Eureka! Shellfish reef project wins major award

University of Adelaide marine ecologists are among a team of scientists awarded a Eureka Prize for their research towards rebuilding Australia’s lost shellfish reefs.

Dr Dominic McAfee, from the Environment Institute and the School of Biological Sciences, and Dr Heidi Alleway, from the Division of Research and Innovation, joined researchers from The Nature Conservancy, James Cook University and University of Tasmania in winning the NSW Environment, Energy and Science (DPIE) Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research.

Dr Dominic McAfee working on intertidal oysters

Dr Dominic McAfee working on intertidal oysters

Shellfish reefs, once common across the temperate bays and estuaries of southern Australia, have been overexploited to near extinction.

This research has documented the decline and provided the knowledge required to successfully commence restoring them and their vital ecosystem services, such as cleaner water, more fish and protected shorelines.

Much of the groundwork for the research stems from Dr Heidi Alleway's work with Professor Sean Connell on the ecological baseline for SA's shellfish reefs, published in the journal Conservation Biology in 2015.

This work was pivotal to realising Australia's first large-scale restoration – the Windara Reef, Yorke Peninsula.

Dr McAfee joined the University’s marine ecology group in 2017, working with Professor Connell on understanding the ecology and function of shellfish reefs in NSW and SA. He has now been working on oyster reefs for eight years.

“For thousands of years, oysters were of great cultural importance to Australia’s Indigenous communities, as food for mass social gatherings and using their shells to fashion fishhooks and cutting tools,” says Dr McAfee.

“Oysters also played a large role in Australia’s colonial history– its shell was burned to produce lime, and the colony’s first buildings were built with the help of oyster cement.

“Unfortunately the insatiable appetite of our colonial ancestors brought overexploitation and oyster populations crashed within a century of colonisation. Today oyster populations are at less than 1% of their pre-colonial extent in Australia.”

Underwater oyster research

Dr McAfee says oysters are an ‘ecological superhero’.

“They have the capacity to increase marine biodiversity, clean coastal waters, enhance neighbouring seagrass, reduce coastal erosion, and even reduce the impacts of climate change,” he says.

“Restoring oyster reefs has the potential to return these ecosystem services and increase the productivity of our coastal ecosystems.”

Dr McAfee and Dr Alleway are part of the Australian Shellfish Restoration Network. Inspired by restoration success abroad, the team of researchers and conservationists is resurrecting shellfish reefs at a national scale, providing global leadership in ecosystem recovery.

Tagged in Research, Engagement and Industry, School of Biological Sciences, Environment Institute, Environmental Science, Marine Biology, Ecology