Galaxias Fish

Gondwanan Fish Faces Extinction                                             by Andrew Lo

Climbing Galaxias Photo by Neil Armstrong ©

A Gondwanan fish in Sydney.
In 1995, I collected a native fish from a local creek for identification by the Australian Museum. The fish was identified as the Climbing galaxias, Galaxias brevipinnis.The museum's database  showed that the local creek, Curl Curl Creek, in the Manly Dam catchment, was the only known habitat of the fish in the whole of the Sydney metropolitan area.

The Climbing galaxias is a truly remarkable and beautiful native. The fish is elongated and cylindrical in shape, with gold flakes adorning its dorsal side. It is scaleless, has bright reddish orange fins and the body is marked with chevron patterns. Its pectoral and pelvic fins are laterally held and enable the fish to perform the amazing feat of ascending steep rock faces. Galaxiids are known  to be able to take up oxygen through their skins.

In the current literature, the galaxias is regarded as one of the very small number of Australian native fish that appear to have evolved entirely in fresh water and have ancient lineages that predate the splitting up of Gondwana between 60 to 120 million years ago. The Climbing galaxias is regarded as the basic stock from which other native  galaxias have evolved.

This Gondwanan fish, which lives in Curl Curl Creek, a Hawkesbury sandstone bedrock creek, in the seaside suburb of Manly, Sydney, is also found in New Zealand, another fragment of the great southern continent. It is known as the  Koaro there, and is reputed to be the first fish to conquer the New Zealand glacial lakes because of its  phenomenal climbing ability.

Since 1973, when I discovered the fish there, I have studied Climbing  galaxias in its pristine habitat in Manly Dam Reserve, near where I live. Manly Dam was constructed in 1892 to provide drinking water for residents of the   northern beaches, and the catchment area was off limits to residential development, Manly Dam is now the only large recreational fresh water body fit for swimming all year round in Sydney.

Residential development v community and heritage values
The future of this ancient fish and its pristine habitat is currently under threat from residential development.

In 1994, a multinational development, Wimpey, and its subsidiary Ardel Development, purchased 4 hectares of land formerly owned by the Spastic Centre at the headwaters of Curl Curl Creek.The land was rezoned for medium density  residential development without proper environmental assessment.

Residential development at the headwaters of Curl Curl Creek would involve extensive clearing of bushland, so  altering the hydrology and flow rate of the creek. It would cause siltation and weed infestation along the creek bed and  irreversibly damage the habitat of the fish. In wet weather, residential run-off, which contains a  dissolved toxic chemical cocktail consisting of  herbicides, pesticides and hydrocarbons, will drain into the creek and  cumulatively will lead to the extinction of the fish population.

The Climbing galaxias is but a symbol of the entire ecosystem of Manly Dam Reserve. Seventy bird species, six  native mammal species, and 18 species of reptiles and amphibians (including the Red-crowned Toadlet) live in the Many Dam catchment. The endangered plant species Tetrathecha glandulosa and a community of endangered Duffy's Forest vegetation also live in the catchment. The extinction of this fish, which is sure to result from urban  encroachment on  its habitat, will be indicative of the final collapse of the pristine remnant bushland of which it is an integral part.

This familiar and tragic story repeated many times over in drainage systems in the remnant bushland areas in Sydney and elsewhere. All over Sydney, local communities that appreciate the importance of biodiversity conservation and the heritage value of remnant bushland for the community and for future generations have fought the encroachment of residential development in ecologically sensitive bushland with or without local council support.

In the case of the survival of the Climbing galaxias in Manly Dam catchment, the Warringah council supported a four-year campaign by local residents to stop  development at the headwaters of Curl Curl Creek. Students at the local school,  Mackellar Girls High, printed T-shirts for sale to raise funds to buy back the land from the multinational development company. The commitment of the younger generation to biodiversity conservation in  precious urban bushland is inspirational.

The council twice rejected the development proposals of Ardel, and in excess of $200, 000 of ratepayers' money was spent to defend its position in the Land and Environment Court. In the end, the Land and Environment Court ruled that the real estate development value (for the few) exceeded heritage and community value conservation  (for many), despite the fact that endangered species of flora and fauna existed on the development site, and that the Manly Dam Reserve, of which the development site is an integral part, is heritage listed.

The campaign, valiantly fought by local community groups, to save Manly Dam Reserve has raised awareness of the  high conservation value of precious remnant bushland in Sydney and the irreversible loss suffered by the community if residential development by Ardel goes ahead. The response of politicians on both the state and federal level to the cry for help by local community groups was conspicuous by its absence.

As this article was being written [1998], proceedings are underway to  have the Climbing galaxias of Manly Dam catchment nominated and listed as an endangered fish population under the new threatened species provisions contained in the Fisheries Management Amendment Act 1997, which came into effect on July 1 1998.

In the foreword to the newly published NSW Fisheries' Policy and Guidelines 1998, the Minister for Fisheries, the Hon Bob Martin, stated
the continued degradation of aquatic habitats has resulted in impacts on...local environments. If we are to ensure ecologically sustainable fisheries for future generations then this degradation must be stopped. We must promote a   policy of 'No Net Habitat Loss' by education about the value of aquatic habitats, insistence on minimising the impacts of development on the aquatic environments...

The plight of the Climbing galaxias in Manly Dam Reserve and their survival into the future will provide a good test of the effectiveness of the newly amended Act, as well as of the political will of the Carr government to protect  this remnant bushland with high conservation values.

(Lo, Andrew. (1998) A Gondwanan Fish Faces Extinction. In Bogong vol 19, no.4.)

Further references

Compiled by Ken Higgs

Press Coverage



Manly Daily






Northern Beaches Weekender






Sydney Morning Herald






City Hub










Ancient fish focus of furore





Marj Belessis

Ardel site's sorry saga





Miranda Wood

Fight to protect ancient fish





John Morcombe

Threat to ancient species/Creek is last home




Tracy Sorensen

Stressed out climbing fish on death row






Ardel Proceeds, tough titties for galaxias





John Huxley

Fish out of water has a metaphorical mountain to climb

Reports, Papers, etc

  • Andrew Lo, Fishes of SAHUL, The Galaxias Brevipinnis of Curl Curl Creek, March 1988.
  • Andrew Lo, Bogong, A Gondwanan Fish Faces Extinction, Vol 19, No. 4, 1998.
  • Water Quality Study of Manly Dam Catchment, focusing on conditions required for survival of the Galaxias fish, Zoe Commandeur, Feb 2000.
  • Non-impact survey of the Climbing Galaxias (Galaxias Brevipinnis) populations within Manly Dam Catchment,  by Nicholas Willey, Richard Miller and Mark Trudgett, UTS Freshwater Ecology Report of 2000.
  • O'Conner WG and Koehn JD. Spawning of the broad-finned Galaxias, Galaxias brevipinnis G¼nther (Pisces: Galaxiidae) in coastal streams of southeastern Australia. Ecology of Freshwater Fish 1998: 7: 95-100. Munksgaard, 1998.
  • Salkavich, L, Cumbo, B and Ku, S (2002). Manly Dam Galaxias Action Plan, prepared by the Manly Dam Action  Team for the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee, February 2002. PDF File (1.8Mb).

    Web Pages

  • Transcripts

    • Talk by Dr Doug Hoese, Chief Scientist from the Australian Museum, entitled "Climbing Galaxias".


    • 20/08/1999 Burkes Backyard
    • 21/02/2000 Totally Wild
    • 21/03/2000 Totally Wild

Galaxias News
Work on the Manly Dam Galaxias in continuing. Participants include members of the Friends of Manly Dam Reserve. Regular evening spotlighting is carried out to check the fish and do counts. Further information from Ken Higgs or
Andrew Lo.

A report entitled "Manly Dam Galaxias Action Plan" has been prepared and a limited number of copies printed. Copies are in the Manly and Warringah Libraries, local studies sections and in the Manly Environment Centre.


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