Saving Australia’s native oyster reefs

Philanthropy can play a catalysing role in the urgent battle to save the world’s precious ecosystems.

David Thomas, the Tasmanian-born businessman behind the Cellarmasters Wine success story, and the former MD of McKinsey and Co in Australia and New Zealand, Rob McLean, came up with a plan that is working on bringing an entire ecosystem – Australia’s native oyster reefs – back from extinction.

Central to this significant change has been the involvement of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global environmental organisation that Rob and David successfully lobbied to turn its attention to Australia.

Reefs in Port Philip Bay, in the Swan River in Perth, in Ardrossan in South Australia and just off Noosa, in Queensland are finding their way back to good health and is proof of philanthropy’s capacity to generate the risk capital required to drive change.

60 shellfish reef sites in Australia. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

David and Rob’s paths first crossed 20 years ago. Rob, who is Chair of The Nature Conservancy’s Australia board and Vice-Chair of its Asia Pacific Council, had spoken to the TNC CEO about TNC having a presence in Australia. Then CEO John Sawhill said: ‘We’ll take a look and send a senior person out to do a reconnaissance.’ Rob was introduced to David and his wife Barbara by the Ian Potter Foundation who provided an office for Dr Peg Olsen to do the reconnaissance. Rob explains: “David Thomas had been on trips to the US where he’d heard about The Nature Conservancy and he thought it would be a good thing for them to be here”. David provided the initial funding for TNC’s Dr Peg Olsen to spend time in Australia and prepare a report for the TNC board that ultimately recommended it establish an Australian operation.

After the Thomas Challenge committed $10 million to conserve unique habitats, and a successful advocacy campaign for marine protected areas, David asked Rob a simple but powerful question “What should our priority now be for funding in the marine environment?”. For many observers, the answer would have been a simple commitment to the Great Barrier Reef, but the answer was less obvious and just as meaningful.

Rob suggested adopting the McKinsey approach to problem-solving, to build a matrix of impact and the ability to influence outcomes. A team of marine experts was convened to attend a workshop to identify the priority for new marine funding. Rob explains: “The focus of our attention has been tropical waters but the team noted that our temperate systems were also suffering. A century ago there were oyster reefs in more than 200 bays and estuaries from Brisbane to Geraldton.  The reefs sustained a huge abundance of fish and marine life, protected the coast from storms and filtered vast quantities of water.  Today those reefs are functionally extinct, and we realised something precious had been lost.’’

“Now here we are, five years on, a half dozen reefs are being rebuilt and with a plan to rebuild 60. There was no mandate from government, and no one had a grand plan to say this should happen. It’s only happening because David asked that question,” says Rob.

The Nature Conservancy was already working on the 165,750 square kilometres of the Chesapeake Bay in the US and developed expertise in rehabilitating reefs. From there, the Australian reef restoration project was born with David and Barbara’s Foundation contributing $5 million to get it underway that has now grown to $22 million in commitments.

Rob still celebrates how it all started with his friend asking a simple question. “When I’ve told that story in other places - that we’re only doing this because a philanthropist asked the question, people say: ‘Wow, we didn’t think philanthropists could make such a difference just by asking a question’,’’ he says.

Australian flat oyster reef at Georges Bay, Tasmania. Credit: Chris Gillies/TNC

The program started with Port Phillip Bay in 2014 and revealed again philanthropy’s capacity to bring together a range of groups for a common purpose. Not only did it involve the Thomas Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and the Victorian State government in rebuilding the bay’s shellfish reefs, but also the Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club, local fishermen and restaurants collecting shells, in an attempt to recapture the days a century ago when the bay featured extensive oyster and mussel reefs. Since 2015, shellfish reefs the size of the MCG have been restored in the bay.

The template of collaboration was a useful tool to repeat the program in other sites, but even then, there have been important distinctions. In South Australia, the new reef in Gulf St Vincent is called Windara, after the Narungga Indigenous name for the eastern Yorke Peninsula. The name was chosen through a local school competition to name the reef. “There are extraordinary opportunities for community involvement and community building,’’ Rob says.

The reasons behind the disappearance of many of the 60 reefs identified for rehabilitation across the country are many and varied, but a common factor was the excavation of limestone from the reefs to burn down the lime for road construction. A key step in reef rehabilitation is returning limestone to the water to start the regeneration process that will ultimately make for cleaner water, more fish and increased biodiversity.

Rob McLean

“We’re making the case to government at all levels and other philanthropists that you can recreate a community asset that has a direct benefit to water quality, recreational fishing and to some extent commercial fishing, and you can do that with a reasonable amount of job creation that goes with the process,’’ Rob says.

And it is, compared to many long-term regeneration and rehabilitation projects, quick to see a result: “From the time the reef’s substratum is put in, it takes five to seven years before you get oysters of the size that can be cultivated. Five to seven years is quite similar to what happens with other infrastructure investments but in this case it’s with living things,’’ Rob says.

The scale and ambition of the program does, however, suggest it will take time, patience, and a range of funders and supporters to get there. But the return on investment is worth it, for the reefs, the local economy, the environment and those who support the program.

Rob says the project is not only delivering important conservation outcomes, but it is bringing joy to those communities involved: “We can take something precious to conservation that has been lost and rebuild it. There’s something in our souls that says that’s a wonderful thing to do.”

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