout there are to catch.

ReferencesCoetzee, JM, On White Writing, Yale University Press, 1988, New Haven.

Written by Peter Clynes. 

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