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Safer approach to monitoring what species live, breed and feed in our waterways

An innovative – and animal-friendly – approach has been implemented by Melbourne Water to monitor what species are living in the city’s waterways.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is a relatively new technology that eliminates the need to catch, see or hear animals in a waterway, because the trace DNA in a simple sample of water can effectively identify native wildlife and invasive species.

It provides a more rigorous and safer alternative for waterway managers to assess the presence of animals that live, breed and feed in our waterways such as fish, frogs, birds and platypus.

It means that waterway managers don’t have to enter waterways to find secretive or evasive critters, such as Platypus.

This technology was recognised at the recent Worksafe Awards, where Melbourne Water was nominated in the category for “Best Solution to a Specific Workplace Health and Safety Issue category.

Melbourne Water’s Waterways and Wetlands Research Manager Rhys Coleman said the authority is committed to adopting research measures that not only help preserve natural environments, but also consider the safety of people and animals.

Dr Coleman said this initiative has provided Melbourne Water and many other organisations with an alternative technique to monitor aquatic species than the “traditional” approaches such as netting or electrofishing, which required people to enter the water, placing them at increased risk.

The use of Environmental DNA (eDNA) means Melbourne Water's researchers can safely find traces of secretive or evasive critters, such as platypus, that live in our waterways. PICTURES: Courtesy of Doug Gimesy, Conservation and Wildlife Photographer.

The eDNA sampling technique is safer, as it can eliminate the need for anyone to enter a waterway and reduces risks such as falls, manual handling, drowning, or electrocution that may be associated with traditional survey approaches,” Dr Coleman said.

“The technique can be used in areas that are otherwise difficult to access or survey, such as deep, fast flowing or murky rivers”.

“A water sample can be taken from the edge of a waterway which is then taken to a laboratory for analysis.

Melbourne Water partnered with The University of Melbourne, EnviroDNA, The Arthur Rylah Institute and the Australian Research Council to develop this technology.

“The technique can be used for a broad range of different projects from species detection all the way through to impact assessments,” Melbourne Water’s Senior Environmental Water Resources Planner, Cheryl Edwards said.

“It’s so exciting to have this new eDNA technology available as it means our people taking the samples and the animals being tested are much safer.”

Dr Coleman said eDNA research has now been adopted by a range of teams within Melbourne Water, as well as other organisations.

“Although eDNA won’t be able to answer all of our questions about the status of aquatic animals, it’s a very exciting new addition in our toolbox that will allow us to undertake surveys in a much safer way for people and animals, as well as across a much broader number of species and locations than previously possible,” Dr Coleman declared.