Melbourne’s Lost Reefs Rediscovered

In a ground-breaking partnership with the Victorian Government, The Nature Conservancy will use cutting-edge methods to restore Port Phillip Bay’s shellfish reefs, bringing all the benefits of oysters back to the bay.

Reefs at Risk

Along the southern coast of Australia lie hundreds of bays and estuaries that contain important temperate habitats, including shellfish reefs, soft corals, seagrass beds and saltmarshes. They are teeming with unique species, such as handfish, seahorses and seadragons – and their coastal fringes are a vital source of food for iconic birds like the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot. These bays and estuaries are nurseries for fish and they are areas of outstanding beauty, providing a natural playground for swimming, fishing and sailing.

Tragically, the health of these bays and estuaries is under threat. In fact, the Conservancy's recent global report, Shellfish Reefs at Risk, revealed that shellfish reefs are the most threatened marine habitat on earth. Globally, 85% of oyster reefs have been completely lost and there are signs that reefs are ’functionally extinct’ in many areas, particularly in Australia.

Nature’s Water Filters

More than just a delicacy, oysters are nature’s water filter – improving water quality as they filter algae and other nutrients from the sea water. Oysters can remove an estimated 1 million tons of phytoplankton in their lifetime.

“Oysters are nature’s water filter – many are filtering at a rate of up to 4 to 5 litres an hour! That’s enough to fill a bathtub in a day,” says Dr Boze Hancock, marine restoration scientist for the Conservancy.

When growing as part of the reef, the oyster shells themselves provide a habitat for a range of other animals, such as small crabs, sea squirts, snails and sponges. And fish love them!

Restoring Marine Habitats

This pilot project is the first stage of the Conservancy's Great Southern Seascapes program, designed to restore and improve marine habitats in southern Australia, where most of the reefs have been lost. The project was initiated by Fisheries Victoria and the Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club, who noticed the loss of productive snapper habitat in and around Hobson Bay through club fishing records.

As part of the reef restoration project, native flat oysters raised at the Department of Environment and Primary Industries’ Queenscliff hatchery will be used to re-establish reefs in the Port Phillip Bay area. The first three reefs to be restored are at Geelong, Hobsons Bay and Chelsea.

“Working with a wide range of government departments, Australian scientists, fishing clubs and conservation groups, our program will focus on habitat restoration, both in the water and on the coast, and encourage local people to get involved through different volunteer activities,” says Dr. James Fitzsimons, the Conservancy's director of conservation in Australia.

The restoration of shellfish reefs should boost fish numbers, create more clean water and increase recreational fishing opportunities.

Read the article, Shellfish Reefs to be Restored in Port Phillip Bay, featured in The Age newspaper.



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