Scientists see weed as an ocean solution

UNSW Science's Associate Professor Adriana Verges and the Operation Crayweed team started restoring Sydney's underwater forests in 2011.

The impetus for the work came from the disappearance of seaweed from much of Sydney's coastline due to pollution caused by sewerage outfalls on beaches from the seventies through to the 1990s.

The eventual construction of deep ocean outfalls to empty Sydney's sewerage system gave scientists a chance to start rebuilding the important ecosystems near the shoreline.

They have been incredibly successful in their underwater gardening initiatives, restoring habitat in six locations along the Sydney coastline, including Cabbage Tree Bay, Little Bay, Coogee, Newport and Freshwater. 

In 2018, Assoc. Prof. Verges launched Operation Posidonia to encourage local coastal communities to help restore ecologically and economically important seagrass meadows.

The marine ecologist is one of the team behind the month long Manly Seaweed Forests Festival.

"Seaweeds make up incredibly beautiful and highly productive underwater forests that underpin the ecology of the entire southern coastline of Australia, and yet people know remarkably little about them," Assoc. Prof. Verges said.

"Our intention with this festival is to bring together a diversity of artists, thinkers, chefs and entrepreneurs to celebrate the beauty and importance of our wonderful local underwater forests."

Science, art and community come together in the festival which features talks, underwater tours, artwork, music and food – all celebrating the beauty and importance of local marine environments and the underwater seaweed forests that fuel these ecosystems.

The festival will feature scientists from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science [SIMS] and a host of leading thinkers, including leading climate change scientist Professor Tim Flannery and Olympian Shane Gould AM MBE.

It is being held at the Manly Art Gallery & Museum, which is showcasing Seaweed Arboretum by acclaimed artists Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford: an art installation which provides a poetic and experiential 'habitat' for the festival.

Assoc. Prof. Verges own interest in seaweed began as a child growing up in Barcelona and swimming in the Mediterranean.

"People associate seaweed with the 'wrack' that ends up on the beach, which is rotting, but growing up in the Mediterranean, which has no tides and where one only sees seaweeds underwater, there was nothing bad or smelly about seaweed, there was just beautiful, colourful, mini trees. Red seaweeds for example can be incredibly pretty."

She fell in love with seaweed while studying her Honours in Marine Science in Ireland.

"That's when I realised how versatile they are, and how important they are as habitat," she said.

"Seaweeds not only provide food, habitat and shelter for hundreds of marine critters, but they also produce oxygen and capture carbon at remarkably fast rates, which means they can play an important role in reducing our CO2 footprint. They also provide habitat for commercially important species, like crayweed supports rock lobster and abalone, which are the two most valuable fisheries in Australia. We depend on seaweed."

With the Manly Seaweed Forests Festival, Assoc. Prof. Verges is keen to change the perception that Sydneysiders know more about the Great Barrier Reef, which is thousands of kilometres away, than important seaweed forests off their local beach.

"The Great Barrier Reef might have more diversity of species overall, but those species are actually relatively common and found in other places around the tropics, whereas a very large proportion of the species of seaweeds and many of the critters that live in our seaweed forests are only found in the southern half of Australia and nowhere else on Earth," Assoc. Prof. Verges said.

"Traditionally there's been more efforts spent raising awareness of tropical systems, but we also need to look after the ones right here, in what we call the 'Great Southern Reef', where over 70 per cent of Australians live."

The idea for a seaweed festival came after a six year collaboration with artists Michaelie Crawford and UNSW Associate Professor Jennifer Turpin, which has utilised art as a tool to raise awareness about seaweed, including a 2016 entry in Sculpture by the Sea.

"We want to shine a light on our restoration work happening underwater, out of sight for many, and we want people to connect with their local marine environment," Assoc. Prof. Verges said.

The Manly Seaweed Forests Festival is being held at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum from April 9 until May 9.

Are you interested in attending the festival? Did you know that seaweed was so fascinating?


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