Nine years and 2,000km later – 12 breeding barra finally return to Kununurra

It’s a fish journey that gives Finding Nemo a run for its money.

One of the original captors from 2013, Ben Little, who previously worked at the hatchery.

Rewind to 2013 in the East Kimberley Ord River in Kununurra, where 12 barramundi were caught, placed in a specially adapted trailer and transported over 1,000km north-east to North Regional TAFE’s Aquaculture Centre in Broome.

Over the past nine years, they grew from around 50cm in length to about one metre, changed from male to female and spawned almost a quarter of a million baby barra between them.

Last Friday, those original 12 barramundi made the 1,000 km ‘return-journey’ and were released into Lake Kununurra, where they will see out the rest of their years.

“It was so good seeing these animals go full circle and return to where they’re from,” said Milton Williams, North Regional TAFE Senior Aquaculture Technician, who has worked at the centre for the last 15 years and oversaw the release operation of these magical fish.

“Having seen them grow and do their bit spawning, it was so rewarding watching them swim off into their wild habitat.”

It is a testament to the stocking program run by the North Regional TAFE in Broome and the local Lake Kununurra Barramundi Stocking Group, which has seen more than one million barramundi released into its waterways since 2013.

Find out more about the stocking program and fishery on Lake Kununurra here.

Breeding barra for a Kimberley “Barradise”

Lake Kununurra has since become a world-class hotspot for anglers chasing one-metre giants in ‘barra-dise’. According to a 2020 report conducted on the restocking program, the economic value of barramundi fishing to the region is already $7.6 million per year.

Milton Williams, Senior Aquaculture Technician at North Regional TAFE preparing a barra for the journey. His daughter, Ella, also helped out in a work experience capacity.

To ensure the fish are healthy in the centre and contribute to the growing species abundance, their diet includes fresh “human-grade” seafood including mullet, whiting, prawns, squid and pilchards.

As barramundi are protandrous hermaphrodites, they also change sex from male to female once reaching five to six-years-of-age at around the 90cm mark.

Milton said the female fish have produced eggs consistently well over the last few years, whereas the males might have been suffering from a little ‘performance anxiety.’

“The females have spawned consistently well, it’s the males we have trouble with,” said Milton. “They don’t always fire and we rarely have them all in spawning condition at once – usually it’s about half of them. Between these fish they have successfully contributed 214,000 barra fingerlings that have been transported and released in the lake.”

For their 12–14-hour journey back to Lake Kununurra, the fish were purged so none of their waste impacted on the pH of the water, which can be lethal to the fish. The ratio of fish to water in the oxygenated transportation tanks was 80kg of fish to 800L of water.

Once at the lakeside, water was slowly pumped through the tank to allow the fish to acclimatise and “osmoregulate” from the saline water in which they were kept in at the hatchery and in the transportation tanks to the freshwater environment of the lake, as well as adapting to temperature changes.

A special fishery being delivered by a strong partnership

Recfishwest CEO Dr Andrew Rowland commented, “It’s great to see these fish being treated with the respect they deserve being released back into their natural habitat after contributing to this great program.

“Thanks to fish like this and the fantastic efforts of North Regional TAFE, the local Lake Kununurra Barramundi Stocking Group and the support of the State Government, the lake has flourished into a special fishery in a beautiful part of the world. Where else do you get the chance to catch metre-long barra in such a safe and accessible setting?”

The team from North Regional TAFE and Lake Kununurra Barramundi Stocking Group members (left), and Brad Pasfield releasing a fish back into its native habitat.

 

Another 300,000 barra released into Lake Kununurra!

This week another 150,000 barramundi fingerlings – which are about 60 days old – were successfully released into Lake Kununurra, with another 150,000 barra set to be released next week.

These two releases will raise the total number of barramundi released into Lake Kununurra over the past eight years to 1.3 million fish.

Lake Kununurra is an East Kimberley fishing gem and a quality sport fishery, providing fishers the chance to chase big barramundi.

WATCH: See how the experts fish for barra on Lake Kununurra

A safe location free of saltwater crocodiles and big tidal movements typical of Kimberley river systems, Lake Kununurra is home to many 1m-plus barra thanks to an ongoing stocking program.

The Lake Kununurra stocking program was initiated in 2013 using recreational fishing licence fees as part of the Recreational Fishing Initiatives Fund.

It is overseen by the Lake Kununurra Barramundi Stocking Group (LKBSG), Recfishwest, North Regional TAFE and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPRID).

“Lake Kununurra’s barramundi stocking program shows how true fish abundance not only promotes great fishing experiences, but also benefits regional WA communities,” Recfishwest CEO Dr  Andrew Rowland said.

“Fish abundance ensures great fishing experiences can be enjoyed and stocking programs like this one can help create world-class fisheries in regional towns, such as Kununurra.

“Lake Kununurra is not only an asset to locals, but also attracts visitors to the East Kimberley who want to try their luck and chase a magic metre barra in a safe and accessible setting.”

How good! More than 1.3 million barra have been released into the lake since 2013.

All of the fish released as part of the program have been bred at North Regional TAFE’s aquaculture facility in Broome.

The TAFE’s aquaculture experts transport the fish across from Broome to Kununurra in special oxygenated transportation tanks.

The State Government has committed to fund the stocking program over the next three years through the COVID-19 recfishing recovery package, announced in 2020.

See how the barra are hatched and reared at North Regional TAFE before being released into this short YouTube video.

Thanks also to Fisheries WA for their support of the program and Daiwa Australia our Statewide stocking partners who make fish release activities like this possible.

It was all hands on deck to help get the latest batch of barra into Lake Kununurra.

Bagging ‘broodstock’ breeders to keep the barra flowing into Lake Kununurra

I cast a paddletail plastic, with a weedless hook and flasher, at a rock bar along the banks of the Lower Ord, writes Recfishwest Communications Officer Zach Relph.

One crank of the reel, then let the paddletail slowly flutter down… and bingo! The rod bends, line peels and an East Kimberley barra is acrobatically leaping out of the water.

The fight is over relatively quickly and while it isn’t a trophy fish, it’s an important capture that’ll play a role in ensuring the ongoing stocking of barra into a fishing gem, where monster specimens are caught on a regular basis – Lake Kununurra.

Article author Zach Relph joined the North Regional TAFE crew to catch barra broodstock on the Lower Ord.

A lake brimming with barra

The ongoing Lake Kununurra barramundi stocking program has just seen the one millionth barra fingerling stocked into the waterway since the program started in 2013.

Now local and visiting fishers are reaping the rewards with the chance to wet a line in a world-class sportfishery.

Brimming with barra, safe and accessible with no saltwater crocs, as well as being free of big tidal movements typical of Kimberley rivers, it’s easy to see why Lake Kununurra is a must-visit fishing location for anglers.

All million fish released into the lake have been hatched and reared at North Regional TAFE’s (NRT) Broome Aquaculture Centre, with its aquaculture experts influential in the program’s success.

The stocking program exists because barra are unable to successfully reproduce in the freshwater lake – they require saltwater to complete the breeding process.

WATCH: See the action from the broodstock collection

NRT oversee the well-managed stocking program along with Recfishwest, the Lake Kununurra Barramundi Stocking Group and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

That’s why straight after the latest release of juvenile barra into the lake on 18 July, attended by 150 locals and holidaymakers, the NRT team was already casting its eye to the future – catching more fish for breeding purposes – or broodstock, as they are called.

“We need to collect male barra for our maturation tanks at the Broome Aquaculture Centre so we can keep stocking fish into Lake Kununurra,” NRT’s Milton Williams explained.

“Barra are born as males, but transition into females at about 80cm. At the moment, we’re running out of males so we need to collect more while we’re here in Kununurra.”

The State Government has committed funds to the program over the next three years through the COVID-19 recreational fishing recovery package.

This will ensure the fishing enjoyed on the lake by East Kimberley locals and travelling anglers will continue to go from strength-to-strength.

Anthony Aris, of North Regional TAFE, slowly retrieving a hardbody lure during the collection effort. Pictures: Zach Relph / Recfishwest

The stocking effort is dependent on maintaining the genetic background of the barra found near Kununurra to maintain the genetic purity.

“Some of the fish will want to eventually follow their natural breeding migration, meaning they’ll want to swim downstream to the saltwater to spawn,” Milton told Recfishwest.

“The fish that do this will make their way through the diversion dam and into the Lower Ord.”

Bagging the broodstock

With NRT on the search for more broodstock, Recfishwest joined Milton and TAFE acting regional manager Anthony Aris in pursuit of breedable barra late last month with the best method to catch them just happening to be rod and line!

Fishing with rod and reel – and barbless hooks to help minimise potential injury – is an effective broodstock collection method, reducing handling stress.

This ensures the fish are in optimal condition for transporting back to the Broome Aquaculture Centre.

Milton and Anthony, who both have long associations with this stocking program, were aiming to catch fish preferably 60cm or bigger – a more suitable size for captivity and breeding purposes.

This barra from the Lower Ord, caught by Milton Williams, will breed more barra for the Lake Kununurra barra stocking program.

Milton has been involved in the Lake Kununurra stocking program since its infancy and was part of initial broodstock collection a decade ago.

Having watched each of the fish stocked through the program grow from a hatchling, he has a close affinity with the barramundi in Lake Kununurra.

“From collecting broodstock 10 years ago to now playing a part in stocking one million barra is fantastic,” Milton said.

“As an avid fisherman, to see the program go full-cycle and visit Lake Kununurra myself to catch the fish and have guys regularly ring us to say they’ve caught 1m barra is very rewarding.”

Spawning success

A female barra in the wild can produce 30 million eggs across a spawning period.

However, barra eggs and larvae require saltwater for successful fertilisation and Lake Kununurra is freshwater, meaning the barra stocked cannot complete the breeding cycle in the 55km lake.

Multiple spawning events take place at the NRT hatchery throughout the year, with one female barramundi producing up to 10 million eggs in the hatchery.

Anthony watchfully monitors the oxygen tank on the research vessel to ensure the barra caught were fighting fit.

After eggs are fertilised, the TAFE team separate the fertilised eggs from the non-fertilised eggs – the fertilised eggs float, whereas the non-fertilised sink, making it easy to differentiate.

“We separate the eggs and place the fertilised eggs into a hatching tank where they hatch,” Milton said.

“Once we feed the fish with zooplankton enriched with algae for a few weeks until they are big enough to eat artificial food.

“The time between hatching to releasing generally takes about 50 days and they’re measuring about 50mm by this stage.”

Fishing for the future

Outside of their day-to-day duties at Broome’s Aquaculture Centre, Milton and Anthony are hooked on the allure of chasing barra across the Kimberley’s vast array of rivers and creeks.

The two mad-keen recfishers hadn’t fished the Lower Ord in late July previously, but quickly homed in on a daily bite-time – roughly between 3pm and 5pm – at the areas in which we were fishing.

Downstream of Buttons Crossing – over Ivanhoe Crossing – proved fruitful during the broodstock collection, especially in the late afternoon.

Full steam ahead! Anthony and Milton heading towards a rock bar on the Lower Ord which holds a lot of barra.

Around this time the barra weren’t overly fussy or shy when a lure such as a Samaki Vibelicious 70mm, Daiwa Double Clutch 90mm or a Zerek Flat Shad were flicked in their proximity.

While I initially thought the Lower Ord barra would be more inclined to take natural-coloured lures resembling the bait fish they predate, the sportfish still engulfed bright orange, pink and green lures.

Frustratingly, some of the smaller sized barra – in the 25cm to 40cm bracket – would inquisitively follow a lure to the boat without taking a swipe.

However, when they did hook-up – every treble or single hook used had crushed barbs – you knew about it, especially because I was relatively under-gunned fishing with a 20lb outfit.

Even small barra prove why the species’ power is revered by many fishers.

Stocking up on magnificent fishing experiences

Recfishwest CEO Dr Andrew Rowland caught this 70cm barra on the Lower Ord during the broodstock collection.

Following the collection efforts, Milton and Anthony returned to Broome with 13 barramundi which would become broodstock for the ongoing stocking program at Lake Kununurra.

The fish were safely driven back to Broome in two tanks – the same tanks which initially transported the latest batch of 50-day-old fingerlings from the Broome Aquaculture Centre to Kununurra.

With the State Government funding set to see 400,000 barra stocked into the lake annually for the next three years, the hatchery team is already readying fish for the next batch of stocking.

So, if you’re looking for a new fishing experience in a magnificent, be sure to visit Lake Kununurra.

Chasing a sportfish iconic to northern Australia at a location abundant with barra, while surrounded by the picturesque setting is a sight to behold and an experience to relish.

With this trailblazing program entering another exciting chapter, Recfishwest is excited to see future catches of magnificent trophy barramundi from Lake Kununurra for many more years to come.

From little things, big things grow! This 105cm barra that Luke Kotys caught on Lake Kununurra shows the success of the stocking program.

Recfishwest casts line out for Kununurra-based, barra-loving Project Officer

As many East Kimberley fishers know, there’s nothing quite like battling a metre-plus barramundi in Lake Kununurra – one of WA’s premier fishing destinations.

It would be near-on impossible not to smile while catching barra from Lake Kununurra.

That’s why Recfishwest is on the lookout for a part-time Project Officer, based in Kununurra, to help show WA and beyond while Lake Kununurra is rapidly establishing itself as a world-class impoundment fishery.

The role will also involve assisting stocking and community events supporting the fishery.

The new Project Officer is set to start by early March.

Responsibilities will include, but are not limited to:

  • Coordinating fishing info and photo content creation, including managing contractors and liaison with Recfishwest’s Communications team to support promotion of the fishery;
  • Coordinating community involvement in local fish stocking events;
  • Liaising with the Lake Kununurra Barramundi Stocking Group to organise citizen-science fish monitoring activities and reporting; and,
  • Supporting the development of new promotion initiatives.

Interested? Find out more by reading the Expression of Interest here

If you’re a Kununurra local, have first-hand experience fishing Lake Kununurra and simply love fishing the East Kimberley – Recfishwest wants to hear from you for the one-day per week role.

“The Project Officer role will help us promote Lake Kununurra’s evolving barramundi fishery as a must-visit trophy-fish destination for travelling anglers,” Recfishwest CEO Dr Andrew Rowland said.

“We’re looking for a passionate fisher who can support local stewardship of barramundi as a truly iconic sportfish, while promoting Lake Kununurra’s successful barramundi stocking program.

“With close to one million barramundi stocked in Lake Kununurra over the past eight years, the Project Officer will demonstrate the barramundi stocking program’s value to the broader WA community and beyond.”

Read more about Lake Kununurra’s trailblazing barra stocking program

If you’re keen to promote Lake Kununurra’s amazing sportfishing and the benefits of the ongoing barramundi stocking program, apply now!

Please send a resumé and cover letter outlining your passion to help promote Lake Kununurra’s iconic barramundi fishery and your skills to deliver the position’s responsibilities to info@recfishwest.org.au.

Applications close at 5pm, Monday 1 March.

Fish stocking has established Lake Kununurra as a prime fishing location! Picture: Ben Broady

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