Australian shellfish ecosystems: Past distribution, current status and future direction

We review the status of marine shellfish ecosystems formed primarily by bivalves in Australia, including: identifying ecosystem-forming species, assessing their historical and current extent, causes for decline and past and present management. Fourteen species of bivalves were identified as developing complex, three-dimensional reef or bed ecosystems in intertidal and subtidal areas across tropical, subtropical and temperate Australia. A dramatic decline in the extent and condition of Australia’s two most common shellfish ecosystems, developed by Saccostrea glomerata and Ostrea angasi oysters, occurred during the mid-1800s to early 1900s in concurrence with extensive harvesting for food and lime production, ecosystem modification, disease outbreaks and a decline in water quality. Out of 118 historical locations containing O. angasi-developed ecosystems, only one location still contains the ecosystem whilst only six locations are known to still contain S. glomerata-developed ecosystems out of 60 historical locations. Ecosystems developed by the introduced oyster Crasostrea gigas are likely to be increasing in extent, whilst data on the remaining 11 ecosystem-forming species are limited, preventing a detailed assessment of their current ecosystem-forming status. Our analysis identifies that current knowledge on extent, physical characteristics, biodiversity and ecosystem services of Australian shellfish ecosystems is extremely limited. Despite the limited information on shellfish ecosystems, a number of restoration projects have recently been initiated across Australia and we propose a number of existing government policies and conservation mechanisms, if enacted, would readily serve to support the future conservation and recovery of Australia’s shellfish ecosystems.

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