Project aims to restore seagrass habitat

Volunteer project workers get the sand snakes ready.
Volunteer project workers get the sand snakes ready.

A GROUNDBREAKING seagrass restoration project being led by Yarram Yarram Landcare has the much wider environmental benefit of helping to reduce the region's carbon footprint.

A group of dedicated fishermen working with the Landcare volunteers and West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority staff are restoring seagrass habitat in waters at Corner Inlet, with the aim of increasing the health of the marine environment and the productivity of the Corner Inlet fishery.

It is the largest single seagrass project ever attempted in Australia, and aims to repair the damage caused by decades of poor water quality in the catchment.

Scientists believe seagrass meadows could be the key to cutting Australia's carbon emissions, with the marine flowering plants essential to the health of the marine environment.

It is believed about 40 times more animals inhabit seagrass than adjacent bare sand. But the important underwater plants are under threat from rising sea temperatures and destructive native sea urchins that have decimated seagrass beds at Corner Inlet.

Restoration project coordinator, YYLN's Scott Elliott, said the objective was to replant 200 hectares of Broadleaf Seagrass at Corner Inlet, near Port Albert, to increase habitat and food for fish and other marine life, and develop a cost-effective methodology for replanting Broadleaf Seagrass that can be applied to other fisheries in southern Australia.

The project also aims to improve water quality and clarity in the Cornet Inlet Ramsar-listed site - the spin-off being to increase the carbon storage capacity of the beds.

Seagrasses create one of the most efficient natural carbon storage environments, ahead of native forests, and has an excellent capacity for taking up carbon in the oxygen-depleted seabed, where it decomposes much slower than on land, trapping the carbon and burying it for hundreds of years.

"By increasing the area of native seagrass habitat, the project will improve water quality, biodiversity, natural amenity, carbon sequestration, sediment stability, water clarity and biological productivity in Corner Inlet," Mr Elliott said.

"Replanting Broadleaf Seagrass meadows restores carbon sinks and preserves existing carbon stored in marine sediments."

Mr Elliot said a group of 19 fisherman from around Port Albert and Corner Inlet who supplied mainly King George Whiting, southern calamari, rock flathead, southern garfish and gummy shark to markets around the country, were the impetus for the project, after becoming increasingly concerned about the rapid loss of native seagrass.

With the $2.8 million Corner Inlet Fishery industry dependent on a healthy Broadleaf Seagrass ecosystem for its survival, the fishermen were desperate to ensure the future of the grasses.

They could also understand the wider implications of the loss of seagrass from the region.

"The actual value of the fishery is much greater than the landed catch however, with significant flow-on benefits to local and regional hospitality, retail and logistics," Mr Elliot said.

"Around 75 per cent of all fish species caught in the Corner Inlet fishery rely on Broadleaf Seagrass for habitat.

"More than 150,000 people visit Corner Inlet each year and a healthy, biodiverse Broadleaf Seagrass ecosystem supports a multitude of cultural, recreation and tourism values of boating, scenic values, recreational fishing and camping.

"Replanting 200 hectares of seagrass will ensure the future productivity of the Corner Inlet fishery through maintaining a healthy ecosystem that supports important commercial species."

Mr Elliot said Yarram Yarram Landcare Network has been working with the Corner Inlet fishing community to replant seagrass meadows at eight sites on Corner Inlet, with the fruit pods from the seagrass collected during January by fishermen so they can be 'grown' in saltwater aquaculture tanks at Port Welshpool.

The pods shed small seeds into the bottom of the tank, which are then broadcast over sandbag 'snakes' that provide areas of slack water to shelter the seedlings from disruptive tidal motion.

"By our own conservative estimate we dispersed 150,000 seedlings this season, and our first monitoring event is scheduled in late February," Mr Elliot said.

In awarding Yarram Yarram Landcare with a $200,000 grant to run the project last year, Gippsland MHR Darren Chester said practical environmental projects were critical for enhancing Gippsland's "amazing natural attractions and our volunteer community groups do some great work across the region".

Mr Elliott will be guest speaker at the Sale and District Field Naturalists' meeting this Friday, in the Gwen Web Hall, Market St, Sale, from 7.30pm.

This innovative project is operating under the auspices of Landcare in partnership with scientists, environmentalists and commercial fishermen. For more information about the event, phone 0407 337 789.

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