Optimism at the end of project to restore Oyster Harbour to its former glory

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Project co-ordinator Alex Hams.
Camera IconProject co-ordinator Alex Hams. Credit: Liam Croy

One million juvenile oysters have been released into Oyster Harbour, marking the final stage of a five-year project to restore a lost ecosystem.

Explorer George Vancouver named the harbour after discovering its bounty of Australian flat oysters in 1791, but it has not lived up to that name since the late 1800s.

The method and magnitude of fishing in the early settlement period reduced oyster stocks around Albany and had a dramatic impact on the overall health of the harbour.

A WA-first shellfish reef restoration program, led by Alex Hams from The Nature Conservancy Australia, was launched in late 2015 to restore Oyster Harbour to its former glory.

One year later, Mr Hams’ team had demonstrated that native oysters could be successfully collected, spawned and deployed onto constructed reefs.

Reef building at Oyster Harbour.
Camera IconReef building at Oyster Harbour. Credit: Brad Harkup, Pro Drone Solutions

The next steps were identifying the best locations for new reefs, and laying down 1000 tonnes of limestone over 1650sqm of the sea floor.

Last week, the final juvenile oysters from the Albany Shellfish Hatchery were “seeded” onto the reefs that were built last year.

As filter feeders, oysters can filter seawater at a rate of several litres an hour. An improvement in water quality is already bringing other fish species back into the harbour.

“Talking to the divers today, what we are seeing out there are a lot of little pink snapper hanging around on the reef and a lot of little cuttlefish,” Mr Hams said.

“So the reef is already starting to produce a little habitat out there in the harbour.” Mr Hams said he expected about 5-10 per cent of the tiny juvenile oysters to reach maturity, a process which could take between two and five years.

Fifty-thousand mature oysters would create a sustainable population. “Reading some of Vancouver’s old accounts, it’s really amazing what used to be here,” he said.

“I don’t think we realise how prolific the oysters were.

“It’s a great opportunity to bring back that ecosystem.”

Loading limestone at Oyster Harbour.
Camera IconLoading limestone at Oyster Harbour. Credit: Brad Harkup, Pro Drone Solutions

While The Nature Conservancy’s work has an environmental focus, Mr Hams said there were obvious opportunities for aquaculture.

Albany’s shellfish industry has already attracted investment from the likes of Andrew Forrest’s Harvest Road agribusiness.

“There’s a lot of potential for growth of mussels, oysters and other shellfish in Oyster Harbour and surrounds,” Mr Hams said.

“I think the development of the Albany Shellfish Hatchery is a real boon for the local aquaculture industry.

“Our project is purely ecological but it wouldn’t surprise me to see aquaculture thrive in this area.

“I’m a local lad myself so I’m really keen to see Albany grow.”

Mr Hams will host a community information forum about the project at the University of WA’s Albany campus on the evening of February 6.

Anyone interested in attending should contact him on 0421 456 708 or at alex.hams@tnc.org.

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