Much more than just a mascot for a local sporting team, eels are fundamental to the Parramatta River region. The eel is considered a totem for the Burramattagal people – the Traditional Owners of the area we now recognise as Parramatta. In fact, the word ‘Burramattagal’ is believed to be derived from the Aboriginal name for ‘the place where eels lie down’.
Prior to European settlement, Long-finned Eels (Anguilla reinhardtii) were once prolific across the Parramatta River. Although not nearly as common today, you might still spot one of these unusual snake-like creatures while taking a stroll down the banks of the river. The Long-finned Eel is a predatory carnivore, feeding on a range of aquatic species, including insects, frogs, and small fish, and will generally grow to about 1m in size.
What makes this species truly incredible is its life cycle. Once female eels are ready to lay their eggs, they will make the long journey from the freshwaters of the upper Parramatta River to the Coral Sea. The Coral Sea, near New Caledonia, is thousands of kilometres away! Once hatched, juvenile eels will spend the next 2-3 years of their life, drifting along the East Australian Current, arriving at various river systems along the east coast of Australia. Some of these eels will find their way into Sydney Harbour, and will swim upstream along the Parramatta River ultimately in search of freshwater.
After spending their “teenage years”, growing and developing in the salty estuarine areas of the Parramatta River, these eels will continue their quest to reach freshwater. However, due to urbanisation and the construction of water management infrastructure (such as the Charles St Weir in Parramatta’s CBD), these concrete structures can sometimes act as barriers, preventing eels from reaching their freshwater destination. In 2007, the City of Parramatta Council installed a series of fishways—also known as fish ladders—along the weirs of Parramatta. As the name suggests, these ladders allow eels (and other species of fish) to swim up and over these concrete structures safely. After navigating the high seas, avoiding predators, and scaling concrete walls, these incredible adventurers finally reach the freshwaters of Parramatta River. It is in these freshwater environments that the Long-finned Eel reaches sexual maturity and the females will one day make the migration to the Coral Sea to lay its eggs, allowing the eel life cycle to continue.
Photo credit: Long-finned Eel by Sascha Schultz via iNaturalist.org
The Long-finned Eel isn’t the only long-distance traveller found along the Parramatta River. The Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) is a migratory shorebird species which breeds and nests in Scandinavia, northern Asia and Alaska. In order to escape the harsh winters of the Northern Hemisphere, this species will take flight and head for Australian and New Zealand shores during our warm spring and summer months. Some of these Bar-tailed Godwits will call the Parramatta River home during the months of August to April. During this time, the Bar-tailed Godwit can be found in amongst the saltmarshes and mudflats of the Parramatta River, in search of crabs and polychaetes (marine worms), to feed and refuel for its long journey back north. In an eternal quest to chase warmer weather, Bar-tailed Godwits will generally undertake this migration every year, from as early as 2 years old! Sounds exhausting? Well, a Bar-tailed Godwit has been observed to complete their 11,700kmlong migration without stopping once! This meant flying continuously for nine days and losing almost half of its’ body weight. Unfortunately, this species is federally listed as threatened, with their numbers in sharp decline.The degradation of wetland areas on a global scale limit the Bar-tailed Godwit’s ability to rest and feed, therefore impacting their yearly migration.
With over 750,000 people living within the Parramatta River catchment, litter has become a serious problem. The banks of the river are being slowly overrun by plastic containers, bottles, food wrappers and packaging. For our long-distance flyers and swimmers, litter is bad news. Litter can often clog up fish ladders, restricting the movement of immature eels wanting to reach freshwater sections of the river. Whereas shorebird species such as the Bar-tailed Godwit, can often accidentally consume small fragments of plastic, or become entangled in pieces of discarded fishing line. Working with Councils and the local community, we can’t wait to get stuck in and help the Parramatta River catchment become litter free! We’re sure our amazing wildlife would certainly agree.
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