The ‘major obstacles’ to restoring Australia’s degraded coastal ecosystems as scientists push for a national plan

Wedged between tropical wetlands and the Great Barrier Reef, the Mungalla resort wetlands should be a colorful and vibrant haven.

The former North Queensland pastoral estate was, until not too long ago, choked with weeds and devoid of fish.

Nathan Waltham, associate professor at James Cook University’s Center for Tropical Waters and Aquatic Ecosystems Research, describes efforts to restore it as the most rewarding project he has ever worked on.

It was seven years of scientific knowledge exchange with the Nywaigi traditional owners.

“It’s been a two-way learning street and watching the country slowly heal and seeing Indigenous rangers become so inspired, creating jobs for young Indigenous people has been so rewarding,” Dr Waltham said.

“Unfortunately, this is on a very small scale, and now we have to think of it as an example that can be taken to much larger scales.”

harder than necessary

Restoration projects like Mungalla’s have seen success across Australia.

But new research by Megan Saunders, senior researcher in CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere Division, and Dr Waltham reveals there are major obstacles to projects on the scale required to restore the country’s degraded coastlines. .

The Mungalla station has now been restored to a coastal wetland.(Provided)

They found that there was insufficient funding to restore many degraded sites and that Australia lacked a consistent approach to mapping and classifying coastal and marine ecosystems.

Processes for engaging with traditional owners on restoration projects are often not even executed, they found.

Mungalla’s health has also declined slightly since the end of her restoration project, highlighting the need for continued love and care.

Sometimes when restoration projects receive funding, they are unlocked through complex approval processes.

“[It can be] between 50% and 60% of the allocated funding time just to get approval and unfortunately that’s a challenge we have to overcome,” said Dr Waltham.

“That has potentially huge implications on projects, even at start-up.”

A portrait image of a smiling woman wearing glasses and a blue top, standing in front of the sea and the mountains in the background.
Dr. Saunders is the lead author of research on scaling up coastal and marine restoration work.(ABC Far North: Christopher Testa)

Climate the biggest threat

The main threat to low-lying coastal areas is, unsurprisingly, climate change and its associated threats such as more severe storms.

Scientists confirmed this month that frequent episodes of El Niño have caused the death of hundreds of kilometers of coastal mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Dr Saunders, who specializes in coastal and marine restoration, said Australia needed a national plan to restore coastal ecosystems, involving state and local governments, First Nations people, philanthropic groups and industry financial.

Examples of coastal restoration in environments that have been irreversibly altered include upgrading seawalls in Sydney Harbor to make them a better habitat for marine life to thrive.

Dr Saunders said adopting a roadmap similar to that set out in their research paper could make Australia a “world leader” in coastal restoration.

Indigenous Rangers from the Carpentaria Land Council look at dead mangroves
Mangroves along the Gulf of Carpentaria coast have died in recent years due to the effects of climate change.(North West Queensland ABC: Lucy Murray)

Meanwhile, she said, across the country there was a lot of work to do.

“Oyster reefs in Australia have shrunk by 92% since the arrival of Europeans and the coastal development activities that have taken place,” said Dr Saunders.

“We’ve also lost 95% of Tasmania’s kelp beds more recently due to warming water temperatures, so our natural assets, in particular, are in decline due to climate change.”