Neither biblical floods, nor their trailer rear wheel axle falling off, could stop Broome’s North Regional TAFE aquaculture team making an epic 1,000km/20 hour-long journey to release 42,000 barramundi all around 62 days-old into their new home, Lake Kununurra!
North Regional TAFE Acting Hatchery Manager Milton Williams and his team had been tasked with delivering the latest batch of 100,000 barra they had reared as part of the ongoing Lake Kununurra stocking program that has seen more than 1.3 million fish stocked into the fishery since 2013.
With the cyclonic floods taking out Fitzroy Bridge and with no other river crossing options available initially, the transport delays between Broome and Kununurra meant the fish were fast maxing out at the size they could be viably kept at the hatchery.
“It costs $1,500 a week in oxygen alone to support that many fish at the centre,” said Milton, “it was nearing the point where we just couldn’t afford to keep them anymore – it was not looking good.”
All kinds of options were considered, including chartering a plane and airlifting the fish to Kununurra, but were ruled out for costs and logistical reasons – it was beginning to look a bit like a fish stocking mission impossible.
Happily, a commercial aquaculture venture took 58,000 of the fish off their hands and then the low-level crossing finally opened across the Fitzroy, courtesy of 10,000 tonnes of rock and steel donated by BHP to allow the team to transport the fish up to Kununurra.
Milton and hatchery technician Darcy Dunstan finally set out from the hatchery with the fish in tow in oxygen-fed tanks on the back of their specially adapted trailer and all was going well until the wheels came off…literally.
A spring gave out at the back of the trailer resulting in the rear wheel axle falling off 30km outside of Fitzroy Crossing.
“There’s never a dull moment working in aquaculture. It’s not a career – it’s an adventure!” said Milton.
The wheels come off!
With just one bar’s coverage on his mobile phone, Milton was able to get hold of Brian from Fitzroy Crossing Automotive Salvage and Towing who came to the stricken trailer’s aid with his tilt truck.
Brian then really, really went the extra distance to drive the tanks of fish the remaining 700km up to Kununurra on his tilt truck tray with Milton and Darcy following in their 4WD behind.
Forced to drive at only 90kmh meant the crew finally landed at Falls Crossing in Kununurra at 9pm, some 19 hours after having set out from Broome. The boat DBCA usually provide to help stock some of the fish in the lake was stood down due to the late hour, leaving all the fish to be released at Falls Crossing.
There was then an anxious two-hour wait as the fish acclimatised before being finally released into their new home.
“There was a mixture of relief, excitement and exhaustion seeing them go in after all the challenges. Being that much older and bigger than usual has actually worked in their favour, making them that bit more robust and less susceptible to predators,” said Milton.
With the fish successfully delivered, Milton and Darcy could finally sit back and enjoy a very well-earned beer.
“It was the best tasting beer I’ve ever had!” laughed Milton, “We were pretty exhausted with the whole experience being a bit of a rollercoaster. But we got there in the end, and it feels great to have delivered another 42,000 barra to the Lake, many of which will grow into metre-plus fish enjoyed by local fishers and visitors the lake alike.”
Recfishwest CEO Dr Andrew Rowland said, “Huge credit to Milton, Darcy and the North Regional TAFE aquaculture centre crew. They’ve gone above and beyond to make sure these valuable fish got delivered to the lake.
“Well-managed fishing stocking programs like this create fantastic fishing opportunities for regional communities and all the social, economic and tourism benefits that go with it.
“The fishing is always better when the fish are biting – and having the chance to fish for the iconic barramundi in a safe, accessible setting that Lake Kununurra provides – is of huge value to the local community and visitors to the Kimberley.”