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Fish Kill

Investigation
Manual

Fishery Report No. 70
ISBN 0 7245 4705 3

JANUARY 2004
Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development

Contents
Introduction ........................................................................................3

Section A ..............................................................................................4

• What is a fish kill? ................................................................................................... 4

• Notification of a fish kill .......................................................................................... 4

• Causes of fish kills ................................................................................................... 4
• Low dissolved oxygen levels ......................................................................... 4
• Rain and run-off ............................................................................................. 4
• pH stress ......................................................................................................... 5
• Excessive plant growth .................................................................................. 5
• Water temperature .......................................................................................... 5
• Parasites and diseases .................................................................................... 6
• False fish kills ................................................................................................ 6
• Pollution ......................................................................................................... 6

• References ................................................................................................................ 6

Appendix 1. Fish Kill - Interpretation Guide ..................................7

Appendix 2. Fish Identification Sheet ..............................................8

Appendix 3. Collection of Fish Samples ...........................................9

Appendix 4. Fish Kill Operational Procedures .............................10

Section B ............................................................................................ 11

Reporting Form .......................................................................................................... 11

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Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development

INTRODUCTION
Fish kills (observed deaths of fish) are a common occurrence in the Northern Territory. In most
cases they are caused by natural events, such as rain and associated freshwater run-off between
October and February. However, because these events are often very visible, they can cause
considerable concern in the community.
The "Fish Kill Manual" is designed as an informative guide on the notification, assessment,
collection and recording of a fish kill event. A fish identification sheet is included along with
detachable fish kill reporting sheets.
There may be a single or a combination of causes for fish kills. It is therefore important that
information recording and sample collection is carried out as described in the manual
(Appendix 4 and Section B). With accurate information and suitable samples the cause of a fish
kill can be rapidly determined.
The Office of Environment and Heritage is the lead agency to respond to reports of fish kill. It will
liaise with other relevant organisations including the Department of Business, Industry and Resource
Development (DBIRD), the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Environment (DIPE) and the
Amateur Fishermen's Association of the Northern Territory (AFANT) when necessary.

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Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development

SECTION A
What is a Fish Kill?
A 'Fish Kill' is a sudden death of a large number of aquatic animals including fish, prawns and
crabs (Department of Environment and Heritage, 1998). Fish kills can occur in marine, estuarine
and inland waters and usually take place in a defined area and over a short period of time.

Notification of a Fish Kill
It is important that all fish kills are reported as soon as possible. Usually the cause of a fish kill
can only be determined when investigating officers are on site during or just after the actual fish
kill event. A rapid response is necessary to identify the cause before wet season run-off and
large tides quickly dilute and disperse the causing agent(s).

Causes of Fish Kills
Fish kills may be entirely due to natural causes or in some way due to human activity. In the
Northern Territory, most fish kills are due to natural events. They are relatively common,
usually occurring during the build-up period and early wet season (October - January).
Generally, there is little that can be done to prevent them and they should not be a cause of
alarm. This manual describes some of the common causes of fish kills and the possible
associated conditions.

a) Low dissolved oxygen levels
Low dissolved oxygen levels are probably the most common cause of fish kills in the Northern
Territory. The depletion of oxygen may result from several causes, but are usually due to the use
of oxygen by organisms such as algae, aquatic plants (at night), or bacteria in the presence of
organic matter. Situations that may lead to oxygen depletion include:
• discharges of organic matter (i.e. sewage);
• anaerobic mud stirred up from the bottom;
• rapid turnover of a stratified waterbody;
• decaying macrophytes and algal blooms.
The ability to tolerate low dissolved oxygen levels depends on the species of fish and their size.
Some species (for example mullet) are susceptible to low levels of dissolved oxygen and will
often be one of the first species to perish (Reynolds and Scribner , 1986). The response of fish
to low dissolved oxygen levels is to gasp at the surface in an effort to force oxygen across the
gills. This may also include a splaying of the gill covers and pale pink gills (EPA, 1997).

b) Rain and run-off
Heavy rainfall and subsequent flooding may wash organic matter such as leaf litter and other
plant material, animal manure and organically rich soils into the water bodies. This promotes
increased bacterial decomposition and may result in the depletion of oxygen. Fish kills during
the late build up and early wet season are often caused by this post run-off deoxygenation.
Run-off may also carry potential toxic material including oils from the roadways, contaminated
soils (i.e. pesticides and insecticides), toxic spills and acid sulphate soils.

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c) pH stress
pH is the measure of water acidity and can vary greatly in the natural environment. Generally,
freshwater streams are slightly acidic whereas estuarine water bodies may be slightly alkaline.
Sudden changes and extremes in pH (i.e. acidic or alkaline) may be lethal to fish, either directly,
or indirectly through the mobilisation of heavy metals from soils. In extreme cases, acidic
"burning" of the gills indicated by, brown discolouration of the gills or excessive mucous
secretion may be evident on the affected fish (EPA, 1997). The change in pH levels can occur
naturally, through runoff from acid-sulphate soils or artificially through industrial effluent,
contaminated runoff and acid or alkali spills (Department of Environment and Heritage, 1998).

d) Excessive plant growth
Excessive aquatic plant growth due to increased nutrient concentration in waterways can cause
fish kills through supersaturation of oxygen during the day or the depletion of oxygen during
the night (Department of Environment and Heritage, 1998). The plants, including algae,
produce oxygen during daylight hours (photosynthesis) and consume oxygen at night
(respiration). Although oxygen is produced during the day, the consumption of oxygen during
the night may be such that oxygen levels are depleted to a level lethal to fish.
Another problem with excessive plant growth is that during periods of die-off, the increased
organic loading is consumed by increasingly large numbers of bacteria. The bacteria's high
oxygen requirements can quickly lead to anoxic conditions resulting in a fish kill.
Increased nutrients may also cause algal blooms. The majority of algal blooms appear to be
harmless but under exceptional conditions, may become so densely concentrated that they
generate anoxic conditions that can cause fish kills. Certain species such as dinoflagellates and
cyanobacteria can also produce potent toxins.
Algal blooms generally consist of a single species making identification important to aid in its
control. Differences in water colour (yellow, brown, green, blue or milky) may be a good
indicator of an algal bloom and help in the identification of the organisms involved (Department
of Environment and Heritage, 1998).

e) Water temperature
Exposure to extreme water temperatures is a potential cause of fish kills. This may happen in
the Northern Territory towards the end of the dry season, when the water temperature of the
shallow exposed billabongs may exceed the tolerance range of the fish, resulting in fish deaths.
Water temperature may affect fish in two ways. The metabolic activity of fish (oxygen
consumption) is related to temperature; an increase in temperature will increase metabolic
activity. Water temperature also affects the amount of soluble oxygen in the water, with
increasing temperatures decreasing oxygen levels. Consequently in very warm billabongs, fish
metabolism and thus oxygen consumption is high whilst the potential concentration of dissolved
oxygen is low.
However, as with other water quality variables, tolerance levels do vary between species of fish
and most species are generally tolerant to temperature extremes when gradually acclimatised
(EPA 1997).

f) Parasites and diseases
Fish are subject to a variety of bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases. In Australia, fish kills due
to severe diseases are usually uncommon. However under stressful conditions, physical and
environmental (i.e. extremes in water temperature, pH etc), the resistance of fish to disease is
lowered and infections can occur.

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Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development

One of the common naturally occurring pathogens in the Northern Territory is red-spot
(epizootic ulcerative syndrome). This affects a number of native species including the
barramundi, silver scats, catfish, mullet and saratoga, and is believed to occur during the dry
season when cooler water conditions are experienced. Signs of this disease may include small
and large red areas, deep ulcers, opaque eyes and fin damage (Pearce, 1990). Usually
histopathological examination of fresh tissue is required to determine the presence of diseases.

g) False fish kills
False fish kills refer to the situation where unwanted "rubbish" fish have been discarded. This
typically occurs from net or trawl fishing. The fish are usually small, undesirable species with
net related injuries.

h) Pollution
Pollutants can come from a variety of sources including industrial waste, sewage and
agricultural chemicals (pesticides and insecticides). Pollution can kill fish either by direct
poisoning or indirectly, by a catastrophic change in water quality. It is often difficult to identify
the cause of a chemical fish kill. The quick dilution in run-off, tidal situations and rapid (less
than 48 hrs) degradation of the many common pesticides and insecticides (Reynolds and
Scribner, 1986) often removes any evidence of a chemical spill. Poisoned fish (affected by
pollutants) often show signs of internal hemorrhaging and erratic swimming behaviour or
tremors (EPA,1997).

References
Environment Protection Authority, (1997). Protocols for the Investigation of Fish kills and
incidents involving other Biota. Draft Report.
Meyer, F.P. and Herman, R.L. (1990). Interpreting the Scene, in Field Manual for the
Investigation of Fish Kills (F.P Meyer and L.A. Barclay, eds.). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
resource publication 177.
Pearce, M. (1990). Epizootic Ulcerative Syndrome (Red-Spot disease). Fishnote 1. The
Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries.
Reynolds, L.F. and Scribner, E.A. (1986) Fish Kills Advisory Note. 4/86. Department of
Agriculture New South Wales
The Department of Environment and Heritage (1998). Fish Kill Reporting and Investigation
Manual. The Department of Environment and Heritage, Queensland Government.

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Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development

Appendix 1.
Fish Kill - Interpretation Guide

Causes of Death
Physical signs Oxygen depletion Toxic algae bloom Pesticide toxicity
associated
with fish death
Behaviour of Gulping and Convulsions, erratic Convulsions, erratic
affected fish swimming at surface swimming, lethargy swimming, lethargy

Species selectivity Most to all fish dead, None Some species more
of kill some species tolerant tolerant, one species
to depletion dies before others.

Size of fish affected Large fish first to die Small fish first to die Small fish first to die
Time of fish kill Early morning and During the hours of Any time during the day
night bright sunlight or night

Dissolved oxygen < 2mg/L Supersaturated Normal range
especially at the surface
Water pH 6.0 - 8.3 9.0 and above 7.5 - 9.0

Water colour Black, grey or brown Dark green, brown or Normal colour and
golden often with a odour
strong odour.
Algae and plankton Dying algae, small One algae species If insecticide no
abundance amount of zooplankton abundant, small zooplankton, algae
amount of zooplankton present, if herbicide
algae may be absent

Adapted from Meyer and Herman (1990).

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Appendix 2.
Fish Identification Sheet

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Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development

Appendix 3.
Collection of Fish Samples
If requested, samples of fish should be collected as described below. Note: The DBIRD Fisheries
Research Division should be notified prior to sample collection in order to prepare for an autopsy.
• Only a small number of fish (5-10) are required for an autopsy. The fish should represent the
range of species and size of stressed or deceased fish observed. An autopsy will examine the
affected fish for infections (parasite, bacterial, viral) and physical condition. To investigate
these conditions the samples must be stored in several different ways, as shown below.
• Stressed fish should be placed in plastic bags containing water and kept alive.
• Recently deceased fish (less than 6 hrs old) must be:
1) placed on ice or refrigerated;
2) frozen: or
3) 'fixed' in *formalin (if available).
• Samples must be delivered to Berrimah Farm within 48 hrs of collection.
* This is a hazardous chemical and should only be handled by trained personnel. Safety gear
including gloves, apron and glasses is essential.

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FISH KILL RESPONSE PLAN - OPERATIONAL PROCEDURES
Fisheries Police Hotline Pollution Hotline
Observation/Reporting of incident (Berrimah Police Station)
1800 891 136 (24hrs)
1800 064 567 (24hrs)

Resource Management
Division
Appendix 4.

Office of Environment
Fisheries Group and Heritage

NT Fisheries Group, Fish Kill Investigation Manual
Fish Kill Operational Procedures

On Site Survey/
Sample Collection

AFANT

DIPE/DBIRD ASSESSMENT
Action taken by
relevant Agency

DEPARTMENTAL BRIEF

Office of Environment and Heritage to coordinate the agreed response in terms of fish and water samples collected.

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Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development
Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development

SECTION B
REPORTING FORM

Person Completing This Form:

Name:

Address:

Telephone:

Date and Time
(of observations/
samples taken):

Location Details:

Name of Fish
Kill Site:

Type of Water body: (tick both 'a' and 'b')

a) Freshwater Estuarine Marine

b) Creek River Lake Impoundment

Bay Billabong Beach Open Sea

Other

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Description of Precise Location:

Sketch Map:
Sketch the water body in which the fish kill occurred.
Include in the sketch:
1) direction of north;
2) access roads;
3) site of dead fish;
4) wind direction at time of sampling;
5) photo location and direction, and direction of water flow.

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Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development

Time and Date of Fish Kill First Reported/Noticed:
Time and Date:
Name (if applicable):
Telephone (if applicable):

Weather Conditions at Time of Investigation:
Wind Speed/Direction:
Tidal State:
Cloud Cover (%):
Rain:

Prior to Observation of Fish Kill:
Has the wind in the last few days been:
Calm Gentle breeze Windy

Signs of recent rain: Yes No

Evidence to suggest recent rains (please tick relevant boxes):

rain drop impact marks on ground

wash marks (scours) in soil

leaves/twigs washed to one side

lightning/thunder recently observed in the area

rise in water level

change in shoreline

other

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Water Quality Observations at Fish Kill Site:

Water Colour Clear green tea

black milky muddy

other:

Water Odour nothing unusual chemical

rotten foul (smell of decay)
egg

other:

Water Temperature (if available): ºC

Site Observations:
Extent of kill (metres of shoreline, area coverage of water, number of fish)
Indicate on sketch map if appropriate

Estimate length of time dead (please tick one)

0 - 12 hrs 12 - 24 hrs 24 - 48 hrs

more than 48 hrs variable time dead
(fish in different states of decay)

Any other forms of wildlife affected (please specify types and how affected)

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Species of Fish Affected and Unaffected. (Refer to fish ID sheet, Appendix 3.)

Body Damage
Number
Dead
Number
Stressed
Unaffected
Number
Range (cm)
Length
Species

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