Bringing back our underwater forests: Q&A with Adriana Vergés

Posted on 29 July 2020

Associate Professor and marine ecologist Adriana Vergés is no stranger to bringing the invisible into the light; having dedicated her career to investigating the ecological impacts of climate change on our oceans and developing restoration solutions to rewild our coastlines.  

She was awarded a Green Globe Award in 2017 for her ‘Operation Crayweed’ work restoring Sydney’s underwater forests, and she received the inaugural UNSW Emerging Thought Leader Prize in 2019.

In this interview, Adriana shares why we should care about crayweed, the inspiring new local Clovelly school project, and her passions for communicating science through art.

What is Operation Crayweed,  and why is it important for us and our local environment?

Operation Crayweed aims to re-establish lost underwater forests to the Sydney region. In particular, we are bringing back a seaweed species called crayweed – a beautiful, large golden-coloured seaweed - that plays a very important role in the environment because it captures carbon and creates habitat for hundreds of species, including rock lobster (or crayfish, hence its name!), abalone and hundreds of small critters we call epifauna.

Crayweed disappeared during the 1970s and 1980s, when water pollution was a major problem along in Sydney because sewage was released directly onto the shoreline. Water quality improved dramatically in the 1990s with the instalment of deep ocean outfalls, but crayweed never re-established naturally. About 10 years ago, a group of scientists from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, UNSW and University of Sydney developed a way to successfully bring crayweed back. Our team includes local Waverley resident Dr Ziggy Marzinelli, and I’m based in nearby Clovelly.

Which sites off the Eastern Beaches are have been involved and how is it going?

We’ve now successfully restored crayweed in Bondi, Coogee, Long Bay and Little Bay  and Cabbage Tree Bay and Freshwater, on the North Shore. By ‘successful’ we mean that our transplants have reproduced and led to ‘craybies’ that have subsequently grown up and started to create a self-sustaining population. North Bondi and Long Bay are probably our most successful sites so farand we are now seeing young crayfish using the crayweed habitat through our surveys, which is exciting.

We have also attempted crayweed restoration in several other places, like Maroubra and Kurnell with limited success. We suspect one of the main reasons are the voracious sea urchins and herbivorous fishes there, so we are looking at solutions.

"The thing about the marine environment is that it’s very often ‘out of sight/out of mind"

Although this is a scientific endeavour, the project garners considerable community support. Why do you think that is?

I think a major reason why people donate and support Operation Crayweed is because it’s a solutions-focused project that contributes to improving our local marine environment; which can be inspiring and empowering.

I think people can get a bit disheartened by the sheer volume of devastating news about environmental degradation. While it’s true that we are facing some unprecedented major challenges (like climate change), it’s also true that we are also developing new scientific solutions and we are now in a position to be able to fix some past environmental problems. Our project builds on massive efforts to improve water quality in Sydney, which has now allowed us to successfully re-wild our coastlines.

We have been actively involving local communities in our restoration efforts from the very beginning by involving volunteer divers (e.g. Underwater Research Group). And I think this has contributed to enhanced stewardship for our local marine environment and growing support for the project.

We’re grateful for the community support we’ve received via donations and philanthropy, such as the crowdfunding campaign which raised $40,000 to scale up our efforts. Our planting nowadays continues to rely strongly on donations from individuals, as well as government grants.

Adriana measuring Crayweed in Bondi (Photo: John Turbull)

We’re grateful for the community support we’ve received via donations and philanthropy, such as the crowdfunding campaign which raised $40,000 to scale up our efforts. Our planting nowadays continues to rely strongly on donations from individuals, as well as government grants.

Clovelly Public School recently received one of Council’s Environmental Grants to target an area in the Bronte Coogee Aquatic reserve. Can you tell us about that?

We’re excited about the Waverley Council Environmental Grant awarded to Clovelly Public School which will allow us to plant a new set of crayweed forests in this reserve with the help of the school community, including a series of science workshops and field trips with Year 5-6 students. The students will also create a mural on school grounds to represent the crayweed restoration project, and hopefully these students will be able to monitor the success of this forest for decades to come! 

What’s driving your passion for communicating science to the wider public, especially through art?

The thing about the marine environment is that it’s very often ‘out of sight/out of mind’. Many people have never put on a snorkel or mask, and they don’t know much about the magnificently beautiful ecosystems that exist underwater, right here in Sydney. This can lead to major degradation and major changes happening without people even knowing about it. The crayweed story is a good example. Crayweed went missing from 70km of coastline in the 1980s, and scientists didn’t even realise until 20 years later!

So if we want to enhance stewardship of our coastal environment and protect our coastal habitats, we need to better communicate their beauty and importance to the wider public, because it’s really only public support that enables our project  to make a real difference. This is where art comes in. Art can be a particularly effective way to communicate science because it engages with people at an emotional level. Instead of hard scientific data and graphs, art, can heighten our relationships with nature and facilitate a closer connection between people and their local marine environment.

We know that connectedness with nature not only improves physical and mental wellbeing, it can also motivate environmentally responsible behaviour. With our art-science collaborations, we hope to empower the public with knowledge and foster empathy, awareness and care for our local marine habitats.

Collaborations with artists like Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford in ‘art-meets-science’ crayweed projects have communicated our work in new and innovative ways which are more accessible than dry scientific facts; such as the 2016 Sculptures by the Sea installation, and activations with over 100 children from local public schools.

What top 3 tips do you have for local folks who are keen to learn and do more in this area of marine conservation?  

1. Dive into the marine world, metaphorically and/ or physically (if possible!).

Put on a mask and snorkel, learn to freedive or SCUBA dive and discover the remarkable creatures that live in our coastline. If getting in the water is not possible, you can still dive into the underwater world by watching amazing online and TV content. For example, the recent ABC-TV doco-series “Australian Ocean Odyssey: a journey down the East Australian Current’, which featured our project in Sydney, and many other inspiring stories from along the whole east coast.

2. Get informed about seafood sustainability and choose wisely when it comes to what you eat and/ or what you fish.

Overfishing is still a major problem globally and in Australia. While some species are sustainable (oysters, blue swimmer crabs, flathead), others (like snapper) are problematic, as their populations are declining. There’s an excellent app called ‘GoodFish’ – Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide – which you can use when you are at the fish monger to make informed purchasing decisions.

3. Spread the word about what you have learned from (1) and (2) and become involved by donating time/ money/ expertise to marine conservation projects.

We wouldn’t have been able to do our work without the help of so many talented people, outside the world of science: designers that helped us set up our website, film-makers that made a short film about our project,  project managers that helped us with our crowdfunding campaign or artists that helped with the art-science collaborations.

"Art can be a particularly effective way to communicate science because it engages with people at an emotional level."

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Banner photo: John Turnbull 

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