What will it take to bring Australia’s lost coastal ecosystems back from the brink?

By Molly McShaneAugust 19th, 2022

Australia's coastal and marine ecosystems have suffered death from a thousand cuts. But scientists say it’s possible to bring them back from the brink – if we act now.
An aerial view of the Mungalla wetland

The Mungalla wetland, adjacent to the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef, have been subject to rehabilitation and restoration projects for over 10 years. Image: JCU TropWATER

Biodiversity loss and climate change are two tightly threaded crises, and the greatest humankind has faced. Coastal and marine ecosystem restoration has never been more urgent on a large scale, and our window of opportunity to regain what’s lost is vanishing.

Research led by scientists at CSIRO and James Cook University TropWATER has found that despite recent advances, coastal and marine restoration in Australia is often small-scale and experimental, and not yet expansive enough to meet biodiversity and climate change mitigation and adaptation objectives.

But the team also present a roadmap forward, showing how we can coordinate efforts to scale-up restoration and fast-track a national coastal restoration strategy.

Involving input from more than 170 contributors, including scientists, First Nations people, government agencies and funders, ‘A Roadmap for Coordinated Landscape-scale Coastal and Marine Ecosystem Restoration’ is the most forward-looking restoration review in Australia to date.

What’s the fuss – why is coastal restoration important?

We’ve lost a devastating amount of marine and coastal ecosystems over the past 200 years. That’s wetlands, saltmarshes, seagrasses, oyster reefs and kelp beds.

We’ve seen South Australian oyster reefs go extinct during our lifetime. The catastrophic death of 40 million mangrove trees in the Gulf of Carpentaria in 2015/2016. The disappearance of 95% of Tasmania’s giant kelp forests. And much more.

This ecosystem loss means a loss of habitats, and a loss of species. It means we’ve lost the ability to store vast amounts of carbon, ways to treat water, protect coastlines from erosion, and critical ‘highways’ for fish to breed or seek refuge.

Australians need coastal habitats, too, with about half of our population living on the coast. These ecosystems support our livelihoods and have high cultural significance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The State of the Environment report also found that ecosystem degradation is affecting our health and wellbeing.

Elevated ecological restoration is one of the most critical activities to mitigate and adapt to climate change, according to the recent IPCC report, with these ‘blue carbon’ coastal ecosystems storing ten times more carbon per unit area than most terrestrial ecosystems, like rainforests.

The decline of these ecosystems is crippling the planet, says CSIRO’s Dr Megan Saunders and lead co-author, and recovering this damage is needed at a large scale, urgently.

“The degradation of these habitats and the added pressure from climate change can be overwhelming and may seem an unsurmountable challenge to overcome,” she said.

“But we can also look at this challenge in another way – we know exactly what we must do.

“Large-scale ecosystem restoration is entirely possible. But we must work together, break down barriers and maximise our efforts in this vanishing window of opportunity.”

Three scientists are pictured in a swampy field taking measurements from low-lying scientific equipment nestled into the water.

Dr Saunders conducting marine restoration fieldwork.

Cut to the chase – what’s holding coastal restoration back?

Co-lead author and JCU TropWATER’s Assoc Prof Nathan Waltham said momentum was building in coastal restoration in Australia. But improvements were usually seen on a small scale and aimed at reducing damage rather than large-scale restoration efforts.

“Despite a uptick in investment, current resources are not enough to restore all of Australia’s lost and degraded coastal and marine ecosystems,” he said.

A major speed bump in scaling up restoration is legislative barriers. This causes unanticipated costs, challenges in gaining permits, and delays in the start date of projects. The barriers may event prevent some projects from going ahead.

“Lack of coordination across projects and missed opportunities to co-design with diverse stakeholders is a huge challenge. It’s one of the biggest barriers stopping large-scale restoration,” he said.

“We’re investing lots of money and time in restoration. It takes more than 10 years to start seeing outcomes from restored sites so it’s imperative restoration projects are done right from the start.”

A scientist in the foreground with blue bucket. Kneeling in a shallow wetland.

Assoc Prof Nathan Waltham is working to restore coastal wetlands along Great Barrier Reef catchment. Image: JCU TropWATER

The roadmap – so how do we improve coastal restoration?

Restoration is a complex process involving lots of stakeholders, and it can be expensive.

While it’s clear there’s more than one challenge with marine and coastal restoration projects in Australia, it’s definitely not all doom and gloom, and there is a road forward.

The roadmap recommends a state and local rollout of a national science-based coastal and marine restoration plan. The plan hits environmental and climate change mitigation targets in addition to providing economic recovery.

“The urgency is real, and we can’t undersell how important it is to act with nature-based solutions,” Dr Saunders said.

“We need a large-scale coordinated approach that co-designs projects, opens funding pipelines, and supports the development of fit-for-purpose permitting processes. The approach should actively bring in all levels of communities, Indigenous groups, the private sector, non-governmental organisations and governments.”

Dr Saunders says the report highlights the power of communities in driving restoration goals.

“Globally, restoration projects which have strong community involvement tend to be most successful. There is a lot of pride and knowledge in communities, in the people and their land. People drive change – and this is powerful and inspiring.”

Following the roadmap has the potential to elevate the state, condition and function of Australia’s coastal and marine assets. It will increase our capacity to adapt to climate change and improve Australian’s social, cultural and economic wellbeing.

“Humanity’s impact on Australia’s coastal regions is severe, and climate change is escalating the impacts,” Dr Waltham said.

“But it is possible to restore environmental degradation if we reimagine a different future. We have to work together to achieve this.”

Acknowledgements

A Roadmap for Coordinated Landscape-scale Coastal and Marine Ecosystem Restoration was supported with funding from the Australian Government under the National Environmental Science Program, with partners including CSIRO, JCU TropWATER, Noonuccal, Ngugi and Goenpul Traditional Owners from Quandamooka Country, Centre for Marine Socioecology, The University of Queensland, Macquarie University, Gold Coast City Council, University of New South Wales, Queensland Parks and Wildlife, Queensland State Government, University of Melbourne, Queensland Department of Environment and Science.

2 comments

  1. Great to read there is hope if Community groups/Local Councils/State Governments can all be on the ‘same page’ perhaps under CSIRO/combined Universities guidance together with ACF ! Too many ‘umbrellas’ in Conservation projects somehow lose sight of the actual vision, as well as doubling up on wasting funds.

  2. Thanks for this very important article. Just some direct feedback.
    Using the word ‘lost’ gives the impression that past and ongoing practices since invasion (colonisation) have not been the main cause of this state of the environment. If we are to be truthful then we need to state the reasons rather than focus on the actions to address it in future. Learning from our terrible past can only lead us to work together to bring back/ restore First Nations practices of caring for sea/ country.

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