Why Port Phillip Bay is Victoria’s most valuable natural resource
Port Phillip Bay is a special place with more than five million people living in its catchment. You might have experienced the thrill of looking for rare birds at the Western Treatment Plant, have snorkelled or dived in search of Weedy Seadragons, or enjoyed spending time at the Bay’s beautiful beaches in your spare time. If so, you already appreciate that the Bay has a lot to offer and contributes to a happier and healthier you. However, few people spare a thought for all the other ways that the Bay contributes to improving their lives.
In fact, Port Phillip Bay is vital to the prosperity of Victorians, beyond the opportunity it offers for recreation and tourism. This natural environment contributes significantly to the state economy, provides us with food, clean air and water, and increased resilience to natural events. Let’s run through a few of the many reasons we need to appreciate and protect our Bay.
The Bay provides for us
The commercial fishing and aquaculture industries operate in the Bay, but recreational fishers also enjoy catching iconic species including King George Whiting, calamari, garfish, snapper, flathead and sardine. Another contribution to Victorians’ provision of diverse fresh food is commercial diving for scallops, abalones and sea urchins, caught on our doorsteps. In fact, a significant amount of the catch is consumed locally. Seven aquaculture fisheries reserves are located within the Bay, predominantly to farm Blue Mussels. Recreational fishing, in turn, contributes to the local economy, through the support of the businesses it relies on.
The Bay makes us more adaptable
Port Phillip Bay has a lot more to offer than food. Some of its habitats and species provide benefits to ensure the stability of the environment, which would be extremely costly to replace if we were to lose them.
For example, the soft, muddy sediments at the centre of the Bay help clean the water by removing the nitrate flushed into the Bay from various parts of the catchment and releasing it into the atmosphere as nitrogen gas. This helps to ensure Victorians have clean water to enjoy but also reduces the risk of toxic algal blooms, which can impact fisheries and recreational activities. Other species of marine plants and animals such as shellfish and snails act as biological filters and ensure high water quality is maintained.
Shellfish reefs — reefs made up of oysters, mussels and other shellfish — play an essential role in water filtration, coastal protection and the provision of food for other animals, including humans.
Although some species have been lost due to overharvesting, restoration is now being undertaken. Once completely restored, it is estimated the reef will help filter and clean an amount of water equivalent to all the wastewater produced by Melbourne city.
Blue carbon ecosystems, which include mangroves, seagrass meadows and saltmarshes, provide extremely valuable ‘hidden’ services that help make us less vulnerable to extreme weather events and climate change. Plants in these environments draw down atmospheric carbon and store it for the long-term, assisting with the fight against climate. They also help to prevent erosion and give our shores protection from storms and sea-level rise.
The Bay is good for our health
Millions of locals and visitors from interstate and overseas gather around the shores of Port Phillip Bay to enjoy its exceptional beauty and spend time in nature. While 50 million visitors are attracted to the area every year, the Bay continuously increases liveability for locals by providing plenty of opportunities for improved physical and mental wellbeing.
Truly remarkable habitats and marine species contribute to the Bay being Victoria’s most popular recreational destination. Here, you can snorkel or dive to see huge aggregations of spider crabs seeking safety in numbers at a perilous stage of their lives, when they need to shed their carapace and wait for their new shell to harden. Wetlands around the Bay provide avid birdwatchers with opportunities to spot rare and endangered species. In fact, the western shoreline of Port Phillip Bay and parts of the Bellarine Peninsula are internationally recognised because they provide critical habitat for 129 species of Australian and migratory waterbirds.
The more adventurous enjoy kite-surfing, canoeing, motor boating and scuba diving, but simple beachgoing satisfies most locals and visitors, with 135 beaches to choose from. The sheer number of beautiful and diverse landscapes around the Bay contributes to creating a strong sense of place for people living nearby.
Port Phillip Bay is also a place of historical and cultural importance for the tribes of the Kulin nation (including the Wathaurung, the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung, and the Wurundjeri), who have been the traditional custodians of this special place for millennia. Maintaining their connection to land and sea country into the future through their cultural traditions is crucial to their wellbeing.
The Bay provides important habitat
Port Phillip Bay supports a wide variety of natural habitats, from mudflats, mangroves and saltmarshes to rocky reefs, sponge gardens, seagrass beds and more. In turn, these habitats ensure a diversity of marine animals and plants can thrive, many of which are only found in the Bay and nowhere else on this planet.
Mangroves, with their intricate webs of roots, not only trap and stabilise soft sediments but also provide refuge for fish and invertebrates. Similarly, seagrass beds create nurseries for several fish species that are valued by fishermen, including King George Whiting, Southern Anchovy and garfish. Rocky reefs also provide a hard substrate on which close to two hundred species of seaweed grow, forming the base of a food chain and providing shelter for other species. Without these, the commercial, recreational, economic and other benefits we derive from the Bay would all be compromised.
Our Bay, our future
For all these reasons, the Bay is considered Victoria’s most valuable natural asset. But with a population expected to almost double over the next 35 years, the pressures on the Bay’s natural environments are set to increase, with population growth exacerbated by climate change.
Parts of the Bay are marine protected areas and much is being done to protect or restore the natural environment. However, it is up to all of us to make sure our everyday actions impact the Bay as little as possible, so it can continue to provide incalculable benefits to the millions of people that rely on it.
There are a number of ways you can help and we have covered some of them before: reducing, reusing and recycling, choosing more eco-friendly products and improving stormwater filtration in your garden are just a few. You might also want to consider supporting the work of the many not-for-profits and community groups that work hard to ensure the Bay has a healthy future, by volunteering your time or providing financial support.
Elodie grew up in France and has always had a strong passion for the environment. She completed a Bachelor of Biology and a Masters in Marine Ecology in Europe, America and Africa. A trip to the Subantarctic Islands inspired her to pursue a PhD in Marine Ecology in Australia, whose fauna and flora she fell in love with. She now works as a casual academic and researches human-wildlife conflicts.