Reef Builder: Rebuilding Australia's lost shellfish reefs
A clean ocean, safe coastline, more fish and jobs for regional Australia
A bold commitment to build 60 reefs alongside communities who need them most.
We're leading Australia’s largest marine restoration initiative, to bring shellfish reef ecosystems back from the brink of extinction — for the benefit of both people and nature.
We've demonstrated that shellfish reefs can be restored at scale and their benefits returned. Our bold initiative is rapidly expanding the restoration and protection of valuable shellfish reef ecosystems. It is allowing communities across Australia to join us in practical conservation efforts where real, local results can be seen.
Together with governments, businesses and the community, we aim to protect and restore 60 shellfish reefs across Australia, making Australia the first nation in the world to recover a critically endangered marine ecosystem.
Reefs all over the word are in rapid decline. They’re threatened by global forces such as climate change and local influences like pollution. Our oceans are rapidly changing and it’s hard to not feel in despair about the loss of marine life.
Shellfish reefs are one of Australia’s most critically endangered marine ecosystem. These reefs, made from billions of oysters and mussels, once thrived in over 200 locations in Australia’s bays and estuaries from Noosa in Queensland right around Australia’s southern coastline to Perth in Western Australia. Now less than 10% remain.
Thankfully, shellfish reefs are one ecosystem that we can save from extinction and fully recover. In the process, we can help create hundreds of jobs, opportunities for volunteering, and help sustain our nature-based coastal communities and industries.
The decline of shellfish reefs
Decades of commercial dredging, pollution and overfishing decimated these vital reef habitats, once home to hundreds of marine species. One shellfish reef type—created by the Australian Flat Oyster—is reduced to just one functioning reef system—at Georges Bay, St Helens in Tasmania.
The loss of shellfish reefs results in the loss of the social and economic benefits they provide to people and nature. Fish stocks decline because fish have fewer places to breed, hide and feed whilst other marine life have no reef areas to colonise. Water quality also declines.
Shellfish such as oysters are excellent natural water filters. One adult oyster can filter up to a bathtub of water a day!
The removal of millions of shellfish caused the loss of a natural process that kept our coastal waters clean and clear. This also put our coastal communities at increased risk. As these reefs provide an important line of natural defence for our coastline—reducing coastal erosion and damage from storms.
In 2020, an exciting partnership was formed with the Australian Government to continue our work to bring shellfish reefs back from the brink of extinction.
The economic shocks of COVID-19 and 2019/2020 bushfires were felt by many communities. The Government’s $20 million investment expanded our successful program to rebuild shellfish reefs at 13 locations around the Australian coastline.
The initiative is set to create up to 170 jobs and engage up to 120 subcontractors, many in regional areas. It will support coastal towns and urban areas in need of recovery from COVID-19 and devastating bushfires.
Rebuilding shellfish reefs can create more jobs than traditional infrastructure investments across a diverse group of industries including maritime construction, aquaculture and natural resource management.
Jobs range from barge operators, to truck drivers, to shellfish growers and divers. After construction, the reefs will provide public benefits such as more marine life, cleaner waters, more fish and protection from erosion. These environmental benefits help to draw in more visitors supporting eco-tourism, hospitality and fishing sectors in particular.
Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said the new shellfish reefs will have a positive impact on local communities and the economy, while also protecting biodiversity.
Benefits of shellfish reefs
Community benefits of shellfish reefs
Building 60 Shellfish reefs can provide many benefits to people and communities, including:
- Up to 850 jobs will be created in maritime construction, science, fisheries and associated service sectors with half of these in regional areas.
- 7,000m3 of shell waste will be diverted from landfill, to be recycled into new reefs.
- New community volunteering and education opportunities.
How reefs are built
- First, we identify suitable sites for restoration using a combination of science, field surveys, and historical and contemporary knowledge provided by fishers, divers, boaties and scientists.
- Next, we create the reef base. We lay natural materials on the seafloor. We often use a combination of limestone rubble and recycled shells, which mimic the foundations of a natural reef. This provides elevation and hard surfaces that attracts marine life. The recycled seafood shells (oysters, mussels and scallop shells) are collected from local restaurants as part of our Shuck Don’t Chuck shell recycling project.
- Lastly, when there aren’t enough oysters to allow natural repopulation, we scatter the reef base with millions of baby oysters and mussels grown in nearby hatcheries in partnership with shellfish farmers. These shellfish grow and attach to the reef base and each other. Over time, they create a living reef which further attracts a diversity of fish and aquatic life.
Scientists monitor reefs for several years after construction for threats such as predators and disease. We make adjustments to how the reef is constructed to ensure the reef grows and thrives into a natural, self-sustaining reef. This innovative approach is revitalising reefs from Noosa to Melbourne, from Adelaide to Perth.
The result is less waste to landfill, rejuvenated habitats for native species and improved economic outcomes for local communities.
Watch this video to see how we're rebuildling reefs
Building better networks for change
The shellfish reefs are designed, built and seeded with baby shellfish in partnership with:
- Recreational and commercial fishers, diving and fishing clubs
- Oyster and mussel growers, seafood wholesalers and restaurants
- Maritime construction labourers and engineers
- Local communities, schools and Traditional Owners
- Corporate businesses
- Natural Resource Management groups
We’ve helped create the Australian Shellfish Reef Restoration Network to bring together restoration practitioners, researchers and the community to help drive the national agenda on shellfish reef research.
Current and past reef-building locations
The Reef Builder project has restored, and is currently restoring reefs in the following 14 sites. More reefs will be added to this list over the next few years:
Current reef restoration projects across Australia
Click on the points on the map for more information.