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Centre for Tropical Waters and Aquatic Research (TropWATER), James Cook University (JCU)

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  • This record provides an overview of the scope and research output of NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub Project B4 - "Underpinning the repair and conservation of Australia’s threatened coastal-marine habitats". For specific data outputs from this project, please see child records associated with this metadata. -------------------- The primary objective of this project is to provide essential research to underpin restoration efforts to increase the success and efficiency of shellfish and saltmarsh repair. The secondary objective is to quantify clear easily understood benefits of repair to further increase groundswell, Indigenous and interest group support for repair efforts. For Phase 2 this involves: Shellfish reefs 1. Providing critical research to underpin the success of companion works investments into Sydney rock oyster (Saccostrea glomerata) restoration in Qld and NSW 2. Ongoing engagement with Indigenous groups, focused around especially SEQ and NSW to match the emphasis on Sydney rock oyster; 3. Through the Nature Conservancy, linking to shellfish restoration works in Port Phillip Bay (Vic), St Vincent’s Gulf (SA) and Oyster Harbour (WA) so that a National Business Case complete with examples of successes to date can be developed; 4. Underpinning this succinct business case with an information base for any follow-on activities such as assessment of shellfish reefs as an endangered community. Salt marshes 1. Estimating the benefits of salt marsh repair for an easily publicly understood indicator - prawn species. 2. Undertaking this work in NSW and Qld in parallel with proposed repair works so that very concrete case studies are available to demonstrate the benefits of repair. Planned Outputs Shellfish reef project outputs: • A scientific paper published in an eminent, peer-reviewed journal describing the ecology and biodiversity of shellfish reefs and biodiversity comparison against other marine habitats; • A scientific paper published in an eminent, peer-reviewed journal which identifies trajectories of change from past baselines to current condition and develops achievable targets for repair; • News stories, web articles, social media, brochures and oral presentations at national/international conferences, which communicate the key research findings to coastal stakeholders such as fishers, divers, NRM groups and government agencies; • News stories, web articles and social media which communicate the importance of shellfish reefs and shellfish food sources to Indigenous Australians; • Summary of community benefit and business propositions for coastal wetland repair expanding on the vision of a rejuvenated coastal ecology and written at the level required for input to various investors, agencies and public policy; • Updates at the end of 2016 as part of stakeholder engagement and continued communication. Salt marsh prawn productivity outputs: • A scientific paper published in an eminent, peer-reviewed journal quantifying and contrasting prawn productivity in healthy and degraded salt marsh communities in tropical and temperate environments; • Publicly accessible communication resources (brochures, social media, media releases and webpages) which articulate simply the prawn productivity values of salt marshes and links this to the need for the protection, conservation and restoration of degraded salt marsh communities.

  • The threatened status of shellfish reefs has been well established globally (e.g Beck et al 2011) however the ecological consequences of these losses is still largely unknown. In Australia, shellfish reefs are one of the most imperilled marine habitat types (Gillies et al 2018), due to historical overharvest and widespread eutrophication of coastal waters through the use of fertilizers, livestock and human waste. Marine bivalves are important ecosystem engineers providing habitat, shelter and a food source for other species in benthic soft-sediment environments. In addition, filter-feeding bivalves link benthic and pelagic components of ecosystems through filtration and excretion. Through their filter feeding, they produce large amounts of faeces (digested seston) and pseudofaeces (rejected particles bound up in mucus) which are deposited on the benthos. This process brings energy and nutrients from the pelagic system to the benthic system (bentho-pelagic coupling). The removal of large quantities of seston can serve an important ecosystem function by improving water quality and clarity. The filtration of water performed by bivalves has been demonstrated to reduce water turbidity, improving light penetration and thereby enhancing growing conditions for seagrasses (Wall et al 2008). In systems where healthy populations of bivalves remain, they can filter a volume equivalent or larger than the entire estuary volume within the residence time of the water (zu Ermgassen et al 2013). While such densities of oysters are rare today, this highlights the critical ecosystem services that are lost when oyster reefs decline. Furthermore, it demonstrates the potential functions that can be regained through oyster reef restoration. Given the increasing awareness of the decline of these ecosystems, interest in restoration efforts to restore critical ecosystem functions has been growing. However, conservation and restoration decision making is underpinned by reliable quantification of relevant ecosystem services (zu Ermgassen et al 2016). For example, there are plans to restore some of the natural oyster reefs of Sydney Rock Oyster (Saccostrea glomerata) in Port Stephens, New South Wales. One of the main drivers motivating this restoration project is restoring lost ecosystem services. The filtration rates of Australian oysters has been demonstrated in aquarium studies using filtered water augmented with algae, yet little is known about filtration and biodeposition rates of oysters using raw seawater. In this study, we provide the first evaluation of the filtration and biodeposition rate of four species of bivalves using raw seawater, providing a proxy for natural biodeposition rates. As such, this study provides a first indication of the filtration/nutrient cycling function that may be restored following oyster restoration efforts.

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    Seagrass meadow extent and meadow-scape was mapped using three alternative approaches at Midge Point, a coastal turbid water habitat, in the central section of the Great Barrier Reef, in September/October 2017. Approach 1 included mapping meadow boundaries and meadow-scape during low spring tides on foot using a handheld Garmin GPS. Approach 2 was where the meadows were surveyed at low tide with observations from a helicopter, with observational spot-checks conducted at a number haphazardly scattered points. Approach 3 used PlanetScope Dove imagery captured on 09 October 2017 coinciding as close as possible to the field-surveys, with 3.7 m x 3.7 m pixels (nadir viewing) acquired from the PlanetScope archive. This record describes meadow extent data collected using Approach 3 (PlanetScope imagery). View the original metadata record at for the full data collection.

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    Seagrass meadow extent and meadow-scape was mapped using four alternative approaches at Yule Point, a coastal clear water habitat, in the Cairns section of the Great Barrier Reef, between October 2017 and July 2020. Approach 1 included mapping meadow boundaries and meadow-scape during low spring tides on foot using a handheld GPS. Approach 2 was where the meadows were surveyed at low tide with observations from a helicopter, with observational spot-checks conducted at a number haphazardly scattered points. Approach 3 used imagery collected during low spring tides with a UAV at an altitude of 30 m with a resolution of 0.2cm/pixel. Approach 4 used PlanetScope Dove imagery captured on 05 September 2017 and 09 August 2019 coinciding as close as possible to the field-surveys in 2017 and 2019, with 3.7 m x 3.7 m pixels (nadir viewing) acquired from the PlanetScope archive. This record describes meadow extent data collected using Approach 4 (PlanetScope imagery). View the original metadata record at for the full data collection.

  • Estimates of the value of habitats can provide an objective basis for the prioritisation of conservation and restoration actions. Bivalve habitats, three-dimensional structures made of high-densities of bivales (most often oysters or mussels), their shells and other organisms, used to be a dominant habitat found in temperate and subtropical coastal waters. These habitats, provide a suite of ecosystem services such as habitat provision and food supply for many species, substrate stabilisation and shoreline protection, and water quaility improvements through their filter feeding. Bivalve habitat restoration is increasingly seen as an opportunity to return lost ecosystem services. In Australia, there is growing interest in bivalve habitat restoration, but there is a knowledge gap in regards to the services they provide. Here, we determined the habitat value of a historically dominant oyster species in Australia, Saccostrea glomerata. At remnant soft-sediment oyster reefs at four locations we estimated density, biomass, productivity and composition of mobile macroinvertebrate communities and compared these with adjacent ‘bare’ soft sediments, which typically replace ecologically extinct oyster reefs. The oyster reefs had a distinct assemblage of macroinvertebrates, with 30% higher densities, 5 times the biomass and almost 5 times the productivity of adjacent bare sediments. Infauna macroinvertebrate productivity was more than twice as high below oyster reefs, suggesting these reefs facilitate infaunal productivity. Crustaceans, an important food source for small fishes, were 13 times more productive on oyster reefs compared to adjacent bare sediments. These results demonstrate that oyster reefs provide an important habitat for macroinvertebrates and that restoration efforts are likely to provide significant returns in enhanced productivity.

  • We evaluate the status of shellfish reef ecosystems in Australia including their historical distribution and loss, regulation and management and identify current research priorities, policies and conservation mechanisms that can enable their future protection and repair. Eight species of shellfish were identified as developing complex, three-dimensional reef systems over large scales in intertidal and subtidal areas across tropical, subtropical and temperate Australia. A dramatic decline in the extent and condition of Australia’s shellfish reef ecosystems occurred during the mid-1800s to early 1900s in concurrence with extensive harvesting for food and lime production, habitat modification, disease outbreaks and a decline in water quality. Despite early attempts during the late 1800s to curb over exploitation and repair degraded reefs through protection, primitive aquaculture and enhancement, living examples of shellfish reefs are now rare. Only one Ostrea angasi reef is known to exist that is comparable in size to reefs historically commercially fished, compared to at least 118 previously known locations. Out of the 60 historically fished locations identified for Saccostrea glomerata, only five are known to still contain commercially harvestable sized reefs. The introduced oyster Crasostrea gigas is increasing in reef extent, whilst data on the remaining five reef-building species is limited, preventing a detailed assessment of their current status. Our knowledge of the extent, physical characteristics, biodiversity and ecosystem services of natural shellfish reefs in Australia is extremely limited. Australia is well equipped to reverse the decline of shellfish reef ecosystems with a number of state and federal protection laws, international conventions and management mechanisms already in place, all of which can be used to help protect remaining reefs and aid in future recovery. Several restoration projects have recently begun as awareness of historical loss grows amongst the community and groups become motivated to implement repair. As momentum continues to grow, Australia could serve as a long-term model for other regions that may currently have limited understanding of their shellfish reefs ecosystems but wish to work towards their future conservation. Data to be made publicly available with publication of manuscript by end 2018.

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    This dataset summarises 30 years of seagrass data collection (1984-2014) within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Meadow data describes seagrass at 1,169 individual or composite meadows. The data includes information on species, meadow type and age and reliability of the data. Data represented in this dataset has been collected by the TropWATER Seagrass Group and CSIRO in a GIS database. In making this data publicly available for management, the authors from the TropWATER Seagrass Group request being contacted and involved in decision making processes that incorporate this data, to ensure its limitations are fully understood. The site and meadow GIS available on eAtlas should be considered a “living” document that will be updated and modified as new data become available. Additional 'point' site data, and alternative download formats are available from eAtlas. A later version (2020) of this dataset including 35 years of data has been published under "Seagrass mapping synthesis: A resource for coastal management in the Great Barrier Reef (NESP TWQ Project 3.2.1 and 5.4, TropWATER, James Cook University)." Data Dictionary: Seagrass meadow data: - NRM_REGION: The NRM region in which the survey occurred. - SURVEY_DAT: Survey month and year, or a list of survey dates for meadows repeatedly sampled. - METHOD: Sampling and mapping methods – GPS/aerial photography, helicopter, walking, boat with camera, diver, grab and/or sled. - PERSISTENC: Meadows were classed according to four categories: Stable, Variable, Highly variable ephemeral, or Unknown. - MEADOW_LOC: Meadows were classed according to three categories, although some meadows cover a range of these locations: Intertidal, Shallow subtidal, or Deep subtidal. - DENSITY: Meadow density categories (light, dense, variable among years, unknown) were determined by the consistency of mean above-ground biomass of the dominant species among all years sampled. - DOMINANT_S: Dominant species and species present. - SPP_PRESEN: All species present. - MEAN_BIOMA: Mean meadow biomass in g DW m-2 (+ standard error if available), or the minimum and maximum biomass recorded for meadows sampled more than once. - AREA_HA: Meadow area in hectares (+ reliability estimate if available), or the minimum and maximum area recorded for meadows sampled more than once. - HECTARES: Total extent of meadow (HA) - PERCENT_CO: Meadow percent cover - this value represents mean seagrass percent cover, or the range of percent cover (if >1 number in the data cell). Meadow percent cover was most commonly calculated in pre-1990s surveys and recorded as “n/a” if not available. - CUSTODIAN: Data custodians - COMMENTS Meadow Persistence: - Stable: enduring meadow form; seagrass presence, biomass and area expected to be stable over time and seagrass meadow expected to be a permanent feature apart from extreme events or sustained long term impacts; - Variable: meadow presence, biomass and area expected to fluctuate within and among years, but generally some seagrass expected to be present apart from extreme events or sustained long term impacts; - Highly variable ephemeral: meadow not persistent over time; at some time periods seagrass will be present and at other times absent. Ephemeral meadows that have a naturally extreme level of variation in area and biomass within and among years; - Unknown: undetermined persistence as meadow sampled only once. Meadow Location: - Intertidal - all sites surveyed by helicopter or walking within a meadow and/or comments in field books identified an intertidal meadow, - Shallow subtidal - meadows where free divers SCUBA, sled collection, or cameras were used to sample and water depth was generally <10 m; - Deep subtidal - for this project meadows >10 m deep were included as deep subtidal.

  • The Australian Shellfish Reef Restoration Network is a recently established Community of Practice which brings together organisations and individuals interested in shellfish reef education, conservation, restoration and management. The Network aims to improve awareness of shellfish reef habitat and educate the broader public on the value of shellfish habitat conservation and restoration. The Network also promotes communication, restoration training, policy and regulation, research and development and implementation amongst network members. This record describes images collected by the Australian Shellfish Reef Restoration Network and freely available on

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    Between 2002 and 2014 Torres Strait was surveyed to assess seagrass presence and absence, and biomass (grams dry weight per m2) in the intertidal and subtidal zone.

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    This dataset describes seagrass at 34 individual meadows from surveys of Dugong and Turtle habitats in the North-West Torres Strait for November 2015 and January 2016. The data includes information on seagrass species, biomass, diversity, and BMI and algae percent cover. This meadow (polygon) layer provides summary information for all survey sites within the 34 individual seagrass meadows mapped in 2015-2016 with information including individual meadow ID, meadow location (intertidal/shallow subtidal/subtidal), meadow density based on mean biomass, meadow area, dominant seagrass species, seagrass species present, survey dates, survey method, and data custodian. ESRI and Landsat satellite image basemaps were used as background source data to check meadow and site boundaries, and re-map where required. The data described by this record is current as of 01/12/2016 for use in the Seamap Australia project. Newer versions of the data, additional 'point' data for 853 sites, and alternative download formats are available from eAtlas.