The mouth of the Murray River delivers vital nutrients to marine life in the ocean beyond. SA Water, Author provided
Drought in the Murray River doesn’t just affect the river itself – it also affects the ecosystems that live in the ocean beyond.
In a study published in Marine and Freshwater Research today, we found that the very low flows in the river over the past decade reduced the abundance of microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton, which are ultimately the base of all marine food webs.
This shows that the health of the Murray River has a much bigger influence on the marine environment than we previously realised. With climate change poised to make droughts more frequent and severe in the river, it will be crucial to monitor the health not just of freshwater species, but of the local marine ones too.
Phytoplankton depend on nutrients, which are often delivered to the ocean by rivers. In turn, these tiny plants are a source of food for almost all marine ecosystems. Worldwide, they are responsible for half the production of organic matter on the planet.
In South Australia, a dry period dubbed the Millennium Drought (2001 to 2010) and overallocation of water resources (primarily for agriculture) meant that very little water was delivered from the Murray Mouth to the coastal ocean. Between 2007 and 2010, no water was discharged at all. The water in the river’s lower reaches became much saltier and cloudier.
We used historical flow records and satellite imagery, taken between early 2002 and late 2016, to figure out how much phytoplankton and other organic matter were in the coastal ocean each month. We broke up the area into incremental zones, venturing up to 130km from the river mouth.
We found that during and after high-flow events, Murray River discharge resulted in a huge increase in phytoplankton concentrations – as far as 60km beyond the river’s mouth. Surprisingly, before our research it wasn’t known that the river played such an important role in stimulating phytoplankton growth over such a large area.
The mouth of the Murray River, where sometimes no water flows into the ocean at all. CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
Armed with an understanding of how river flows influenced phytoplankton growth, we used historic flow records to estimate phytoplankton concentrations back to 1962. Our results showed that large flows used to occur more often and in greater volumes, and consequently that phytoplankton populations would have gone through more frequent and larger booms.
This in turn would have benefited all of the species that ultimately depend on phytoplankton for food, either directly or indirectly. This food web encompasses almost the whole marine ecosystem.