Australian Society For Fish Biology

Alfred Dunbavin Butcher

Well known to fish biologists for his classic publication on black bream in the Gippsland Lakes (Butcher 1945a), there is much more to the career and scientific legacy of this man. He had a leading role in developing the Melbourne Zoo from 1947 as Chairman of the Zoological Board of Victoria for 25 years; Member of the State Executive of CSIRO 1964-78; President of the Royal Society of Victoria 1971-72; and Trustee of the World Wildlife Fund (Australia) 1979-84. His achievements were formally recognised with the appointment of Companion of St.Michael and St. George CMG (1978), and Officer of the Order of Australia (1987).

Butcher was born on 4 June 1915 at Hamilton, Victoria and studied Agricultural Science at Geelong College and Science at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1939; M.Sc., 1943). His M.Sc. thesis was on fish parasites. In 1986, the University of Melbourne awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Science. In 1990, the Friends of the Zoo established an annual scholarship fund in his honour to commemorate his exceptional work and leadership.

He began his career in the Fisheries and Game Branch of the Victorian Government in 1941. He was a pioneer in fisheries research in Victoria and with basic facilities, he provided sound scientific advice in the early stages of fisheries development and management. His work included diseases in fish hatcheries, the stocking Quinnat salmon, conservation of bream in the Gippsland Lakes, and the diets of Victorian freshwater species. He produced many pamphlets, newspaper articles and chapters in books (Butcher 1945b; 1949), and he travelled extensively to consult with fishermen. He was well known to local fisherman in the Gippsland Lakes where he sampled catches and tagged bream (Butcher and Ling 1962).

He was promoted to Inspector of Fisheries in 1947 and Director of Fisheries and Game in 1949. His guiding principle was the wise use of natural resources based on scientific investigation so he established a strong research base in Victoria with facilities at the Snobs Creek Freshwater Fishery Research Station and Hatchery, near Eildon and opened the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research at Heidelberg, Melbourne in 1970.

Progressively under Butcher’s direction, the Fisheries and Game Branch expanded its role and began to address a wider range of issues, such as pesticides, pollution, land degradation and sustainable resource utilisation. In 1973, he was promoted to Deputy-Director of the new Ministry for Conservation. His belief that wildlife management and conservation must have a scientific foundation was strengthened by a study tour of North America in 1954. An emerging issue in the USA issue at this time was the ecological impact of carp. His experience was soon called upon and on 11th May 1960, there was an enquiry by the State Development Committee into the refusal of a permit application from Boolarra Fish Farms Ltd to develop carp aquaculture in Victoria (Anon 1962). Butcher’s vigorous advice was to destroy all carp in Victoria, declare it as a noxious species and prohibit the possession of carp or eggs to prohibit the indiscriminate and unauthorized release of carp. Unfortunately the provisions of the Fisheries Act 1958 were insufficient to allow his advice to be implemented and by 1964, carp were in the Murray River (Shearer and Mulley 1978).

During the  early 1970s, Butcher served on the Land Conservation Council, and was the Deputy-chairman of the committee which supervised the visionary environmental study of Port Phillip Bay (Anon 1973). As Chairman of the Executive Committee, he initiated a similar investigation into Westernport Bay, which recommended the preservation of the natural values of the region and judicious planning for its development. These comprehensive studies provided a wealth of information on marine ecosystems that are the basis of contemporary studies and ecosystem models (Fulton and Smith 2004; Parslow and Murray 1996).

He was involved in a wide range of Government organisations and took the opportunity to promote his convictions in management based on conservation, research and education. Butcher was a member of the Victorian State Committee of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (1961-78), the National Parks Authority (1957-71), the Victorian Environment Protection Council (1971-73), the Australian Fishing Industry Research Committee (1970-72), and the Council of the Victorian Institute of Marine Sciences (1977-89). He had attended the inaugural meeting of the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1964 and joined its Executive Committee in 1966. In 1971-72, he became the President of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1971 and was a Trustee of the World Wildlife Fund Australia (1979-84).

The Origins of Victorian Institute of Marine Science 

During the 1960s and 1970s, several major events acted as catalysts for the development of marine science, conservation and management in Australia. The proliferation of the Crown-of-Thorns starfish the Great Barrier Reef changed the notion that the sea could “look after itself” and the unstoppable natural force of the sea became galvanised in the minds of the public, bureaucrats and politicians. Other significant events were: the declaration of the 200 nautical mile Australian Fishing Zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; the commencement of oil and gas flow from Bass Strait; and the beginning of the environmental movement.  Politicians became acutely aware of the limitations of scientific knowledge about the marine environment in Australia, and the heavy responsibilities of their protection and management.

As the past President of Royal Society of Victoria and a senior public servant, Butcher, worked with a group to plan, negotiate and lobby for the formation of a scientific consortium to undertake and provide a focus for marine research and education in south-east Australia. The group was led by Norman Baker, Phillip Law, Professor John Swan and others from Victoria's universities and government agencies. The basis of the consortium approach was stated explicitly in the Council’s planning documents and later expressed by the Premier, Sir Rupert Hamer. “The strength of VIMS lies in its nature as a consortium of various bodies that brings together a every effective source of scientific expertise. It would be difficult to conceive of a better organization to coordinate and rationalize, at the most economic level, the present and future strengths in southeastern Australia.” This strategy is still relevant and a similar approach is currently being implemented and extended.

Butcher retired from the public service in 1978. He was an imposing senior officer who was six feet tall and  `absolutely devastating when he got into action’. His legacy will show that he was absolutely right on many key issues and to a certain extent, history is repeating itself as others now face the challenges of introduced species, ecosystem based fisheries management and scientific collaboration.

Biography prepared by Patrick Coutin
Photo provided courtesy of the Royal Society of Victoria

Selected References

Anderson, F. (1998) 'A.D. Butcher: A Man for all Seasons', Australasian Science, 19 (4).

Anon (1962) The introduction of European carp into Victorian waters. State Development Committee, Melbourne.

Anon (1973) Environmental study on Port Phillip Bay. Report on Phase 1, 1968-1971. Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works and Fisheries and Wildlife Division, Melbourne.

Butcher AD (1945a) 'Conservation of the bream fishery.' (Victoria. Fisheries and Game Department: Melbourne).

Butcher AD (1945b) The Gippsland Lakes Bream Fishery. Australian Fisheries Newsletter 4, 2-8.

Butcher AD (1949) Report on the Gippsland Lakes Fisheries. In 'The Professional Fisherman'.

Butcher AD, Ling JK (1962) Bream tagging experiments in East Gipsland during April and May 1944. Victorian Naturalist 78, 256-264.

Fulton EA, Smith ADM (2004) Lessons learnt from a comparison of three ecosystem models for Port Phillip Bay, Australia. African Journal of Marine Science 26, 219-243.

Parslow JS, Murray AG (1996) Port Phillip Bay integrated model; final report. CSIRO Port Phillip Bay Environmental Study CSIRO Port Phillip Bay Environmental Study Technical Report No. 44 No., Melbourne.

Shearer KD, Mulley JC (1978) The introduction and distribution of the carp, Cyprinus carpio Linnaeus, in Australia. Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research29, 551-563.