Local man finds 30,000 tropical fish dumped on beach from Great Barrier Reef

An estimated 30,000 fish were discovered along with the bodies of birds and mammals after ex-Tropical Cyclone Jasper pounded the Daintree.

A beach was swamped with 30,000 tropical fish after the Great Barrier Reef was hit by severe weather. Locals reported the bodies quickly disappeared under tonnes of mud and debris as flooding continued to swell the nearby Daintree River after ex-Tropical Cyclone Jasper passed nearby.

Around 30 to 40 species including brilliantly-coloured coral trout and wrasses, as well as eels, were photographed decaying close to seabirds and dead terrestrial animals including echidnas and bandicoots.

Sharks and rays were not found amongst the dead, indicating they may be more resilient to storms than other fish. Local fisheries bycatch expert Nigel Brothers conducted the survey with his partner in December and revealed his findings this week.

“The fish presumably succumbed to the huge amount of fresh water flushing over the reef. Also, the ocean turned a really filthy black-brown colour for as far as you could see, so maybe the sediment load added to the problems,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

Left - Nigel Brothers walks along Wonga Beach which is covered in debris. Right - several dead tropical fish on Wonga Beach.
Nigel Brothers (left) estimates between 10,000 and 30,000 coral reef fish were dumped on a 10km stretch of Wonga Beach. Source: Supplied

Brothers’ survey of the once idyllic Wonga Beach was undertaken after Jasper triggered widespread flooding which dumped mud and debris onto the sand. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMA) confirmed with Yahoo News Australia some parts of the reef were “largely untouched” but others had been damaged by waves.

The first of the dead coral reef fish arrived on December 16 and the peak of the kills occurred on December 19 and 20. Brothers estimates there were between 10,000 and 30,000 dead fish on a 10km stretch of Wonga Beach.

Erosion from the runoff dissected the sand along the beach, and extreme amounts of sediment swamped the sand, making access hard and leaving the area largely isolated. Ongoing unstable weather conditions around the site, and the stench of rotting fish, made survey work uncomfortable.

“It was still very eerie and gloomy and threatening looking, and raining quite heavily,” Brothers said. “It was a matter of having to do it really quickly. The fish kill was quickly being buried by the massive amount of sediment that was coming out of rivers, including the mighty Daintree. It was intense at times and difficult to cover.”

Conservationists urge Albanese government to strengthen nature protection

Australian research this week revealed extreme weather events are no longer isolated "freak" incidents and are now part of a global pattern. Although cyclones are not becoming more frequent, but their severity is worsening and this is fuelled by rising global temperatures — 2023 was the hottest year since 1850.

Responding to Brothers’ survey, the Australian Conservation Foundation's nature campaigner Peta Bulling warned extreme weather events are increasing the pressure on native species. She called on the Albanese government to help wildlife by strengthening the country’s nature protection laws.

“Wildlife in Australia is already under pressure from land clearing and invasive species; we have the highest rate of deforestation in the developed world, and the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world. More frequent and extreme weather events, driven by climate change, increase that pressure,” Bulling said.

Three pictures of dead tropical fish on Wonga Beach.
Between 30 and 40 species of fish were discovered dead on Wonga Beach. Source: Supplied
Background - a coral trout swimming on the Great Barrier Reef. Inset - a coral trout dead on the beach.
Coral trout were among the first fish to be discovered dead on Wonga Beach. Source: Getty/Supplied

Cylone has 'patchy' impact on Great Barrier Reef

Brothers' survey was limited to Wonga Beach so it is unclear how extensive the damage to the reef was after Jasper hit. The GBRMA said limited surveys conducted between Cairns and Cape Tribulation indicate the impact was "patchy".

“Some isolated and minor coral bleaching was also seen at some reefs, likely resulting from freshwater inflow from flooding,” it said. “Floodwaters entering the Reef can cause stress to inshore ecosystems, and prolonged exposure can lead to death in some species.”

Left - a dead echidna under debris. Centre - a dead hawk on the beach. Right - Brothers holding a rescued bird.
Echidna, hawks and seabirds were among the dead and dying creatures Nigel Brothers (right) spotted on Wonga Beach. Source: Supplied

Thousands of native pigeon chicks believed dead

Specialising in the impact commercial fishing has on albatross and petrels, Brothers works regularly with Humane Society International on conservation efforts.

The cyclone coincided with the breeding season of 80,000 Torresian Imperial Pigeons and this led him to fear all of this year’s eggs and chicks could have been killed. Concerned about the region’s wildlife, Brothers worked to rescue seabirds that had been left disorientated on the beach.

“They’d been winging north up the coast, battling to get out of the firing line and work their way back to breeding islands which I’d imagine would be chaos. Sadly the ones incapable of outrunning the conditions started lobbing onto the beach in an exhausted state,” he said.

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