Monitoring what wildlife species are living in Melbourne’s waterways has become easier, safer and more reliable, with an innovative – and animal-friendly – approach implemented by Melbourne Water.

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 the 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 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 said.

Siobhan Day is the Assistant Editor of Utility magazine and Pump Industry magazine, and has been part of the team since early 2019. With a background in management in the non-profit sector, Siobhan has extensive experience in communications, professional writing and client management. She holds a Bachelor of Business and Communications and is currently completing a postgraduate degree.

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