at our shellfish reef in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria
Schools of pinkie snapper at our shellfish reef in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria © Jarrod Boord, Streamline Media

Food & Water Stories

Restoring shellfish reefs

Bringing back Australia’s forgotten shellfish reef ecosystems

Research reveals Australia's most endangered reefs

by TNC's Dr Chris Gillies

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Our reefs are in real danger but which ones are the most threatened? The Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast? Or maybe Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia’s Coral Coast? While the community’s attention is often understandably focused on threats to these wild places, it’s actually shellfish reefs that have suffered the most.

Since European settlement, we’ve lost almost all our shellfish reefs that once thrived in our bays and estuaries from Noosa in Queensland right around Australia’s southern coastline to Perth in Western Australia.  

at Georges Bay, Tasmania - the last surviving healthy reef of its kind!
Australian Flat Oyster Reef at Georges Bay, Tasmania - the last surviving healthy reef of its kind! © Chris Gillies/TNC

The decline of shellfish reefs

Decades of commercial dredging, pollution and overfishing decimated these vital reef habitats, once home to hundreds of marine species. For example, one reef type – that created by the Australian Flat Oyster – was reduced to just one functioning reef by the beginning of this century – at Georges Bay, St Helens in Tasmania – 99% of those reefs have gone! 

With the loss of the reefs came the loss of the ‘ecosystem services’ they provided. Fish stocks declined due to the removal of important fish breeding and feeding habitat, along with a general loss in biodiversity. And water quality also declined. Shellfish like oysters are excellent water filters so the removal of millions of shellfish caused a decline in the quality and clarity of the seawater.

The loss of shellfish reefs across Australia has been devastating for both people and nature. We're determined to reverse this decline.

Chris Gillies Marine Manager

Restoring the forgotten reefs

At The Nature Conservancy, we’re determined to reverse this decline. We’re rebuilding shellfish reefs right across southern Australia. Typically the process involves laying tonnes of limestone on the seafloor over which we scatter millions of young hatchery grown oysters and mussels as the foundation species for the new reefs.  

In addition to a limestone base, some of our reef restoration projects use recycled seafood shells collected from local restaurants as part of our Shuck Don’t Chuck campaign.

This innovative approach is revitalising reefs from Noosa to Melbourne, from Adelaide to Perth.

The result is less waste, rejuvenated habitats for native species and improved economic outcomes for local communities. 

Building better networks for change

We’ve created 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.

See how we're rebuilding reefs at one of our projects - in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria

Reef restoration projects across Australia

Click on the points on the map for more information.

Oyster Harbour
Restoring Albany’s lost shellfish reefs
Port Phillip Bay
We are turning the tide on habitat loss in Port Phillip Bay and reinstating our most threatened marine habitat the shellfish reef.
Windara Reef
We're rebuilding a shellfish reef across 20 hectares in the Gulf St Vincent. Restoring this reef is critical to improve marine biodiversity, fish production and water quality.
Peel Harvey Estuary
Helping deliver on-ground and in-water environmental actions in consultation with the community, to improve the health of the Peel-Harvey Catchment
Black Swan
Swan-Canning Estuary
Keeping Perth's Swan and Canning rivers healthy and clean by rebuilding the lost shellfish reefs.

Learn more about our shellfish reef restoration projects