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Healthy oyster reef in Australia © Simon Branigan

Cities Stories

Victoria's Lost Reefs Rediscovered

Getting shellfish reefs back into Port Phillip Bay

Our reefs are in danger, but which ones are the most threatened? The Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast? Or maybe Ningaloo Reef off WA’s Coral Coast? While the community’s attention is often understandably focused on threats to the Great Barrier Reef, for example, it’s shellfish reefs that have suffered the most. Since European settlement, we’ve lost almost all of these reefs from southern Australia. At The Nature Conservancy, we’re determined to do something to reverse this decline.

Situated on the doorstep of Melbourne, Port Phillip Bay contains a wide range of habitats like seagrasses, hard corals, colourful sponge gardens and sandy plains. A hundred years ago it was also home to extensive oyster and mussel reefs that supported a range of sea life such as fish, crabs, sea squirts, snails and sponges. Sadly, after many years of commercial dredging, pollution, introduced species and disease, these shellfish reefs have virtually disappeared.

We’ve joined forces with the Victorian Government, The Thomas Foundation and the Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club to rebuild the Bay’s shellfish reefs. With support from the local community, including recreational fishers and commercial shellfish growers, and corporate partners including Brambles, CHEP Australia, HSBC Australia and SUEZ Australia & New Zealand, Victorian Ports Corporation and the J & M Wright Foundation we are turning the tide on habitat loss in Port Phillip Bay and reinstating our most threatened marine habitat

With experience gained from our reef restoration projects around the world, we’ve tested a range of cutting-edge methods for re-establishing the reefs, bringing all the benefits of oysters back into the Bay.

Restoring the lost shellfish reefs of Port Philip We've been busy rebuilding the Bay’s lost shellfish reefs which are good for the local ecosystem, great for water quality and important for our fisheries and the food chains they depend on.

After successful in-water trials, the project is restoring two reefs at Geelong Arm (Wilson Spit Reef) and Hobsons Bay (Margaret’s Reef). We started by growing Australian Flat Oysters at the Victorian Shellfish Hatchery in Queenscliff. Next, we laid down 180 tonnes of limestone rock foundations at each of the two sites, providing a bed over which we spread hundreds of thousands of young oysters from the hatchery.  Here they will settle and continue to grow, establishing themselves in their new home. We’re also planning on laying mussels nearby on recycled shell to trial mussel bed restoration.

As well as monitoring the progress of this deployment of 1,200 square metres of reef, we are formulating longer-term plans to implement a larger-scale restoration program in Port Phillip Bay and beyond. Our vision is to reinstate around 500 hectares of these lost reefs (equivalent to 700 soccer pitches) around the Victorian coastline, and we hope to continue to work with the Victorian Government to achieve this with the aim of creating self-sustaining shellfish reefs, boosting fish populations and providing cleaner water for nature and people to enjoy.

ABC TV News story on our shellfish reef restoration project in Port Phillip Bay.