Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth

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2.4 Values of the icon site

2.4.1 Key values

The Ramsar Convention recognises internationally significant wetlands that are rare or unique, or that are important for conserving biological diversity including habitat, which support high numbers of waterbirds. The Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth icon site is considered to be an important biodiversity hotspot and meets eight of the Ramsar Convention nominating criteria (see Section 3.1). It was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1985 (Phillips & Muller 2006), although at this stage it was already in a degraded state due to decreased River Murray outflows and the first ever recorded closure of the Murray Mouth in 1981. The site is renowned for providing habitat for many waterbird species and is one of the 10 major havens for large concentrations of wading birds in Australia. The icon site contains a unique mosaic of 23 wetland-types (Phillips & Muller 2006) ranging from the freshwater Lower Lakes, to the Coorong’s hypersaline South Lagoon. The icon site provides habitat for nationally threatened species such as the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), the Southern Mount Lofty Ranges emu-wren, the southern bell frog and the Murray hardyhead. All living things in the region are Ngarrindjeri ngartjis (totem – or closest friend).


The Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth supports over 80 species of threatened or migratory birds and is ranked in the six most significant waterbird sites in Australia. As listed in Appendix A, the site includes:

  • three species that are nationally-listed as endangered or critically endangered

  • five species that are classified as vulnerable in South Australia

  • sixteen migratory species that occur at the site at 1% of their global population (estimated)

  • thirty-three bird species that are listed under international treaties

  • forty-six species that are listed under Australia’s migratory bird agreements

  • forty-nine species that rely on the wetland at critical life stages (e.g. migration stop-over, breeding habitat, refuge).

Ruppia spp., samphire and mudflat habitats are important foraging sites for water birds and waders in the icon site. Fish (e.g. hardyheads: Family Atherinidae) and invertebrates such as the mottled shore crab (Paragrapsus gaimardii) (G. Hera-Singh pers. comm. 2011), polychaete worms, amphipods and chironomid larvae are key food resources for resident and migratory birds of the icon site. Hence, mudflat health and suitable water quality are paramount to sustainable populations of invertebrates and the long-term viability of bird communities in the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth icon site. The abundance of almost all species of waders and waterbirds using the wetlands of the Coorong and Lower Lakes have declined, particularly over the past 30 years (Paton et al. 2009).


The Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth icon site provides critical fish habitats including important nursery and feeding areas for commercial and non-commercial fish species (Bice & Ye 2009; Zampatti et al. 2010). The icon site is utilised by a number of fish groups including obligate freshwater, diadromous, euryhaline, estuarine and marine species. Over 75 species of fish have been recorded within the icon site, although 34 of these are of marine origin and are only irregular visitors to the Coorong (Higham et al. 2002). Declines in formerly common estuary species (e.g. estuary perch (Macquaria colonorum) and jumping mullet (Liza argentea)) have been observed by local fishers (G Hera-Singh pers. comm. 2011).

Amongst the native species known from the icon site are three species that are EPBC listed as nationally vulnerable: Murray cod, Murray hardyhead and Yarra pygmy perch. Fourteen species are protected or provisionally listed in South Australia (Appendix A), although numerous others use the site during their life cycle. Little is known about how Lakes Alexandrina and Albert are used by large-bodied native fish (e.g. Murray cod, golden perch (Macquaria ambigua ambigua) and silver perch (Bidyanis bidyanis)). Consequently, there is no current icon site ecological target associated with large-bodied lakes fish species. Addressing this knowledge gap and implementing an ecological target concerning these species is a future priority.

Freshwater outflows from the Lower Lakes and an open Murray Mouth promotes connectivity, improves estuarine habitats and promotes the flux of nutrients in the Coorong. This is highly favourable for productivity and enhances the survival (e.g. increased turbidity associated with inflows may lessen predation on juvenile fish) and growth prospects of larval and juvenile fish and thus recruitment, and sustains populations of a range of species including the Goolwa cockle (pipi) (Plebidonax deltoides) (Ferguson et al. 2010; Zampatti et al. 2010; Ye et al. 2011).


The Lower Lakes and Coorong include a number of ecologically-important terrestrial plant communities, as well as a number of submerged and emergent aquatic plant populations. These plants provide several ecosystem services including habitat structure, and direct and indirect food resources for aquatic fauna and birds. Plant diversity in the icon site is greatest near areas of confluence such as the lower reaches of the Eastern Mount Lofty Ranges tributaries. Sections of the near shore environment around the Lower Lakes have extensive stands of Phragmites australis and Typha domingensis. These macrophytes provide excellent shelter and habitat for a range of fish and other vertebrate species. Key plant assemblages include those that contain macrophytes (e.g. Phragmites australis and Typha domingensis), Ruppia spp., Gahnia filum, Myriophyllum spp., Melaleuca halmaturorum and samphire (Sarcocornia spp. and Suaeda australis). The site also contains a section of the critically endangered ‘Swamps of the Fleurieu Peninsula’, as well as the threatened Gahnia filum sedgeland ecosystems and a number of nationally listed plant species.

2.4.2 Cultural values and Ngarrindjeri Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country – all Ngarrindjeri lands and waters)

Note: The information on Ngarrindjeri cultural values and aspirations expressed in this section (2.4.2) are those directly provided by the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority for inclusion in this plan.

The Ngarrindjeri people as descendants of the original Indigenous inhabitants of the lands and waters of the River Murray, Lower Lakes and Coorong and adjacent areas assert control over the lands and waters by the continuation of their culture upon their traditional lands to pursue their economic, social, and cultural development of the land and waters within the Ngarrindjeri Native Title Claim area. The Ngarrindjeri people are the Traditional Owners of the land and according to their traditions, customs and spiritual beliefs its lands and waters remain their traditional country.

The Ngarrindjeri approach the issue of water not based upon the notion of use but from a cultural perspective, which means that there is a need to discuss the translation of the notion of use and the cultural perspective in order to achieve outcomes which have integrity and demonstrate respect within Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The Ngarrindjeri want a future for the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth that maintains the continuation of their culture upon country, the national and international importance of the site, and that it continues to give life to the 4,000 Ngarrindjeri people who live and work in the region and to all Ngarrindjeri people. The Ngarrindjeri Vision for Country is outlined below:

Our Lands, Our Waters, Our People, All Living Things are connected. We implore people to respect our Ruwe (Country) as it was created in the Kaldowinyeri (the creation). We long for sparkling, clean waters, healthy land and people and all living things. We long for the Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country) of our ancestors. Our vision is all people Caring, Sharing, Knowing and Respecting the lands, the waters and all living things.

Our goals are:

  • For our people, children and descendants to be healthy and to enjoy our healthy lands and waters;

  • To see our lands and waters healthy and spiritually alive;

  • For all our people to benefit from our equity in our lands and waters;

  • To see our closest friends – our Ngartjis (special animals) – healthy and spiritually alive;

  • For our people to continue to occupy and benefit from our lands and waters; and

  • To see all people respecting our laws and living in harmony with our lands and waters.

(Ngarrindjeri Nation Yarluwar-Ruwe Plan, 2006)

The culture and economy of the Ngarrindjeri have always depended on Yarluwar-Ruwe and its resources. The land and waters are a living body and the Ngarrindjeri are part of its existence. For the Ngarrindjeri to be healthy, the land and waters of the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region must also be healthy.

Human induced changes at the site and upstream along the River Murray post European settlement, combined with a drying of the land and waters, are causing the health of the region to change. Without action, the site could experience irreversible ecological and environmental changes and degradation. Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country) cannot be lost to the Ngarrindjeri people and their Ngartjis.

The Ngarrindjeri support a range of actions in the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth to prevent, remediate and build resilience at the site. These actions should strive to improve the health of the site and to increase freshwater flows. The Ngarrindjeri desire a new relationship, a strong partnership with governments and other stakeholders so that the land and waters can be healthy again. Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan agreements are the preferred Ngarrindjeri process for establishing these partnerships.

The Lower Lakes, Murray Mouth and Coorong region is central to Ngarrindjeri culture and spiritual beliefs. This association is expressed through creation stories (cultural and spiritual histories) about Yarluwar-Ruwe which reveals the significance of the relationship between the country and the people, both practically and spiritually.

Freshwater flows down the Murray–Darling system into the lands and water of the Ngarrindjeri are seen by the Ngarrindjeri as the life blood of the living body of the River Murray, Lower Lakes and Coorong. The Ngarrindjeri Yarluwar-Ruwe Plan, prepared by the Ngarrindjeri People in 2006, articulates a vision for caring for this country, emphasising that ‘the river, lakes, wetlands/nurseries, Coorong estuary and sea have sustained us culturally and economically for tens of thousands of years’.

The Yarluwar-Ruwe Plan refers to Ngarrindjeri creation stories which record dramatic changes in coastal sea levels in the icon site area. These creation stories explain the richness of ‘natural resources’ – especially a wealth of fresh and salt water marine life such as fish, shellfish, eels, waterbirds and water plants. They also provide Ngarrindjeri with the laws and lessons for sustainable use, care and management of these species. In fact, Ngarrindjeri Yarluwar-Ruwe supported amongst the highest density of Aboriginal People anywhere in Australia prior to European arrival.

Since the arrival of Europeans the Ngarrindjeri witnessed the draining of their wetlands along the rivers, and in the south east, and the disconnection of the living body of the River Murray, Lower Lakes and Coorong through the installation of locks, levee banks and barrages. They have watched their ngartjis (totems) diminish, their lands cleared and the degradation of Yarluwar-Ruwe.

Ngarrindjeri economy has always been based on the sustainable use and trade of the natural resources. Since European settlement, many of the natural resources have deteriorated. The Ngarrindjeri understand that industries that have led to the unsustainable use of resources (e.g. irrigation) are here to stay, however, the Ngarrindjeri seek a “just and rightful share in the economic benefits from our Country across all industries” (Ngarrindjeri Nation Yaruwar-Ruwe Plan 2006). A proper relationship and role in the management of the land is a fundamental platform in building and maintaining Ngarrindjeri culture and self-respect. Ngarrindjeri believe that their future involvement in the management of the land and waters would be positive and beneficial to all members of the community, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and would represent a significant step in the process of reconciliation (NRWG 1998, Ngarrindjeri Nation 2006; KNY 2009). The strengthening of Ngarrindjeri people and their culture requires a serious involvement in the management of their traditional lands and waters.

Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan (listen to what Ngarrindjeri have to say): A new way forward

In 2009 the South Australian Government and the Ngarrindjeri people entered into the Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement whereby the relevant Ministers on behalf of the Crown expressed a desire for a new relationship between the State of South Australia and Ngarrindjeri based on mutual respect and trust, acknowledging that Ngarrindjeri consider protection and maintenance of culture and cultural sites upon its land and waters central in every respect to Ngarrindjeri community wellbeing and existence. Through the Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement, the Government provides support and resources to the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority and enters into negotiations and consultations with the Ngarrindjeri about the maintenance and protection of Ngarrindjeri culture and cultural sites and the natural resources of the land. The Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement Taskforce meets monthly and provides an important opportunity for engagement between Ngarrindjeri and South Australian Government agencies regarding a range of programs and projects including TLM and icon site management.

The Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority aspire to enter into a Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement agreement with the MDBA, which would relate to the existing Regional Partnerships Agreement and would complement the 2009 SA Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement that established the Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan agreement Taskforce, by which engagement in LLCMM icon site management occurs. The Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority believe this would help facilitate the proper management and protection of the Meeting of the Waters and the broader Ngarrindjeri cultural landscape. The Ngarrindjeri see as a priority the development of a management plan for the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ site.

Ngarrindjeri Ruwe/Ruwar – the Ngarrindjeri connection between lands and waters, body, spirit and all living things

Ngarrindjeri cultural and community wellbeing has suffered through the rapid loss of ecological character of the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth. In recent years Ngarrindjeri leaders have worked with the South Australian Government and researchers to explain the link between Ngarrindjeri culture, people, lands, waters and all living things (Hemming et al. 2002; Ngarrindjeri Nation 2006; Bell 2008; Hemming et al. 2008; Birckhead et al. 2011). This fundamental philosophical and spiritual connection (Ruwe/Ruwar) is reliant on healthy lands and waters, and the maintenance of connectivity between the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth as created by Ngurunderi (Hemming et al. 1989; Bell 1998).

Ngarrindjeri have conducted research into the relationship between loss of ecological character and loss of cultural, economic and social wellbeing. Opportunities to manage Yarluwar-Ruwe according to Ngarrindjeri traditions and laws have been affected by successive government’s policies and Ngarrindjeri believe this has also contributed significantly to decreased community wellbeing. It is a key Ngarrindjeri aim to re-invigorate the icon site cultural landscape, ensuring that interconnectedness continues to be maintained.

The ecological character of the region needs to be improved through management that incorporates Ngarrindjeri knowledge and expertise. Ngarrindjeri support ensuring a diversity of healthy wetland habitats and restoring and maintaining connectivity between habitats. Ngarrindjeri cultural flows need to be understood and to inform water flows. The fundamental connection between the health of this system and Ngarrindjeri culture will inform management responses. This would incorporate a major role for the Ngarrindjeri Yarluwar-Ruwe Program in governance and management. The Ngarrindjeri Yarluwar-Ruwe Program is a regional initiative that privileges the fundamental connection between healthy people, culture, economy and ecosystems.

The following Ngarrindjeri creation story is reproduced from the Yarluwar-Ruwe Plan (2006). It provides an account of the cultural connections (Ruwe/Ruwar) between Ngarrindjeri and Yarlwuar-Ruwe (all Ngarrindjeri lands and waters):

Ngurunderi the Creator

A long, long time ago Ngurunderi our Spiritual Ancestor chased Pondi, the giant Murray Cod, from the junction where the Darling and Murrundi (River Murray) meet. Back then, the River Murray was just a small stream and Pondi had nowhere to go. As Ngurunderi chased him in his bark canoe he went ploughing and crashing through the land and his huge body and tail created the mighty River Murray. When Ngurunderi and his brother-in-law Nepele caught Pondi at the place where the fresh and salt water meet they cut him up into many pieces, which became the fresh and salt water fish for the Ngarrindjeri people. To the last piece Ngurunderi said, “you keep being a Pondi (Murray Cod)”. As Ngurunderi travelled throughout our Country, he created landforms, waterways and life. He gave to his people the stories, meanings and laws associated with our lands and waters of his creation. He gave each Lakalinyeri (clan) our identity to our Ruwe (country) and our Ngarjtis (animals, birds, fish and plants) - who are our friends. Ngurunderi taught us how to hunt and gather our foods from the lands and waters. He taught us, don't be greedy, don't take any more than what you need, and share with one another. Ngurunderi also warned us that if we don't share we will be punished.

Ngarrindjeri respect the gifts of Creation that Ngurunderi passed down to our Spiritual Ancestors, our Elders and to us. Ngarrindjeri must follow the Traditional Laws; we must respect and honour the lands, waters and all living things. Ngurunderi taught us our Miwi, which is our inner spiritual connection to our lands, waters, each other and all living things, and which is passed down through our mothers since Creation. Our Great Grandmothers, Grandmothers and mothers fought to protect our Spiritual waters from desecration when a bridge to Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island) was to be built.

Ngurunderi taught us how to sustain our lives and our culture from what were our healthy lands and waters. Our lands and waters must be managed according to our Laws to make them healthy once again. As the Ngarrindjeri Nation we must maintain our inherent sovereign rights to our Yarluwar-Ruwe. Ngarrindjeri people have a sovereign right to make our living from the lands and waters in a respectful and sustainable way.

We are asking non-Indigenous people to respect our traditions, our rights and our responsibilities according to Ngarrindjeri laws.

Meeting of the Waters: registered Aboriginal heritage site

The LLCMM icon site includes a registered Aboriginal heritage site – under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, 1988 (SA). The ‘Meeting of the Waters’ site was registered in 2009 via a Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan agreement negotiation with the South Australian Government. This site includes the waters and the bed of the lakes, river and estuary.

2.4.3 Indigenous perspectives from across the Murray–Darling Basin

Aboriginal people recognise the critical importance of the Basin’s river systems to social, cultural and economic life and the need for balance in meeting the aspirations of all stakeholders. The desire for restorations of environmental systems and the relationships Aboriginal people have maintained with their countries is a key motivation behind ongoing engagement with water management issues; indeed it is a compelling obligation in Aboriginal value systems and law (Guide to the proposed Basin Plan Volume 2, p. 226).

The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and the Northern Murray–Darling Basin Aboriginal Nations have developed their definition of cultural flows as:

Water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Aboriginal nations and are of a sufficient and adequate quality and quantity to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Aboriginal nations; this is our inherent right.

The Basin Plan provides opportunities to contribute toward cultural values and uses for Aboriginal people in the Basin. However, Aboriginal people believe that the determination of environmental flow requirements must include Aboriginal values in the assessment process. Aboriginal people also believe that environmental water management must recognise Aboriginal resource governance systems and allow for co-management if their values are to be truly incorporated into management structures and decisions.

There may be potential for structural change resulting from the Basin Plan to open up new opportunities for Aboriginal people in emerging cultural and natural resource management based industries, such as payment for environmental services, stewardship arrangements, small-scale bush foods and tourism (Guide to the proposed Basin Plan Volume 2, p. 228).

2.4.4 Social and recreational values

The Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth are popular areas for recreational activities such as sightseeing, bird watching, camping, walking, fishing, swimming, canoeing, sailing, water-skiing, picnicking and four-wheel driving. The South Australian Tourism Commission estimated the number of visitors to the Coorong National Park in 2008 at about 138,000 (DEH 2010b).

The Coorong and Lower Lakes are important for recreational boating and fishers due to the quality of the natural environment and the presence of species such as mulloway (Argyrosomus japonicus) (MDBC 2006a).

There are also less tangible values important to both residents and visitors which are associated with the area’s natural beauty with people holding a strong affinity with the site’s aesthetics. Similarly there is also a perceived value in the area being listed as an icon site (MDBC 2006a).

2.4.5 Economic values

The Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth support a range of economic industries including irrigated and dryland agriculture; commercial fishing; boat building and maintenance; tourism and recreation activity; and manufacturing industries centred on wine, machinery and equipment. All rely on the ecological health of the icon site for their wealth. A healthy Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth ecosystem ensures the existence of large and viable fish populations for commercial and recreational fishing, good quality water for irrigation, healthy bird numbers for ornithologists, and aesthetically attractive and pleasing environment for people to enjoy.

The major towns associated with the LLCMM icon site region include: Clayton Bay, Goolwa, Langhorne Creek, Meningie, Milang, Narrung, Raukkan, Salt Creek and Wellington (Figure : Map of the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth icon site.

The gross regional product of the Lower Murray (downstream of Lock 1 at Blanchetown), Lower Lakes and Coorong has been estimated at around $700 million in 2007-06 (DEH 2010b). Primary industries directly contributed around $145 million and directly employed about 2,000 people. Irrigated agriculture employed 1,000 people, contributing more than $70 million to the gross regional product (DEH 2010b). Anecdotal evidence suggests that drought conditions over the period from 2005–10 have substantially reduced these numbers.

The recent drought conditions have seen restructuring of regional industries with changes impacting on all industries in the region. There has been a reduction in the number of dairying farms and a reduction in livestock numbers. Wine production and irrigation industries have been affected by drought, water quality issues and water availability. Water security for irrigation and wine industries has been improved following construction of the Lower Lakes irrigation pipeline in 2009. Pipelines have also been completed to communities in the Lower Lakes and Coorong region for stock and domestic purposes to reduce dependence on the Lower Lakes as a water supply (DEH 2010b). Impacts have also been detected in other agricultural industries as well as the fishing, tourism and boating industries. The easing of recent drought conditions has seen an improvement in the outlook for Lower Lakes and Coorong communities.

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