The Eels of Dandenong Creek

This 9-minute video, produced by the First Friends of Dandenong Creek, tells the story of the short-finned eels (Anguilla australis) in Dandenong Creek.  It describes their amazing lifecycle and the importance of eels to Traditional Owners, as well as how urbanisation and pollution impact them.

WATCH - The Eels of Dandenong Creek

Short-finned Eels can swim a long way

Short-finned eels are one of the native fish species that the Healthy Waterways Strategy is aimed at protecting and improving over time. Globally, freshwater eels have declined dramatically over the past 50 years due to factors such as habitat loss and barriers to migration. Short-finned eels are commonly found in many waterways across the Melbourne region. They are catadromous fish, meaning that they migrate as adults between freshwater and saltwater to complete their life cycle. 

Short-finned eel (Anguilla Australis). Credit: David Paul / Museums Victoria.
Short-finned eels (Anguilla Australis), though common in waterways across much of south-eastern Victoria, have been in decline over recent decades. Credit: David Paul / Museums Victoria. License: CC by Attribution-NonCommercial

The short-finned eels of Dandenong Creek are originally spawned many thousands of kilometres away in the Coral Sea. Newly hatched, leaf-shaped larvae are carried on Australia’s eastern coastal currents south and east to New Zealand. They arrive at the estuaries of freshwater creeks and rivers such as the Dandenong Creek as immature, colourless glass eels.  The eels may spend time in the estuary feeding, taking on colour and growing into elvers before migrating upstream into freshwater. Here they live and grow for as many as 25 years before they eventually migrate downstream to the open ocean, making the long journey back to the Coral Sea where they mate, spawn and eventually die. 

Research undertaken at the Arthur Rylah Institute (ARI) led Dr. Wayne Koster has recently reported the results of tracking eels for the first time in their oceanic migration. Pop-up satellite archival tags (PSATs) were used to directly examine the oceanic migrations of adult short-finned eels from Australia, including their vertical movement behaviour, migration routes, response to the lunar cycle and predation.

Importance to Traditional Owners 

Short-finned eels are important to Traditional Owners across many parts of south-eastern Australia. Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Elder, Uncle Dave Wandin, explains the importance of short-finned eels to Traditional Owners and how his ancestors would create eel traps in shallow areas of the river to fish for them, taking care to leave plenty so that there would be a strong population into the future. This method was all about sustainability and caring for Country and all variety of creatures. Due to ecological changes and decline in quality, Uncle Dave explains how they don't see as many eels as they used to.

"We've lost the path of caring for Country. But just think about what happens downstream, what happens tomorrow?"

Uncle Dave Wandin, Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Elder

Elder, Uncle Dave Wandin
Elder, Uncle Dave Wandin, speaks of what short-finned eels mean to his culture.

An interesting seminar jointly presented by Gunditjmara man Uncle Denis Rose and Dr Wayne Koster from ARI tells the story of the importance of eels to Traditional Owners and presents the results of their joint research on tracking eel migrations into the Coral Sea. 

Pollution can dirty the waters

In 2018 on Melbourne Cup Day, a significant release of detergent into Dandenong Creek resulted in the death of not only eels in the area but other fish in the creek too. Detergent in the water makes it impossible for fish and other aquatic creatures to breath.  Today Environmental Scientists from Bio2Lab monitor pollution and keep an eye on water quality. There are many pollutants that we can't see, and one of the biggest invisible problems is insecticides.

Pollution event on the Dandenong Creek during Melbourne Cup Day 2018.
Pollution event on the Dandenong Creek during Melbourne Cup Day 2018.

A vision for the future

All life in Dandenong Creek depends on clean water and good habitat. The First Friends of Dandenong Creek focus on the eel population because of its status as a keystone species and the connection with Traditional Owners. The First Friends of Dandenong Creek formed in 1999 and are a strong community group that have visions for a healthier Dandenong Creek with good water quality. If the eel population is healthy, they can be confident that the creek is in good condition. Learn more about how you can get involved with The First Friends of Dandenong Creek.

Links to the Healthy Waterways Strategy - Dandenong catchment

The video highlights the urban waterway pollution issues that impact fish; a key value in the Healthy Waterways Strategy. It also links to performance objectives across the region to reduce the impacts of industrial pollution and to improve the connectivity of habitat for fish in Dandenong Creek. The First Friends of Dandenong Creek are active participants in the co-delivery of the Healthy Waterways Strategy and lead many activities that involve the wider community, including tree planting days to revegetate the waterways of Dandenong Creek. Their role is vital to the success of the Healthy Waterways Strategy and also contributes to participation targets set for the Dandenong catchment