Rebuilding reefs, restoring memory

At work in the waters of history

AS A HISTORIAN I’m not used to this sort of archive.

It’s a freezing spring morning in Clifton Springs, near Geelong, and I’m elbow deep in shellfish in a suburban backyard. We’re measuring mussels: sixty-five millimetres long, twenty-nine millimetres wide, fifteen millimetres deep; fifty-six millimetres long, twenty millimetres wide, nine millimetres deep. On and on it goes, hundreds of times. Then we move to oysters: fifteen millimetres; fourteen millimetres, three millimetres…

Our small group of scientists and local volunteers is part of a team monitoring a shellfish reef restoration project that’s being trialled here at Wilson Spit on the western side of Port Phillip Bay. To gather the molluscs, we rise early and find ourselves dipping and rolling on a charter vessel that’s being buffeted in a squall. As the dive team jumps into impressively cold water, across the chop I can just make out the You Yangs beyond the distinctive flat landscape of the Werribee Plains. The industrial foreshore of Geelong is only a few kilometres to the west; and to the east, a long, thin strip of yellow beach can be seen in the distance, stretching out from St Kilda to Frankston.

The project is an ecological one. A coalition of local anglers, marine scientists and fisheries managers with longstanding connections to Port Phillip Bay came together to try to restore habitat for an ecosystem badly degraded by overfishing, pollution and disease. Given the often-mutual scepticism and distrust in fisheries between commercial, recreational, scientific and government sectors, their enduring marriage is impressive. Several joint papers have now been written about shellfish reef restoration, cataloguing the science of overfishing, shellfish habitat and ecosystems, along with recommendations for their repair.[i]

Their motivations are also curiously historical, for this is a project driven by memories of what the bay ‘used to be like’: old fishos remember catching bags of snapper out on their favourite reefs, and the tonnes of mussels that would wash ashore after savage storms. They also remember the tipping point of its destruction: in the 1980s, a prolific scallop-dredge fishery rattled through the remaining Port Phillip reefs that had been solidly fished since the mid-nineteenth century.

Doing this form of environmental history means registering a convergence of ecological and historical consciousness.[ii] Historians rapidly get up to speed on fisheries science and shellfish taxonomy – by the end of Wednesday, the muscles on my right hand could barely hold the callipers, and I well and truly knew my Ostrea angasi from my Mytilus edulis galloprovincialis. Meanwhile, scientists find themselves reaching for oral histories of commercial and recreational fishers, trawling newspaper records of oyster catches, and combing registries for place names like ‘Oyster Bay’ or ‘Limeburner’s Lagoon’.[iii]

That research process also requires blended methods of fieldwork, research and observation: to understand what’s happening at Wilson Spit we need considerations of geological and deep time, intersections of scientific and historical archives and, just as importantly, a strong sense of place – which isn’t always easy in 11-degree water.

Perhaps anticipating forms of interdisciplinary, place-based history, the British economic historian RH Tawney famously insisted in the 1930s that good research and writing required ‘stronger boots’ and work beyond the archives.[iv] It wasn’t just a case of historians needing to ‘get out more’; for Tawney, doing history well meant contemplating the processes of how (and where) the past relates to people in the present.

It’s advice many Australian historians have taken seriously since, by following footsteps and listening to landscapes: ‘To understand place is to understand perspective’, writes Mark McKenna in From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories (Miegunyah Press, 2016).[v] And as Tom Griffiths gently insists in The Art of Time Travel (Black Inc., 2016), ‘“Being there” – in place as well as time – entails adventure and exploration. It means visiting not just the archives, but the people with documents or memories and the places where it all happened.’[vi]

However, the history of this place isn’t easily understood. Above water, the hectare of seascape at Wilson Spit reveals little about its past. The steely grey sea chops and churns indiscriminately – we could be on a boat just about anywhere. Underneath, an ambitious work of ecological time travel is taking place. It’s not strong boots we need today: our visit to the underwater world demands extra-thick drysuits, GoPros and Travacalm.


WE’RE HERE BECAUSE of an ecosystem that has largely vanished. Across southern Australia, over 95 per cent of native flat oyster and blue mussel reefs have disappeared. In Port Phillip Bay alone, while oysters and blue mussels can still be found, there’s nothing like the shellfish reef systems that were once endemic. Now they’re classified as ‘functionally extinct’.[vii]

Records show this is only a relatively recent state of affairs in terms of the bay’s geological existence. What happened in Port Phillip Bay (and globally) represents what Tom Griffiths calls a ‘profound rupture’ of history and ecology in the Anthropocene.

That’s because the archives – environmental, paper, digital and embodied evidence such as life stories and fishing practices – reveal how immense yet intricate shellfish reefs once sustained generations of Indigenous communities and were the foundation of a rich and complex marine ecosystem in Port Phillip Bay. The reefs were so widespread that when explorer Matthew Flinders sailed through the heads in 1802, he noted how quantities ‘of fine oysters were lying upon the beaches, between high and low water marks, and appeared to have been washed up by the surf; a circumstance which I do not recollect to have observed in any other part of this country’.[viii] Under the water, those reefs provided a diverse fish habitat, essential for reproduction and protection, as well as sediment stabilisation, nutrient cycling and water filtration (each oyster alone can filter up to 200 litres of water per day).[ix]

But this was no wilderness. Flinders’s journal also describes the ‘many marks of natives, such as deserted fire-places and heaps of oyster shells’ – what we now know to be giant middens – that were once seen all along the Victorian coast.[x] Sailing with Nicolas Baudin’s Australian expedition from 1801–03, the naturalist François Péron confirmed that for Kulin coastal mobs, their ‘food is almost entirely shellfish’.[xi]

Those vast Aboriginal middens contribute to the environmental archive of this place, revealing not only the colossal natural bounty of Port Phillip Bay but the ways it was managed and harvested for thousands of years.[xii] The middens, and the live reefs that produced them, in turn became the literal foundation for colonial Melbourne: early settlers shovelled tonnes of shellfish into a patchwork of kilns, dotted right around the bay, to make lime mortar for their first buildings. In 1839, William Thomas, the assistant protector for Aborigines on the Mornington Peninsula, described how the lime-burners had an ‘abundance’ of shells that ‘may be gathered as fast as you can load’.[xiii] They were pulling down the remnants of one civilisation to build their own.

A bay now better known for its industry than its natural beauty once brimmed with life. It was an abundance almost incomprehensible today. Who remembers the 1930s, when boys like Len Beazley ‘in a dinghy and rowing out a hundred yards’ used to hook ‘half-a-dozen snapper just like that’? Or crowds of up to 500 people lining the banks of the Maribyrnong River for the bream season at the turn of the twentieth century? Or the fact that there were once so many fish in the bay that in the days when Cliff Thwaites’s grandfather was fishing in the mid 1800s ‘they didn’t fish outside the heads, they could catch all they wanted inside, snapper, whiting, flathead…’[xiv]

Even live shellfish reefs were a resource that seemed limitless. In the nineteenth century, after the middens were raided, the bay was constantly dredged to fill the kilns and oyster bars of the expanding colony. It was a story repeated around Australia as its abounding oyster reefs were harvested in turn. Oysters in Tasmania were ‘so plentiful’ in the nineteenth century, according to fisheries scientist William Saville-Kent, ‘that it was a common practice to burn them wholesale for the purpose of making lime’.[xv] In 1871, one correspondent to the Sydney Mail explained that ‘Sydney…need not be at all alarmed for the supply of oysters in her market, for no sooner is the wealth of one river exhausted than the dredgers can turn to another’.[xvi]

Despite their constant fishing, the shellfish reefs were still large enough in the late nineteenth century for Melbourne’s bay to occasionally disgorge itself during heavy seas. In 1891, WP Buckhurst wrote to The Argus to complain of ‘tons’ of mussels being washed ashore after a vigorous ‘south-westerly “buster”’.[xvii]

Yet concerns had started to be raised about the sustainability of the bay’s shellfisheries. The same year that Buckhurst grumbled about washed up shellfish on the St Kilda sand, Saville-Kent wrote a two-part article for The Brisbane Courier cataloguing a legacy of overfishing, and a deep concern for the future. While the bay still had some capacity to make visible the remnants of its ancient reefs, its oyster fishery was groaning under the weight of colonial exploitation. ‘Insatiable greed and over dredging,’ he lamented, had ‘reduced these prolific natural beds to the very verge of extinction’.[xviii]

Early methods of fishing were particularly destructive, dredging whole bays with the bars and iron mesh bags that hung off the stern of reliable, hard-working little sailboats. These contraptions were like underwater ploughs dragged along the seabed, picking up everything from below. Oysters, sea grasses, shells, slugs, crabs and small fish were unsparingly vacuumed into the dredges. Despite the nostalgic, picturesque scene this cottage industry might conjure as we imagine fishers selling their catch locally and gently gliding across the water in their boats at dawn, underneath it was rather more brutal.[xix]

So brutal, in fact, that some of the earliest fisheries legislation in Victoria (as well as Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania) concerned the management of oysters; and by the 1880s there had been several attempts made to reseed and restock depleted oyster beds, with mixed results.[xx]

By the mid-twentieth century, the Port Phillip Bay oyster fishery continued sporadically to send tonnes of the little bivalves to market. It was now heavily regulated, but after each bed was reopened, it inevitably collapsed again from overfishing.[xxi] That once limitless resource seemed more fragile than ever.

The next big natural bounty was scallops, which filled the sandy seabed of Port Phillip Bay once the shellfish reefs had been sufficiently broken up. Their arrival in numbers precipitated the bay’s most recent commercial fishing boom. According to John Ford and Paul Hamer in their research paper ‘The Forgotten Shellfish Reefs of Coastal Victoria’, from 1962 to 1964 the numbers of scallop-dredge boats in the bay went from two to seventy-five. At its peak during the 1980s the fishery carried out up to 250,000 dredge tows per year right across the bay.[xxii]

Despite the slowing oyster fishery during the twentieth century, bayside families were still able to grab a feed of washed up mussels and oysters after a big storm right up to the 1970s.[xxiii] But after the scallop dredging there was nothing, even after the most ferocious swell. Following increased public concern about its environmental impacts, the Port Phillip Bay dredge fishery closed in 1997. But for the shellfish reefs it was too little too late: all but the shallowest regions of the bay had been ploughed.[xxiv]


PHOTOS OF THE Wilson Spit reef before the restoration project show a quietly dismal scene of shellfish rubble, muddy sand and silt. Scientists refer to it as a ‘sediment-scape’; fishos, rather more profanely, call it a ‘desert’.[xxv]

Those images provide visual evidence of the ‘profound rupture’ of Australia’s natural history. After millennia growing extensive and biodiverse habitat structure, after feeding countless generations of people and even building a city, our biological archive has been replaced with silence – a significant piece of the historical record in its own right.

In this case, that rupture for the shellfish reefs in Port Phillip Bay has also been mnemonic. The Kulin middens are for the most part long gone; and the memories of washed up mussels on the beach are slowly receding. Does anyone really know what the shellfish reefs used be like? All we can do is sift through its archives and wonder at the extent of its former richness.

Heidi Alleway and Sean Connell suggest that ecological cleavage has resulted in a form of ‘collective amnesia’, where actual knowledge of what the reefs ‘used to be like’ has incrementally disappeared.[xxvi] It’s a classic case of what fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly famously defined as ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: each generation remembers what fisheries were like at the beginning of their own lifetimes, so that the baseline of that ecosystem subtly changes over time.[xxvii] That shifting reference point produces what Andrea Gaynor and Joy McCann define as a ‘progressively poorer natural world’, where an ever-lower bar is set as the ‘new normal’.[xxviii]

The question is, if our natural history is increasingly harder to remember, how can we possibly re-create it? That’s precisely what the Wilson Spit project has been trying to negotiate – by pushing back against those baselines and jumping back over the years of trawling, dredging, poor regulation and nascent science.

To that end, one of the first pieces of background research was a day-long meeting in the clubrooms of the Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club (APYAC), where commercial and recreational fishers sat to remember where the reefs were in Port Phillip Bay. Those memories were then compared (and found to be consistent) with marine charts, fisheries records, the location of lime kilns and historical dredge surveys.[xxix] Just as history has needed stronger boots to come to terms with place, Pauly argues that fisheries science needs historical context to understand how things were.[xxx]

The project is an ongoing collaboration between the APYAC, The Nature Conservancy, The Thomas Foundation and the Victorian Government, along with several other partners and hundreds of local volunteers.[xxxi] A hundred and eighty tonnes of limestone have now been laid at Wilson Spit (and another 180 at Margaret’s Reef, off St Kilda). Three hundred cubic metres of recycled oyster shells were donated from restaurants to lay as a shell bed over the limestone, upon which were placed hundreds of thousands of juvenile native angasi oysters and blue mussels that had been raised in the Victorian Shellfish Hatchery. In time, the project aims to re-create a living reef that eventually will not only enact a vital piece of ecological restoration, but arguably also produce a form of historical re-enactment.

Monitoring by scientists from The Nature Conservancy seems to indicate this pilot study might just be working. After eighteen months the restoration is exceeding their expectations: since the reefs were reseeded in 2017, they have retained structural integrity and shellfish mortality is significantly lower than anticipated.

Our morning of sampling on the water pulled up a diversity of marine life, including sponges, crustaceans and invertebrates, as well as baby shellfish, indicating the reef is growing as a living structure and starting to self-recruit. I also noticed that several small mussels had been recently munched. They’re the favoured food of snapper – perhaps a hungry one had helped itself to the archive?

Then one of the scientists showed me a video he’d taken the previous week. It was footage of the reef over by St Kilda, surrounded by an enormous school of baby snapper. There were hundreds of them, a fishy cloud hovering above the shells.

It’s possible the shoal was partly the result of a bumper snapper reproductive season last year – water temperatures and flows from the Yarra created perfect conditions for snapper spawning. The fact that they were schooling over a restored shellfish reef, however, indicates that the project is having an impact.

The scientists I spoke with all emphasised the ecological importance of this work. First and foremost, it’s about habitat restoration, they said, a pilot study that will influence future directions in ecological management and renewal. But in terms of the history of this place, it’s also a step back in time: each new layer of shell and life on that reef gets us closer to the past.


My thanks to those who have contributed to this piece: the Nature Conservancy, for facilitating my visit to the Wilson Spit reef restoration; Ben Cleveland (University of Melbourne, OzFish), Bob Pearce (Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club), Paul Hamer (Victorian Fisheries Authority) and Simon Reeves (The Nature Conservancy) for speaking with me about the shellfish reef project; and Chris Gillies and Simon Branigan from The Nature Conservancy for reading the essay in draft form and offering vital feedback.



[i] Chris L. Gillies et al., ‘Australian Shellfish Ecosystems: Past Distribution, Current Status and Future Direction,’ ed. Loren D. Coen, PLOS ONE 13, no. 2 (February 14, 2018): e0190914,; John R. Ford and Paul Hamer, ‘The Forgotten Shellfish Reefs of Coastal Victoria: Documenting the Loss of a Marine Ecosystem over 200 Years since European Settlement,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 128, no. 1 (2016): 87,; Heidi K. Alleway and Sean D. Connell, ‘Loss of an Ecological Baseline through the Eradication of Oyster Reefs from Coastal Ecosystems and Human Memory: Loss of Oyster Reefs to History,’ Conservation Biology 29, no. 3 (June 2015): 795–804,

[ii] Tom Griffiths, ‘The Forest and the Trees,’ in Australian History Now, ed. Anna Clark and Paul Ashton (Sydney: New South, 2013), 256–59.

[iii] Ford and Hamer, ‘The Forgotten Shellfish Reefs of Coastal Victoria,’ 89–90.

[iv] Ross Terrill, R.H. Tawney and His Times, Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 1973, 7.

[v] Mark McKenna, From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2017); see also Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2016).

[vi] Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel, 11.

[vii] Ford and Hamer, ‘The Forgotten Shellfish Reefs of Coastal Victoria,’ 87-90. See also: Michael W. Beck et al., ‘Oyster Reefs at Risk and Recommendations for Conservation, Restoration, and Management,’ BioScience 61, no. 2 (February 2011): 107–16,

[viii] Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis Undertaken for the Purpose of Completing the Discovery of that Vast Country and Prosecuted in the Years 1801, 1802, and 1803, Vol. 1, G. and W. Nicol: Pall Mall, 1814, 213.

[ix] Beck et al., ‘Oyster Reefs at Risk and Recommendations for Conservation, Restoration, and Management.’ See also Simon Branigan, ‘Australia’s Shellfish Reef Ecosystems’, paper presented to the Fishers for Fish Habitat Forum, NSW Department of Primary Industries, Ballina, 24-25 August 2018; Bob Pearce and Ben Cleveland, ‘Bringing a Desert Back to Life: Restoring the Shellfish Reefs of Port Phillip Bay’, paper presented to the Fishers for Fish Habitat Forum, NSW Department of Primary Industries, Ballina, 24-25 August 2018.

[x] Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, 213; Gary Presland, The Land of the Kulin (Fitzroy, Vic.: McPhee Gribble, 1985), 90.

[xi] François Péron, A Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere: Performed by Order of the Emperor Napoleon, During the Years 1801, 1802, 1803, and 1804, trans. Richard Phillips (Richard Phillips, 1809), 269.

[xii] Ford and Hamer, ‘The Forgotten Shellfish Reefs of Coastal Victoria,’ 87. See also: Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012); Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident (Broome: Magabala Books, 2013).

[xiii] Marie Hansen Fels, I Succeeded Once: The Aboriginal Protectorate on the Mornington Peninsula, 1839-1840 (Australian National University, 2011), 42.

[xiv] Bob Dunn, Angling in Australia: Its History and Writings (Balmain, NSW: David Ell Press, 1991), 109; Garry Kerr, Craft and Craftsmen of Australian Fidhing 1870-1970: An Illustrated Oral History (Portland, Vic.: Mains’l Books, 1985), 51, 56.

[xv] William Saville-Kent, ‘Oysters in Australia’, Brisbane Courier, 20 January 1891, 6.

[xvi] Sydney Mail, ‘Oyster Fisheries’, 9 September 1871: 893.

[xvii] W. P. Buckhurst, ‘A new industry and a nuisance abated,’ Argus, November 28, 1891.

[xviii] William Saville-Kent, ‘Oysters in Australasia-I’, Brisbane Courier, 20 January 1891: 6.

[xix] Evelyn Wallace-Carter, For They Were Fishers (Adelaide: Amphrite Publishing House, 1987): 49.

[xx] Gillies et al., ‘Australian Shellfish Ecosystems,’ 13–14.

[xxi] Ford and Hamer, ‘The Forgotten Shellfish Reefs of Coastal Victoria,’ 97–100.

[xxii] Ford and Hamer, 98.

[xxiii] ‘Beach strewn with oysters’, Record, 1 February 1941: 1. Also: conversation with Bob Pearce, Albert Park Yachting and Angling Club, 20 September 2018.

[xxiv] D. R. Currie and G. D. Parry, ‘Impacts and Efficiency of Scallop Dredging on Different Soft Substrates’ 56 (1999): 540.

[xxv] Pearce and Cleveland, ‘Bringing a Desert Back to Life: Restoring the Shellfish Reefs of Port Phillip Bay’.

[xxvi] Alleway and Connell, ‘Loss of an Ecological Baseline through the Eradication of Oyster Reefs from Coastal Ecosystems and Human Memory,’ 803.

[xxvii] Daniel Pauly, ‘Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries,’ Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10, no. 10 (1995): 430.

[xxviii] Andrea Gaynor and Joy McCann, ‘‘I’ve Had Dolphins…Looking for Abalone for Me’: Oral History and the Subjectivities of Marine Engagement,’ The Oral History Review 44, no. 2 (2017): 4,

[xxix] Paul Hamer, Bob Pearce, and Ross Winstanley, ‘Towards Reconstruction of the Lost Shellfish Reefs of Port Phillip’ (Melbourne: Victorian Government, Department of Environment and Primary Industries, 2013), 19-22.

[xxx] Daniel Pauly, ‘Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries,’ Trends in Ecology & Evolution 10, no. 10 (October 1995): 430,

[xxxi] Along with the foundation partnerships listed above, collaborators include: the Portland House Foundation, HSBC Australia, Brambles, CHEP Australia, J & M Wright Foundation, SUEZ Australia & New Zealand, Victorian Ports Corporation, Dow Chemical, Victorian Shellfish Hatchery and commercial shellfish growers, University of Melbourne, Deakin University, Australian Shellfish Reef Restoration Network, VRFish (Victorian Recreational Fishing Peak Body), Seafood Industry Victoria (Victorian Seafood Industry Peak Body), Victorian National Parks Association, OzFish Unlimited, South Melbourne Markets, Little Creatures Geelong, local dive clubs and marine care groups.

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