Eastern freshwater cod

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Eastern freshwater cod
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Family: Percichthyidae
Genus: Maccullochella
Species: M. ikei
Binomial name
Maccullochella ikei
Rowland, 1986

Eastern freshwater cod (Maccullochella ikei) also known as eastern cod or Clarence River cod, are a large and striking predatory freshwater fish of the Maccullochella genus and the Percichthyidae family, that occur in the coastal Clarence River system of north-eastern New South Wales. Eastern freshwater cod are closely related to the Murray cod of the Murray-Darling River system, and are considered an icon of the Clarence River system.

A long-lived, slow-growing species, eastern freshwater cod are gravely threatened by poaching, habitat degradation, and catastrophic natural events such as bushfires. Eastern freshwater cod are now protected by law.


Eastern freshwater cod are native to the Clarence River system in northern New South Wales, Australia. The Clarence River system is an extensive East Coast drainage with many tributaries of differing size. By Australian standards, the Clarence River and its major tributaries the Mann and Nymboida Rivers are extremely large rivers with extremely large flow volumes. Eastern freshwater cod originally occurred in great abundance through all of the system, to significant altitudes, though reportedly were never found above the large falls many tributaries feature in their upper reaches.

The indigenous cod population of the Richmond River system (Richmond River Cod), now extinct, are believed to have been a population of eastern freshwater cod. The Richmond River has been restocked with fingerlings produced from Clarence River cod, but no evidence of breeding has been found.[2]

The fish was also historically common in the Brisbane River system.[3]

Appearance and size[edit]

Eastern freshwater cod have been recorded to 41 kg, but are more common at sizes less than 5 kg. The eastern freshwater cod is a small to medium-sized groper-like fish with a deep, elongated body that is round in cross section and a broad, scooped head, and a large mouth lined with pads of very small needle-like teeth. The jaws are equal or the lower jaw protrudes slightly. The eyes are slightly larger and more prominent than in Murray cod.

In eastern freshwater cod, the spiny dorsal fin is moderate in height and is partially separated by a notch from the high, rounded soft dorsal fin. Soft dorsal, anal, and caudal (tail) fins are all large and rounded, and are dusky grey or black with distinct white edges. The large, rounded pectoral fins are usually similar in colour to flanks. The pelvic fins are large and angular, set forward of the pectoral fins, and are usually a translucent greyish-white colour, tending toward opacity in large fish. The leading greyish-white coloured rays on the pelvic fins split into two trailing filaments. These filaments are significantly longer than in Murray cod.

Eastern freshwater cod are vary from cream or greyish-white to yellow on their ventral (“belly”) surfaces. Their backs and flanks are usually an intense yellow or gold in colour, overlain with a dense pattern of black to very dark green mottling. The effect is a marbled appearance sometimes reminiscent of a leopard's markings. Colouration does vary considerably however and eastern freshwater cod from dark, heavily shaded habitats can be very dark or almost black in colour.

A small eastern freshwater cod that took a lure intended for Australian bass


Eastern freshwater cod are a separate species of cod that originated from the Murray cod, Maccullochella peelii, present in tributaries of the Murray-Darling Basin on the western side of the Great Dividing Range. Murray cod entered an east coast river system, likely the Clarence, via a natural event somewhere between 0.62 and 1.62 million years ago (mean estimate 1.1 million years ago), as estimated by DNA divergence rates. Subsequent isolation from Murray cod populations, the founder effect, [[genetic drift],] and natural selection all led eastern freshwater cod to diverge from and become a separate species to Murray cod. [4]

In addition to eastern freshwater cod of the Clarence River system, cod are/were in several other coastal river systems. In total, at the time of European settlement of the Australia in the 18th century, naturally occurring cod were present and extremely abundant in four East Coast river systems:

  • Clarence River system, northern New South Wales (eastern freshwater cod, Maccullochella ikei)
  • Richmond River system, northern New South Wales (Richmond River cod, Maccullochella ikei)
  • Brisbane River system, southern Queensland (Brisbane River cod, Maccullochella sp.)
  • Mary River system, central Queensland (Mary River cod, Maccullochella mariensis)

Several genetic studies have found that eastern freshwater cod, in the southernmost of these four rivers, and Mary River cod, in the northernmost of these four rivers, are more closely related to each other than to Murray cod. [5] This suggests that Murray cod only managed to cross into east coast river systems once. It is not clear which of the four river systems was the original entry point. Geomorphological evidence meant the Clarence River was long suspected as the entry point, but latest genetic evidence [6] suggests the Mary River system could also have been the original entry point. Dramatic drops in sea level during glacial periods (ice ages) and/or "lateral" river capture events could easily have seen these four coastal river systems linked at times and freshwater cod gaining access to each one. The mean estimate for genetic separation of Mary River cod and eastern freshwater cod is only 300,000 years. [7]

DNA analysis reveals eastern freshwater cod of the Clarence River system went through a calamitous bottleneck a few thousand years ago, in which the majority of the population perished. This was likely due to a sequence of catastrophic drought, whole-of-catchment-scale bushfires, and widespread ash-induced fish kills. Eastern freshwater cod recovered from this event and were in abundance by the time of European settlement, but appear to have lost much of their genetic diversity in this event. (The genetic diversity of eastern freshwater cod has been further reduced by catastrophic declines caused by European settlers and the stocking of hatchery fish with poor genetic diversity.)

Habitat and diet[edit]

Eastern freshwater cod are found in clear-flowing rivers and streams with rocky beds and deep holes within the Clarence River system, to significant altitudes. The size of the rivers and streams they inhabit range from very small to very large. Eastern freshwater cod are territorial and aggressive. The bulk of their diet is based on crustaceans (the large, clawed Macrobrachium shrimp and the small, clawless Paratya shrimp) and other fish, but they are powerful opportunistic predators and are also known to take insects (e.g. cicadas), frogs, snakes, lizards, birds, and small mammals.


Growth is highly variable in eastern freshwater cod, but overall is slower than in Murray cod. The oldest eastern freshwater cod yet aged is only 14 years of age, but this reflects limited sampling and many decades of overfishing and poaching, that have led to the loss of most large individuals. [8] There is little doubt the species has the potential to reach or even exceed the maximum age recorded in Murray cod (48 years).

Eastern freshwater cod are sexually mature at 4 to 5 years old, and at sizes as small as 700 g, the latter being markedly different from Murray cod. [9] This far smaller size at sexual maturity is likely an evolved adaptation to the rocky, low-nutrient, and often quite small waterways in which eastern freshwater cod are found. The trout cod, a Maccullochella cod, also once found in small, rocky, low-nutrient streams in the upland reaches of the Murray-Darling system, displays a similar trait, also reaching sexual maturity at a far smaller size than Murray cod.

Eastern freshwater cod spawn in early spring when water temperatures exceed 16°C, using rock structures as sites for the adhesive eggs. Most other aspects of their spawning, including the guarding of eggs and newly hatched larvae by the male fish, are similar to Murray co.[10] The breeding season is 8-10 weeks. Males clean and protect nesting sites until females enter and a complex spawning ritual is performed.[3] The males then protect the eggs until hatching, and continue to defend the larvae until 12-14 days when they disperse.[3]

It is important for anglers to avoid any accidental captures of eastern freshwater cod in winter when they are developing their roe, or in early spring when spawning is occurring, as research indicates this results in resorbed roe or abandoned nests, respectively, and a failed spawning effort. [11] A total fishing closure is in effect on the Mann and Nymboida Rivers and their tributaries between 1 August and 31 October (inclusive) each year specifically to protect the eastern freshwater cod from accidental capture during their breeding season. [12]

Anglers are not allowed to deliberately target eastern freshwater cod.

Eastern freshwater cod habitat: Eastern freshwater cod often share such habitats with Australian bass.


Early records reveal eastern freshwater cod were extremely abundant in the Clarence River system at the time of European settlement. They were so abundant, they were caught "on demand" for diners at a riverside hotel, and were sometimes used as pig feed.

A number of factors have led to the endangerment of eastern freshwater cod. One factor is gross overfishing, including with lines, nets, explosives, and spears. As a very slow-growing, top predator with low fecundity, eastern freshwater cod are even more vulnerable to overfishing than their relative Murray cod. Another factor was severe whole-of-catchment-scale bushfires in the 1930s which caused very large, widespread ash-induced fish kills. Gross habitat degradation and siltation by poor farming practices (such as clearing riverbank vegetation and allowing stock to trample river banks) is another factor that has destroyed many eastern freshwater cod habitats, and unfortunately some of these poor farming practices continue unchecked today. Finally, serious cyanide pollution from mining caused serious fish kills in the late 19th century/early 20th century. [13]

All of these factors have reduced the once abundant eastern freshwater cod to an endangered species with a limited distribution in the Clarence River system. The same factors have led to the extinction of Richmond and Brisbane River cod and the endangerment of Mary River cod, as well.

Eastern freshwater cod were recognised as a potentially separate and endangered species of cod in 1984, and were declared a protected species in that year. Subsequent research confirmed they are indeed a separate and endangered species of cod; they remain a protected species. Disturbing levels of illegal poaching are taking place, however, and are not being addressed.

A restocking programme was undertaken by the government of New South Wales from 1984 to 1989. The government-run stocking programme was closed after 1989 and contracted to a private operation, which produced and stocked fingerlings until the late 1990s. The eastern freshwater cod stocking programme was then suspended after genetic research indicated the fingerlings being produced had very low levels of genetic diversity. No eastern freshwater cod are currently being bred or stocked. The NSW fisheries department has allowed the private operation that produced eastern freshwater cod fingerlings to retain broodfish and produce captive-reared eastern freshwater cod for the table fish market.

Concern has been expressed over the future of all eastern freshwater cod stocks in the Clarence River system after the NSW Fisheries department allowed a stocking of Australian bass fingerlings from a completely different bioregion to proceed. [14] The fingerlings were contaminated with and introduced the banded grunter, Amniataba percoides, to the lower reaches of the river. The banded grunter is an extremely aggressive small native fish species. It is feared banded grunter may yet invade the main freshwater reaches of the Clarence River system with devastating impacts on eastern freshwater cod.


  1. ^ Wager, R. 1996. Maccullochella ikei. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 18 April 2014.
  2. ^ (Anon, 2004).
  3. ^ a b c Bray, Dianne; Thompson, Vanessa. "Clarence River Cod, Maccullochella ikei". Fishes of Australia. Retrieved 31 August 2014. 
  4. ^ (Nock et al., 2010). (See allopatric speciation.)
  5. ^ (Jerry et al., 2001; Bearlin & Tikel, 2002; Nock et al., 2010).
  6. ^ (Nock et al., 2010)
  7. ^ (Nock et al., 2010).
  8. ^ (Butler & Rowland, 2008).
  9. ^ (Butler & Rowland, 2008, 2009).
  10. ^ ] (Butler & Rowland, 2009).
  11. ^ (Butler & Rowland, 2009).
  12. ^ (NSW DPI, 2008).
  13. ^ (Anon, 2004).
  14. ^ (Rowland, 2001).
  • Anon. (2004). New South Wales Eastern (Freshwater) Cod (Maccullochella ikei) Recovery Plan. New South Wales Department of Fisheries, Port Nelson, New South Wales, Australia.
  • Bearlin, A.R. and Tikel, D. (2002) Conservation genetics of Murray-Darling Basin fish: Silver perch (Bidyanus bidyanus), Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii), and Trout cod (M. macquariensis). In: Managing Fish Translocation and Stocking in the Murray-Darling Basin (workshop proceedings), Canberra, 25–26 September 2002. World Wildlife Fund, Sydney.
  • Butler G.L. and Rowland S.J. (2008). Using traditional age and growth techniques in endangered species management: eastern freshwater cod, Maccullochella ikei. Marine and Freshwater Research 59: 684–693
  • Butler G.L. and Rowland S.J. (2009). Using underwater cameras to describe the reproductive behaviour of the endangered eastern freshwater cod Maccullochella ikei. Ecology of Freshwater Fish 18: 337–349.
  • Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2005). "Maccullochella ikei" in FishBase. 10 2005 version.
  • Jerry, D.R., Elphinstone, M.S and Baverstock, P.R. (2001) Phylogenetic Relationships of Australian Members of the Family Percichthyidae Inferred from Mitochondrial 12S rRNA Sequence Data. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 18: 335–347.
  • "Maccullochella ikei". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 11 March 2006. 
  • NSW DPI (2008). Prime Fact 763 — Clarence River Recreational Fishing Rules.
  • Nock C.J., Elphinstone M.S., Rowland S.J. and Baverstock, P.R. (2010). Phylogenetics and revised taxonomy of the Australian freshwater cod genus, Maccullochella (Percichthyidae). Marine and Freshwater Research 61: 980–991.
  • Rowland, S.J. (1993) Maccullochella ikei, an endangered species of freshwater cod (Pisces: Percichthyidae) from the Clarence River System, NSW, and M. peelii mariensis, a new subspecies from the Mary River System, QLD. Records of the Australian Museum 45: 121–145.
  • Rowland, S.J. (1996) Threatened fishes of the world: Maccullochella ikei Rowland, 1985 (Percichthyidae). Environmental Biology of Fishes 46: 350
  • Rowland. S.J. (2001) Record of the Banded Grunter Amniataba percoides (Teraponidae) from the Clarence River, New South Wales. Australian Zoologist 31: 603–607.