Tilapia – the Largest and Most Immediate Threat to our Northern Rivers

Damien Burrows
Australian Centre for Tropical Freshwater Research, James Cook University, Townsville

North QLD – Pest Fish Capital of Australia
• 20 exotic fish species have been introduced to the waters between Ayr and Cairns, more than any other region in Australia • Within the Wet Tropics alone, 36 native species have been translocated to waters where they do not naturally occur – again more than any other region in Australia • Translocated native fishes don’t have the same profile as exotic fishes but any animal where it does not belong can become a pest, even if native • We have a significant problem with people moving fishes to new waters • Most significant pest fish are tilapia

Tilapia – ‘Cane Toad of the Waterways’ or ‘River Rats’
• From Africa, introduced to >70 countries for use in aquaculture and as an aquarium fish • Highly invasive and impactful, significantly affecting biodiversity, water quality, wetland values etc. • One of only 8 fish species listed in the top 100 pests in the world – IUCN Global Invasive Species Program (2004)

Wide Environmental Tolerances
• Freshwater species, but can breed in seawater. Have established populations in many Pacific Ocean atolls, and many estuaries • Survive water with no oxygen anoxia and even being out of water • Tolerate warm water and a other harsh conditions – hence would love most of tropical Australia • Have flexible feeding and developmental traits, incl. breeding at small sizes

Environmental Effects of Tilapia
• Largely herbivore/detritivore but can be predatory on most native fishes • Due to reproductive talents and wide environmental tolerances, rapidly dominate biomass of waterbodies • Harass and frighten other fish – disturbing their normal behaviour, including spawning • Very aggressive (psychotic), especially when guarding display pits – exclude of all other fishes from access to space and resources • They simply take over waterbodies, especially confined waterbodies

Tilapia are Spreading – no. sites

Cumulative new site reports (NQld)





5 -7 71 19 0 -8 76 19 5 -9 91 19 0 -0 96 19 5 -8 81 19 0 -9 86 19 5 -0 00 20

Time interval

Cumulative number of new sites from where tilapia have been reported in northern Queensland up to-2005
(Alan Webb PhD Thesis 2005)

Tilapia are Spreading – catchment area
Area of Catchment in Qld With Tilapia Present Versus Year
250,000 Approx. Catchment Area (sq km) 200,000 150,000 100,000 50,000 0 1977 1978 1978 1990 1995 2000 2003 2004 2007 Year

Chronology of Tilapia Spread
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • 1977 Brisbane (drinking water dams) 1978 Ross River, Townsville (botanic gardens) 1978 Cairns (urban creeks) 1981 Carnarvon region, Western Australia (farm dams) 1980’s Port Douglas resort ponds (eliminated) 1980’s Mulgrave and Johnstone catchments 1986-1995 upper Barron catchment (farm dams) 1996 Tinaroo Dam 2003 Ross Dam (Townsville from farm dam) and upper Herbert (drinking water dam) 2004 Burdekin (farm dams) 2005 Burdekin (different location) 2004,2007 Endeavour River, Cooktown (farm dams) 2007 Lake Barrine 2008 Eureka Creek, Mitchell catchment, Gulf of Carpentaria



• First infestations in Townsville, Cairns, Brisbane and WA • Eradication from botanic gardens attempted in Townsville



• Spread to coastal creeks around Townsville and Cairns • Established in Barron catchment



• New infestation in upper Herbert catchment Weir • Controlled by monthly fish day and cold conditions • Herbert catchment drains to Hinchinbrook Island


• Burdekin infestation begins • Tilapia invade 3,000km of waterway in 4 years


• Population discovered Endeavour River, Cooktown • Started in farm dam (maybe 4 years earlier) • 6 tonnes in 2007, another 6 tonnes in 2008 from farm dams

January 2008

• Population discovered upper tributary of Mitchell River, Gulf of Carpentaria • Long-running campaign to keep it out of the Gulf • Just after I warned of it

Tilapia mariae

A few years from now??

• Spread inevitable if not controlled • Good habitat for tilapia

The ‘Great Divide’
Exotic and translocated native hotspot


• Almost nothing separates the Barron (east coast) from the Gulf rivers • Heavy human traffic • Interbasin water transfers • Tilapia found in transfer channels as well as numerous natives • This is the entry point to the Gulf country, at least five so far


Tilapia Distribution

• High risk of spread to Lake Eyre Basin • Fitzroy Basin • Murray-Darling

What is Being Done About Them?
• Government through Fisheries Dept has legislative and management authority for pest fish. Conduct monitoring, research and enforcement Natural Heritage Trust project 2006-2008 through Terrain NRM
Project covered four main themes
1. Public education 2. Mapping pest fish distribution 3. Research into impacts of pest fish 4. Improved management

Current projects funded through Northern Gulf Natural Resource Management Group and the Marine and Tropical Science Facility

Prospects for Control
• We have no means of substantially reducing existing populations (eg, in the Barron, Mulgrave, Johnstone, Burdekin) • Maintaining good habitat conditions does help native species compete with tilapia, especially in the Wet Tropics waterways • Research into large-scale population reduction methods such as genetic controls on breeding, will take years and costs millions – has started for carp • In the meantime, we are focusing on preventing tilapia movement to new waterways and on stopping recently established infestations from spreading (eg, upper Herbert, Gulf of Carpentaria)

Risk Factors Increasing Spread
• Initially introduced as aquarium fish, as are most exotic pest fish • Found in ornamental ponds (eg, botanic gardens) • Farm dams, especially on smaller holdings are often starting points (eg, Barron, Burdekin, Cooktown, Ross Dam) • Can spread across floodplains, via ocean dispersal • Children catching and spreading them • Fishers (as food source or as live bait) • Vandalistic people • PEOPLE are the most common means of the spread of tilapia

Timely Reporting is the Key
• We need the general public to be the eyes and ears for us in detecting these fish when they occur in new areas • The biggest problem is that people don’t report the fish when they see them • Eradication is most possible when the population is detected and reported quickly • Report to DPIF – call centre 132523 • Email: callweb@dpi.qld.gov.au • Website: www.dpi.qld.gov.au

How to Identify Tilapia

Tilapia - Family Cichlidae
Mozambique mouth-brooder ♂ Black mangrove cichlid or spotted tilapia



Oreochromis mossambicus

Tilapia mariae

Mozambique mouth-brooder

Black mangrove cichlid or spotted tilapia

Native fish have a gap or dent between front and rear parts of their top fin – Tilapia have a continuous top fin with no gap or dent

Sooty grunter or Black bream

Black mangrove cichlid or spotted tilapia ♀

Barred grunter

Mozambique tilapia

Native fish have rounded fins, Tilapia have pointed fins

Black bream

Barred grunter

Mangrove jack

Gilbert’s grunter

Sooty grunter or black bream

Tully grunter

Coal grunter

Mozambique tilapia

Barred grunter

Cooktown Burdekin River Lake Tinaroo

Black River, Townsville

THE TILAPIA SPOT – in juveniles (<10cm) only

Display Pits – Mozambique tilapia only

See our website www.actfr.jcu.edu.au – Pest Fish

Legal Status
• Declared noxious fish for ~40 years but that has not stopped its release and spread • Illegal to possess them, hence have no fishery value • Once caught, must be killed and disposed of by burying or in bins, not left on river banks • Fines up to $150,000 for illegal possession

Pressure to Legitimise Their Use
• It is illegal to fish for or possess tilapia, so they have no fishery value, but there is pressure to legitimise their use (eg, commercial extraction, aquaculture) • There is no commercial market for tilapia, no effective means of harvesting them and wild fish are not of sufficient quality for markets

Pressure to Legitimise Their Use
• Fishers cannot keep caught tilapia for use as food • This might seem strange but fishing pressure will not make any effective decrease in tilapia populations and allowing them to have value to fishers will make it hard to introduce control measures in the future – many examples of this • For effective control, we must give the fish no value to anyone and we must stay firm on this policy • Extensive public education required to inform public of their impacts, to discourage their spread and most importantly, to report any new sightings of tilapia

Family Poeciliidae (livebearers)

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