and a diver check out news reefs at Oyster Harbour, Albany
A school of Gobbleguts and a diver check out news reefs at Oyster Harbour, Albany © Geoff Bastyan / South Coast Diving Supplies

Ocean stories

Putting oyster reefs back into Oyster Harbour

Restoring Albany’s lost shellfish reefs

The warming of the fresh salty air that has swept in from the Southern Ocean off the south coast of Western Australia for millennia, signalled the time of the year that Minang Noongar people returned to the coast. Closer to the sea, they made use of its many marine resources after a winter inland, sheltering from the harsher weather and living off the land. In the bays near Albany, they made stone traps to catch fish as the tide went out, adding seafood to a diet of bushmeat, birds’ eggs and plants.

When English explorer George Vancouver became the first European to visit the area in 1791 he was so impressed by the amount and size of the oysters growing here that he named it Oyster Harbour.

Unfortunately, early European settlers found so many uses for the oysters that by the late 1800s they remained associated with the harbour in name only. The combined effects of over harvesting, poor water quality and disease meant the oyster reefs of Oyster Harbour were no more.

With the loss of the reefs came a further decline in natural values such as water quality and fish stocks.

This sadly familiar scenario has been repeated across southern Australia, however, thankfully it’s not too late to do something about it.  

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Replicating our reef restoration success

As we’ve done elsewhere across southern Australia, in Albany we’re restoring the lost shellfish reefs of Oyster Harbour so that once again the local area, people and marine environment can benefit from all the services a thriving reef provides. This includes a boost to fish productivity, improved water quality and increased overall biodiversity in the harbour.

And we couldn’t do it without the help of our partners and supporters including South Coast NRM, the University of Western Australia, Recfishwest, City of Albany, Albany Shellfish Hatchery, Great Southern Development Commission WA, Fishing Industry Council, Aquaculture Council of WA, local schools and the Western Australian State Government (with funding from Royalties for Regions and the Recreational Fishing Initiatives Fund).

The first step in restoring the reefs was to successfully demonstrate that native oysters could be collected from Oyster Harbour, spawned in the local hatchery, deployed onto new reef substrate and reach the minimum level of survival required to recover a shellfish reef. With the help of the Recreational Fishing Initiative Fund and Recfishwest, we achieved this in 2016.

With the pilot phase complete, throughout November and December 2019 we built over 800m of oyster reefs in Oyster Harbour.

The reefs are constructed with a base of hundreds of tonnes of limestone rocks deployed from a barge. On top of this, we scattered one million hatchery-reared juvenile Australian Flat Oysters grown at the local Albany Shellfish Hatchery.

The young shellfish have settled and continue to grow on the limestone, establishing themselves in their new homes and attracting all the other species that join them in creating a fully functioning shellfish reef. Months later, we're already seeing fish and other marine life at the reef.

Helping us along the way is a growing band of enthusiastic volunteers.

The ocean’s complex and diverse nature has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I am excited to be involved and I see this initiative as an incredible opportunity to help restore an ecosystem on the brink of extinction.

Student of UWA Albany and proud TNC volunteer.

Future plans for Oyster Harbour

With the ecological knowledge and community support obtained during the earlier stages of the project, we hope to take the project to a whole-of-system scale—constructing somewhere between five and 10 hectares of new reef! At this scale we will begin to make a measurable difference to fish abundance, water quality and the productivity of Oyster Harbour.

It’s going to take time and commitment from lots of people throughout the community, but we have the experience and determination to successfully restore the shellfish reefs of Oyster Harbour for the benefit of people and nature.

If you live in the Albany area and would like to be involved in the project, contact us at australia@tnc.org.