File photo taken on Feb. 20, 2020 shows a shellfish reef in Australia. (The Nature Conservancy/Handout via Xinhua)

Giant artificial reef program to bring Australia’s underwater ecosystems back to life

A program to install giant artificial reefs along Australia’s coastline aims not just to bring underwater ecosystems back to life, but help coastal communities cope with COVID-19 as well.

Officially announced on Thursday, the ambitious ‘Reef Builder’ program involves creating 11 artificial shellfish reefs, each roughly the area of a football stadium, in various locations from southeast Queensland around Australia’s southern coastline to Perth in Western Australia.

Created in partnership between the Australian government and environmental charity, The Nature Conservancy, the 20-million-Australian-dollar (14.3-million-U.S.-dollar) program, aims to return coastal habitats to their former glory, to the benefit of local fishing and ecotourism industries.

“Shellfish reefs once thrived in Australia’s bays and estuaries, but from the 1850s to the 1960s they were decimated by overharvesting, dredging and water pollution,” said Chris Gillies, oceans program director at The Nature Conservancy.

“Now less than 10 percent of these shellfish reefs remain, making them one of Australia’s most endangered marine ecosystems.”

To rebuild the reefs, thousands of tonnes of locally-sourced limestone rubble and recycled shells are laid on the ocean floor in order to create a reef base, which is then populated with millions of baby oysters bred by oyster farmers and shellfish hatcheries.

Gillies explained that by bringing back the largely extinct shellfish reef ecosystems, fish populations will increase and water quality will improve, as shellfish act like natural filtration systems.

The process will create hundreds of jobs in remote coastal communities as well as boosting local tourism and fishing industries, many of which have taken a hit from COVID-19.

“In particular, the recreational fishing industry and commercial fishing industry and the ecotourism industries will benefit from having more fish, cleaner waters and a more natural coastline,” Gillies said.

Reef Builder is part of a larger project by The Nature Conservancy, aiming to rebuild a total of 60 shellfish reefs around Australia’s southern coastal areas, making Australia the first nation in the world to recover a critically endangered marine ecosystem.