Willows for fish habitat.

Expert fishermen near Canberra are happy to share the secrets of catching huge native fish that can be found sheltering within the habitat provided under willows. The trick is to fish in the winter when the willows are dormant and their dense protective canopies no longer shelter these fish from anglers or other predatory threats.

Image courtesy Team Goodang Fishing

Who would know better where the biggest native fish (and the fattest, apparently) can be found than a madly enthusiastic, dedicated and experienced fisherman? These people spend countless hours in the field, year after year, avidly observing their prey and the environments which they prefer.

Given this, why does this article in the Canberra Times suggest that another bout of willow destruction along 50km of the Murrumbidgee will necessarily improve fish habitat and produce more fish?

As with most anti-willow stories there is no evidence or reasoning provided, just a barrage of simple negative statements. As I’ve pointed out before, you can make up pretty-much whatever you like about willows (anything you think you might have heard somewhere or that seems like it could be vaguely plausible), so long as it’s a totally negative assessment. Why not give it a try, everybody’s doing it!

Although our fishermen (from the link at the top of the page) regularly find large native fish in the habitat provided by willows, this article about fishing for trout (a non-native) in “Fish River” claims from the outset that “heavy infestations of willows” have led to a less healthy fishery. Curiously, it also happens to mention successive years of drought, notable siltation and “ever increasing” water extraction, which seem like they might also play a role in this situation.

Given these other factors, it would be interesting to know how and why the author has decided that the willows are a negative influence. It is clear that (like our native fish experts above) he/she is aware that willows provide good protection from anglers and other predators. In relation to one fishing spot in particular they state:

The river is effected (sic) by heavy willow infestations, sand build-up and thick weed beds which can make catching fish a little harder. Try casting with shallow swimming lures or dry flies under trees in the shade where the trout have some cover and over weed beds in the deeper pools. The large number of willows make fishing difficult with fly gear. Spinning with celter’s and very small tassie devils is worth a try.“–(my emphasis).

It seems that the willows are an annoyance because they make the fish harder to catch, but it also seems that there are fish worth trying to catch among these willows–why mention this location otherwise? Doesn’t it seem odd that someone would claim the willows are a detriment to the fishery, whilst also admitting that they provide needed shelter for the fish?

Is it that easy to leap from annoyance because willows make it harder for you to catch fish, to the incongruous assertion that they are somehow harming the fishery?

By contrast, this editorial from the Weekly Times, asserts that willow removal is causing a drop in trout numbers in Victorian mountain streams. This would make perfect sense in light of the observations, provided above, of both native and non-native fish effectively utilising shelter provided by riparian willows. There are some interesting comments following this editorial. Enough negative points are raised to demonstrate that willow “management” is causing many less-than-satisfactory outcomes, and is not always well received by the wider community.

Where is the scientific assessment of present willow destruction? Why is it that no one is able to provide a consistent, compelling, clear, or objective analysis of the impacts, and yet the funding for removal continues to flow and Natural Resource Management (NRM) bureaucracies continue to send in the excavators?

Could somebody please turn off the money tap until we have some realistic and believable science? All I can find on the internet is opinion and official opinion. So often what is said is self-contradictory or is counter to my own observations.

Our elected representatives are happy to continue providing funding for these destructive “environmental” activities so long as there’s a perception that some sections of the community are keen to see the work undertaken. Unfortunately though, there are a large number of professionals whose livelihoods depend on nurturing these kinds of community opinions and promoting them widely. Read here, in one of my favorite ‘how to conduct willow lunacy’ guides, how insidious willow-removal-practitioners are encouraged to use calculated persuasion and bargaining tactics to sway resistant community members (page 19). You’d expect this kind of coaching in group psychological leveraging from a marketing company with something to sell perhaps, but this material is produced by our government. At the end of the day, the point is to overcome any conscientious community dissent which arises in response to what our bureaucracies are paid to achieve.

Read how in Narrowmine in 2011, anyone with a job at stake agreed that willows are bad for everything. Note that even the dramatic failure of major willow replacement projects (whilst providing opportunity for blame shifting between bureaucracies) somehow only reinforced belief in the reasoning and the method. Alternative views arising from the local community were belittled and discredited through simple (and logically fallacious) appeals to authority and given no consideration whatsoever; even when they consisted of obviously practical suggestions for project improvements in future–like establishing the new trees before wholesale destruction of the old!

The problem is that this suggestion wouldn’t really work within the existing project models, because most funding for willow removal projects is budgeted annually and actual re-vegetation could take 20 years (200 if you want to see native trees with hollows).

As an NRM organisation, you can’t acquit your obligations on these projects in an annual time frame except by going in with the excavators, smashing the willows all in one go (complete deforestation), and then planting some teeny-tiny little native tree seedlings. Whether these survive or not, at least you’ve already discharged the “re-vegetation” project and pocketed the money.

If any organisation held off on acquittal till the job of re-vegetation was actually finished they’d be waiting a long time past June 30. Maybe 200 years past June 30!

How did we get to this situation? It should be perfectly clear by now that reality is actually a lot more complicated than it’s being made out to be in regard to willow eradication. We have an unfortunate series of alignments occurring here: a pervasive perception of a degraded environment and a desire to do something about it (not bad things per se), coupled with the psychological need to single out and completely demonise one manageable component of the environment so that we can feel empowered. These psychological needs are made far more destructive by the acceptance and promulgation of willow demonisation by our NRM bureaucracies, who have to be seen to be doing something dramatic and important. After all, they’re the ones charged with protecting and fixing our environment, right?

Imagine if we didn’t have willows to provide a target-able ‘enemy of the environment’, what else would all those project managers, excavator drivers and chainsaw operators be doing?

Fishing maybe?

5 responses to “Willows for fish habitat.

  1. Seems to me ‘environmental science’ practitioners are in charge of themselves and NRM policy structure sits outside of what’s happening on the ground’, if not to the ground. I believe this is no accident, By Design, you could say. Territorial calve up of the big NRM picture, between and within, higher education/research sectors, resource extractors, farmers, homesteaders, capital gains investors and so on, till there is no coherent entry point for observers other than those with a professional stake. Australia you’re standing in it.
    Keep up the good work but don’t hold your breath waiting for effective leadership; you will have to do it yourself. I could think of worse things than a ‘Non Nativist’ Senate seat .

    • Definitely don’t look at me Robbo! But I do think something along those lines warrants serious thought. I’d vote for someone who promised a Senate Inquiry into Willow destruction or Nativism generally.

      You make a good point, it’s a carve-up of Country. That’s why disintegrated perspectives and activities seem to be thriving. The left hand doesn’t know, or care, how the right hand makes a quid.

      Who’s supposed to bring it all together into a coherent picture? Is there a government department for that? The Department of the Bigger Picture? Is it Tony Abbott perhaps?

      You know, I’m not even sure we can actually mention politics in relation to NRM or Landcare. We’re all scientists here, this might be getting a bit too wholistic. Best stick to just planting gum trees and killing weeds. Leave the rest to the Minister for the Bigger Picture!

  2. I just learnt a new word , ‘ Listical ” .
    A listical is an attention getting list of simple sentences pretending to be a piece of real journalism . Apparently something called ‘ Buzzfeed ‘ invents them by the ream .

    The weeds.org paper Ben refers to is a cracker of bad writing .
    No need for context , substantiation or even truth . Just pile up the claims and simplistic assertions till the grants start pouring in .

    For example , two listicals on the same subject –

    ” Seven shocking Reasons Why Willows Are The Worst Organisms On Earth And Should Be Eradicated At Any Cost ”

    1/ A .
    Willows shed all their leaves at once causing massive nutrient loads in rivers !
    1 / B .
    Willows withdraw most nutrients from their leaves into their cambium and roots before shedding them . Fallen leaves are mostly carbon , a crucial food source for invertebrates ( many of which are the same genus if not species as depend on willows in the Northern Hemisphere ) .
    There is little primary production in the water column of small streams , they depend on terrestrial infall for a carbon source .
    In many denuded landscapes willows are the only source of carbon to power the trophic web .

    Certainly , Ultra Massive nutrient inflows are caused by the rotting of willow root plates and mass sediment movement after willow killing .
    See the blue green algae outbreaks in Lake Burley Griffin .

    2 / A .
    Willows trap coarse sediment along the river bank , leading to bank instability !
    2 /B .
    Willows trap sediment both coarse and fine . Thank goodness !
    By the way , where is that sediment coming from ? Maybe should go fix it . Hope its not from a willow destruction program in the next shire .

    3 / A
    Unfortunately willows alter the environmental conditions of a river !
    3 / B
    Thank goodness willows can be managed as a powerful tool for stabilising and improving the environmental conditions of degraded landscapes .
    Granted , it requires education , experience , qualifications , observational skills and a work ethic to make proper use of the resource .You won’t learn such things from listicals .

    4 / A
    Very few insects means very little food is available to fish , birds and animals !
    4 B
    Good , keep thinking that and you won’t bother me at my favourite fishing spot . The trout hang around waiting for the insects to fall off that big willow . When its gets hot they shelter in the root plate , too .

    5 / A
    Willows consume more water than native eucalypts !
    5 / B .
    Walk under willow on a hot day . Cool , isn’t it ?
    Thats the local water cycle at work . Please come back at night and note the dew drip and fog banks . Did your listical tell you that trees respire and grow at night ? Lucky that the willow is reducing growth stresses on the favoured trees that the grant paid for .

    6 / A
    Its not willow removal thats killing streams , its global warming !
    6 / B
    3 degrees warming will be a disaster for mankind .
    How much of a disaster for stream life is the 20 degree increase in water temperature the day after the Kato tore out the big willow ?

    7 / A
    Willow flowers are only known to provide nectar for introduced honeybees !
    7 / B
    Willow flowers produce nectar for introduced honey bees who make honey which bee keepers sell so that they can support their families .
    Do Natural Resource Managers not eat honey ?

    Tired out now .
    Off to look up ” Nine Amazing Ways Dysfunctional Institutions Manage To Avoid Scrutiny Of Their Stupid Behaviour ! ”


  3. All good points you make Peter.

    In relation to where you say regarding the weeds.org paper: “Just pile up the claims and simplistic assertions till the grants start pouring in.” It was Joseph Goebbels who said:

    “Propaganda is not a matter for average minds, but rather a matter for practitioners. It is not supposed to be lovely or theoretically correct.”

    The parallels between nativism, invasion biology, etc.. and the bureaucratic nightmare that was the Nazi years in Germany have been made elsewhere and by others.

    I’m not saying our “practitioners” are Nazis (definitely not!), I’m saying ‘wow, isn’t it shocking how bureaucracies can end up going so wrong.’ Nice, simple, appealing propaganda. Not necessarily correct mind you, but it doesn’t need to be in order to work. I guess at the end of the day everyone’s just doing the job they’re paid to do.

    Once you notice how wrong it all is it can be very disturbing! But then again it can also be very empowering. We can count our lucky stars to be part of a grassroots volunteer movement rather than a top-down bureaucracy!

  4. ” I always go by official statistics because they are very carefully compounded and , even if false , we have no other ” .

    Jaroslav Hasek , 1911 . Election speech for his imaginary political party
    ‘ Moderate Progress Within The Limits Of The Law ‘ .

    True , the Nazis were great nativists . Sentimental nativists on trees , evil insane nativists when it came to people .

    They were great ones for straightening meandering rivers and draining wetlands , which they saw as harbours for invasive species . Being Jews , Soviets and backward peasantry .

    The Great Text is
    ” The Conquest of Nature . Water , Landscape and The Making of Modern Germany “.
    David Blackbourn .
    Pimlico Publishers .

    However raising such deep historical discussions runs the risk of people taking an analysis of dysfunctional bureaucracies the wrong way . Then they may get personally insulted , obstructive , confrontational

    Your ‘ ( definitely not ) ‘ para tries to address this possibility , but that may not be enough .

    I would approach the philosophical musing about civil service inefficiency with a slightly less contentious historical analogy .
    East Germany , 1960s . Command and Control public service structure based on untrue ideological assertions .

    Whats German for ” Willow Bad , Gum Tree Good ?’


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