Shellfish reefs made up of oysters and mussels are prolific ‘fish factories’. Working just like coral reefs, they support the growth of important fish species whilst also helping to improve water quality and increase biodiversity. We are restoring shellfish reefs to protect the health of our oceans and contribute to the recreational and economic vitality of our coastal communities.
Examples from the United States and elsewhere have demonstrated that when restoration occurs at large scales, ecological function can be repaired and ecosystem services can be restored. The process of restoring shellfish reefs can provide both short- and long-term employment opportunities and established reefs can provide long-term economic gains for coastal communities, particularly in fishing tourism and coastal protection. The benefits provided by shellfish reefs include food provision, water filtration, fish production, coastal protection and habitat for other species. Several projects (in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) have recently begun the process of restoring shellfish reefs for the purpose of recovering a near extinct habitat and to improve fish habitat, water quality and coastal protection.
Momentum is continuing to build, with a number of other shellfish reef restoration projects expected to begin across Australia within the next 12-24 months.
Given the need for further knowledge on the ecology and function of Australian shellfish reefs, increasing public awareness of their historic loss and growing appetite for restoration, we recommend 12 key actions that can be undertaken by government, researchers, not-for-profit organisations and the community in order to ensure their conservation and long-term success of shellfish reef restoration efforts:
- Improve community knowledge and awareness of the value of shellfish reef habitat through the development of communication campaigns and materials;
- Increase Indigenous engagement in restoration activities by capturing and communicating Indigenous knowledge and stories and invest in programs which support the inclusion of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in shellfish reef management and restoration;
- Promote the exchange of knowledge and develop partnerships with international organisations, governments and universities involved in shellfish reef restoration;
- Quantify the ecosystem service benefits and ecology of Australian shellfish reefs (including nitrogen cycling, filtration capacity, fish production, shoreline protection and biodiversity) to better understand their ecological, social and economic value
- Develop the business case to articulate the potential environmental, social and economic return on investment for shellfish reef restoration;
- Develop routine shellfish health monitoring protocols for restoration to assess disease prevalence and determine disease risk to restoration projects and aquaculture;
- Undertake an assessment of genetic diversity in existing shellfish populations to determine threat of ‘genetic bottlenecks’.
- Invest in the development of early restoration projects to build momentum, expertise and capacity in Australia’s marine restoration community;
- Review marine habitat data to determine extent of remaining shellfish reefs, why they still exist and key threats to determine nomination for “threatened ecological community” evaluation processes;
- Update relevant Federal and State government agency marine wetland definitions to include shellfish reef habitat;
- Consider the designation of new Ramsar wetland sites to include shellfish reefs and prioritise the inclusion of shellfish reef habitat surveys when updating the Information Sheet on Ramsar Wetlands (RIS) for existing sites;
- Undertake a sustainability review of current wild harvest oyster and mussel fisheries to determine level of risk to shellfish reef communities.
These actions combined with long-term financial and community support for individual restoration projects will serve to underpin the repair and conservation of Australia’s shellfish reefs and will improve the overall health and resilience of Australia’s environmental, social and economically important bays and estuaries.