26 April 2023

Riverina Rewind: Back when the Murray cod were hatching and the sign was iconic

| Michelle Maddison and Chris Roe
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Big Cod

Murray Cod Hatcheries and Fauna Park. Photo: Museum of the Riverina (WWCC collection).

Something a little different today from the Museum of the Riverina. Not a photograph, but a brochure.

Dating back to 1990, this is an advertising brochure from the Murray Cod Hatcheries and Fauna Park, a once-favourite attraction for locals and tourists.

The Wagga operation was Australia’s first privately owned native fish hatchery/tourism complex.

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The hatchery was developed by Pat McLaren in 1970, with the aim of breeding warm-water native fish species such as Murray cod, golden perch (yellow belly), silver perch (bream) and catfish, as well as the humble yabbie.

Pat was concerned at the declining number of native fish species throughout many of Australia’s inland rivers.

Enormous interest in the project prompted the development of a tourist facility that was opened by then-premier of NSW Tom Lewis in 1975.

The hatchery was once filled with ponds that were brimming with fish and also had breeding tanks on the premises.

Lady, baby and emus

Sylvia and baby Marina Douglas visit in 1987. Photo: Museum of the Riverina (Douglas collection).

By 1988, the complex had developed into a multi-award-winning tourist attraction and hatchery, with thousands of tourists stopping by each year to get up close and personal with kangaroos, emus and koalas and to pose for a family snap with the iconic sign on the Sturt Highway.

That same year, the complex included an aquarium that was home to the largest Murray cod in captivity.

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”Big Murray” tipped the scales at 52kg and was rumoured to be more than 100 years old.

Indeed, Murray cod can live more than 100 years, with the biggest recorded 1.8m long and weighing in at a whopping 113kg.

Big Cod

The big cod was once on Australia’s list of ”Big Things”. Photo: Australia For Everyone.

The precinct also included a small fossil museum.

In 1995, what was surely one of Wagga’s most popular tourist destinations closed.

While the hatchery remained in business under new management until 2019, malformations in the fish forced its ultimate demise.

Murray Cod

The once-iconic Murray Cod Hatcheries sign needs repair. Photo: Chris Roe.

The cause remains an ongoing controversy, with claims the deformity was the result of contamination from the nearby Royal Australian Air Force base.

The sign remained a landmark over recent decades but in the past few years has fallen into tragic disrepair.

The once-iconic landmark that welcomed visitors to our fair city is a ruin, reflecting the heartbreaking demise of the hatcheries.

Looking back to happier times, we’d love to hear your memories of visiting this landmark site.

Did you meet ”Big Murray”?

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