The Noosa oyster reefs – underway at last

Delayed by politics, bureaucratic hurdles and evolving science, Noosa’s oyster reefs are finally taking shape.  Better late than never.

Noosa Matters has reported previously on how Noosa’s ‘Bring Back the Fish’ project became bogged down in small town politics while other similar Australian oyster ecosystem restoration projects forged ahead.

The latest at Narooma in Southern NSW and Lakes Entrance in Victoria moved to construction in around two years.  Here in Noosa it’s taken eight long years.

Strong political support and common-sense leadership accelerates reef building projects. That’s the experience In the United States and elsewhere in Australia. 

Despite surveys confirming biodiversity decline in Noosa’s river and lakes, obtaining Queensland Government permits for remediation was painfully slow. And there were delays when the University of the Sunshine Coast, partner in the original Bring Back the Fish project, tried to duplicate reef structures tested elsewhere in different environments, but new to our river conditions here and, as it turned out, not suited to our Noosa estuary.

The Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation gave Bring Back the Fish impetus when it embraced the project as a ‘big idea’. Noosa Landcare campaigned enthusiastically (‘Keep it in Kin Kin’) to slow erosion from the catchment into the system.  Environmental Service Professionals provided invaluable advice, helping maintain momentum and generating citizen science projects.

Noosa Council support was initially strong despite a handful of Noosa residents questioning the project. Since the 2020 election, Councillors have been divided – four acknowledging the benefits of the project, and three generally opposing it. 

The Narooma project moved from concept to reality in around two years. Two thousand tonnes of locally quarried granite anchor one hectare of oyster reef to be seeded with 500,000 young oysters in the Wagonga Inlet. The Eurobodalla Shire Council, State and Federal Government are partners, and representatives of local Indigenous groups, commercial oyster farmers, tourism operators, recreational fishers (monitoring progress) and schools (oyster gardens) are engaged. 

At Lakes Entrance, the Nyerimilang project also evolved with strong local support over two years. Two thousand tonnes of limestone provide the base for three hectares of reef.  The East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, and East Gippsland Community Landcare support the project. The Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation will assist monitoring.

In 2021 a five hectare reef, anchored by more than three tonnes of rock and 1.5m cubic metres of shell, was seeded with 50m young oysters, and mid-year monitoring showed increases in fish numbers. 

Each of the projects is part of the Federal Government’s $20 million Reef Builder program being implemented at 13 sites by the internationally respected group The Nature Conservancy. 

The Narooma, Gippsland Lakes, Port Stephens and Noosa projects have shared objectives – habitat restoration that encourages associated seagrass growth; increased fish stocks (not just aggregation); better fishing; cleaner water and shoreline protection. 

Here in Noosa, reef construction is finally starting – nearly eight years after the expert TNC workshop at the Brisbane Powerhouse recommended the issues to be addressed for system restoration.

Around 2000 tonnes of rock, supplemented by five and a half tonnes of shell, will anchor about four hectares of reef at four locations. Noosa had what should have been a significant head start thanks to the foresight of the Noosa Parks Association.  It’s now likely that oyster reef projects in other communities will deliver results sooner than here. 

Still, as TNC’s managing director Alison Rowe says, the start of the Noosa oyster ecosystem restoration project “is an exciting milestone for the project and the health of the Noosa estuary.”

Some background

Reef Builder has at its heart the Great Southern Seascapes (GSS) program, kick-started by Noosa philanthropist David Thomas.

The Nature Conservancy proposed the program in 2012. When a pilot in Port Phillip Bay was successful, GSS was embraced by State Governments in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales leading to restoration plans for bays, inlets and river systems. 

The Foundation invested $5m in GSS. In 2014, The Thomas Foundation and the Noosa Parks Association funded a TNC-convened workshop to consider restoration of the Noosa river and lakes system, and the Bring Back the Fish project was proposed. Surveys confirmed the decline in the system’s biodiversity. The Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation supported the project as a ‘big idea’. 

Initially it was ‘stand-alone’, managed by the University of the Sunshine Coast.  At the urging of The Thomas Foundation, TNC included Bring Back the Fish in its wider GSS program, then its  ‘Reef Builder’ partnership where it was re-badged the ‘Noosa Oyster Ecosystem Restoration Project’. 

‘Reef Builder’ delivered a $1.2m Federal Government grant to the Noosa project, in addition to $1.2m from TNC through David Thomas, and $1.2 m from Noosa Council. The Noosa project’s implementation is being documented for use in other similar projects.  

Oysters – nature’s miraculous filters

Just one mature oyster filters around 150 to 200 litres of water a day.

And this is what one hectare of reef can achieve each year. For the Noosa reefs now under construction, multiply these figures by four.


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