Marine life, recreational fishers and eco-tourism operators are the focus of a $61.7 million environment and heritage package to be announced in next week’s Federal Budget.

The money comes from the $1 billion COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund, and also targets communities affected by the bushfires.

A third of the money will be spent building 11 oyster and shellfish reefs around Australia, creating vital habitat for fish and other marine life.

Shellfish reefs were nearly fished to extinction a century ago, and building them up artificially is the only way to effectively restore them.

The program will be run by the Nature Conservancy, which has already overseen 10 other shellfish reef reconstructions.

“Reef Builder is a $20 million partnership between the Federal Government and the Nature Conservancy to recover an underwater ecosystem from the brink of extinction whilst also helping our coastal communities bounce back from COVID-19, with a bit of a jobs boost,” Dr Chris Gilles, The Nature Conservancy’s head of oceans programs, said.

The reefs will be built up using dead oysters, and then seeded with oysters bred in hatcheries.

Dr Chris Gilles stands near a bay with port infrastructure in the background.
Dr Chris Gilles said the Reef Builder program was designed to bring underwater ecosystems back from the brink.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

Dr Gillies said the reefs would act as nurseries for coastal estuaries while also helping to filter large amounts of water.

“A single oyster can filter up to 150 litres of water a day,” he said.

“Once we set the seed, once we set that first reef, we hope that these ecosystems will then be able to thrive and grow in size and scale on their own.”

It is welcome news for Stan Konstantaras, president of the Recreational Fishing Alliance of New South Wales.

A retro shot of Stan Konstantaras shows him holding up a fish.
Stan Konstantaras has been fishing in Botany Bay for 45 years.(Supplied: Stan Konstantaras)

He has been fishing waters around Botany Bay for about 45 years and has seen the catch deteriorate.

“We’ve seen port expansions. We’ve seen runways go in [and] a lot of development around it, so it’s definitely changed,” Mr Konstantaras said.

But he thinks the shellfish reef could transform the ecosystem.

“In two to seven years, I’d expect to see more fish stocks, definitely boosted tourism out here; so we’ll see some divers getting out there,” Mr Konstantaras said.

“We’ll see it become a fishing hotspot, really. People don’t want to travel and not catch fish. So having a habitat in Botany Bay would be great.”

Walking tracks, huts, national park facilities to get upgrades

The rest of the package will include $33.5 million for upgrades to facilities at national parks and world heritage sites, including the redevelopment of huts along the Overland Track in Tasmania, a new culture and tourism hub in the Wet Tropics in Queensland, and improvements to walking tracks and visitor centres in the Gondwana Rainforests in New South Wales.

Hikers walk along the Overland Track.
The Government said huts on Tasmania’s Overland Track would be redeveloped.(Supplied: Department Agriculture, Water and the Environment)

As part of the package, $3.2 million will be spent getting tourism operators along the Great Barrier Reef to carry out reef monitoring, and $5 million will be set aside to upgrade Townsville’s Reef HQ aquarium.

“Tourism operators in the Great Barrier Reef are passionate about its preservation and tapping into their capacity at this time to get operators back out on the water monitoring coral condition, controlling native pest outbreaks and restoring local reef sites is a real opportunity for the reef,” Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said.

The Government hopes the money will boost domestic tourism and help communities financially recover from COVID-19 and the summer bushfires.

A group of people sit in a campground near a rustic shack.
The Government hopes spending on domestic tourism will help communities recover from the COVID-19 and bushfires downturn.(Supplied: Department Agriculture, Water and the Environment)

“There’s certainly some job stimulus aspect to this announcement and that’s vital in regional Australia”, Ms Ley said.

“One of the things, when I talk to people coming out of COVID, is that they value nature, they value the natural environment, they want those experiences. And more importantly, domestic tourism is starting to flourish.

“At a time when domestic tourism is in everyone’s mind, we are sprucing up our national and world heritage backyard, restoring native shellfish reefs lost decades ago and creating jobs in the process.”

The reefs being built

Thirteen locations have been shortlisted, of which at least 11 will be constructed as part of the funding package.

  1. 1.Noosa River Estuary, QLD
  2. 2.Port Stephens, NSW
  3. 3.Botany Bay, NSW
  4. 4.Sapphire Coast, NSW
  5. 5.Gippsland Lakes, VIC
  6. 6.Port Phillip Bay, VIC
  7. 7.Derwent Estuary, TAS
  8. 8.Kangaroo Island, SA
  9. 9.Adelaide Metro Coast, SA
  10. 10.Onkaparinga, SA
  11. 11.Oyster Harbour, WA
  12. 12.Peel Harvey Estuary, WA
  13. 13.

    Swan-Canning Estuary, WA

Conservation groups have been pressuring the Government to direct some of the money it is spending on economic stimulus to the environment.

Amid the global financial crisis, the Rudd government poured more than $4 billion into green stimulus, including the ill-fated “pink batts” home insulation subsidy.

This money, coming from the COVID-19 recovery funds, is a nod in that direction — although much less than conservation groups were asking for.

“I’m aware of the proposals from environment groups and I’m very supportive of everything that provides a stimulus around rural and regional Australia,” Ms Ley said.

Last year, the Australian Conservation Foundation calculated environmental spending had been cut by 40 per cent since the Coalition came to power in 2013.

It also criticised the Government for subsidising polluting industries.

Ms Ley said the Government had not been cutting environment spending.

“I disagree with the premise of that question about cutting spending, it’s certainly not what we have been doing,” she said.

“In fact, our National Environment Science Programme, which is at the heart of research and science when it comes to the environment and climate adaptation, has recently received a boost of $149 million.

“We are 100 per cent responding to what we see in the environment around us and what is required.”

The Federal Budget will be handed down on October 6 after being delayed due to the pandemic.