Fish screens can be a useful tool for irrigators and lifesavers for fish — without fish screens over irrigation pumps, debris and wildlife can be sucked up into pipes that draw water from rivers. This causes fish and other creatures to become trapped and die, which in turn partially or fully blocks the pipes, forcing irrigators to spend time and money cleaning the pumps. With fish screens installed, irrigation pumps are much more effective, prevent this from happening and saving the lives of native fish and other creatures and the work of Australian irrigators. However, modern fish screen systems are not common in Australia, with many irrigators retaining older, less effective screens.

For most of us, this technology seems relatively new, yet fish screens have been recommended since 1929 to keep debris and fish out of irrigation channels. Unfortunately, many of these early screens were only partially effective, trapping and injuring fish and requiring large amounts of maintenance. Modern screens that are on the market today can reduce fish losses by 90% and stop debris entering irrigation systems (Boys et al., 2021).

Old vs new cylinder screen
Old vs new cylinder screen. Source: Fish Screens Australia

It’s fair to say that fish screens have improved and developed to better suit the needs of both irrigators and fish, yet the stigma remains. Although quick to implement in the United States, the use of modern fish screens has been mixed across the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), with particularly slow uptake amongst irrigators. Significant effort has been made by the NSW, QLD, VIC and Federal state governments, however, there is no systematic fish screening program in Australia (Baumgartner and Boys, 2012). It is important to note that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has included the installation of fish screens as an investment priority under the 2020 Native Fish Recovery Strategy (NFRS).

The study

To investigate this slow rate of adoption, a study published in 2023 surveyed water user’ attitudes towards fish screens across the MDB. The research, supported by NSW DPI and Charles Sturt University, used a cross-disciplinary approach to account for different social, cultural, economic and environmental factors.

Through the use of diffusion of innovation theory (DOI), the research team considered how screening intentions are influenced by attitudes, social norms and screen characteristics. In addition, DOI accounts for awareness as a vital first step in the adoption of new innovations (Simin and Janković, 2014).

Cylinder screen on bank
Cylinder screen on bank. Source: Fish Screens Australia

The study included 26 participants from across NSW including various grower groups, irrigation and farming industry bodies, and government environmental agency networks. Large corporate irrigators were also approached directly based on publicly available information. Most participants were farmers and farm managers, ranging from 50 ha family/mixed farms to corporate farms approximately 40, 000 ha. In addition, 3 industry professionals working for water catchment management authorities and irrigation companies participated.

The interview questions centred on 4 key areas:

  1. Background information about participants (i.e. education, professional experience, family farming history, demographics, age, gender, membership of conservation groups and involvement in local community groups). These questions also gathered information on farm and organisation structure and management (i.e. farm size, ownership and production, and irrigation systems).
  2. Awareness and knowledge of pump and fish screens. These questions were designed to understand the level and process of developing awareness, depth, and type of knowledge, how they had heard about screens, and whether they had considered installing a fish screen.
  3. The value proposition for fish-protection screens includes the economic, environmental and social drivers of, and barriers to, adoption; the role of policy and incentives; and pump screen attributes.
  4. Participants’ communication preferences, including information format, content, source, and trust.


The study found that overall awareness of modern fish screens was low and unfortunately, participants showed little intention to adopt this technology. The second biggest barrier to adoption was the perceived lack of financial return from modern screening. Participants showed satisfaction with their current irrigation systems and presumed that screens would require an additional significant investment. Social pressure as plays a role in adoption with people likely to behave in a way that is consistent with what is common practice in the area. As it currently stands, most irrigators do not have a fish screen meaning the status quo is perpetuated. Despite this, all participants wanted to learn more about fish screening theory and practice and improve river and native fish health.

Murray Cod. Source: MDBA

Therefore, financial incentives and targeted education programs need to be introduced to raise fish screening awareness and increase adoption rates. It is vital that collaborative work takes place between water and environmental authorities, government bodies, fishing groups and other river users to achieve this goal.

Featured image: Hyrtls tandan closeup.  

Photo credit: Michael Hammer.

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