Operation Crayweed is on a mission to restore 70km of underwater crayweed forest along Sydney’s coastline that was lost due to polluted waters in the 1980s. We chatted with the team who are turning scientific research into community action.
Living in a city as large and far-reaching as Sydney, it can be tricky to feel connected to the natural world.
Campaigns and movements that strive to protect environments under threat, whether coral reefs, alpine meadows, wild rivers, or ancient rainforests, seem worthy and just causes. But when you’re riding the rails, pounding pavement, and living in the shadow of office buildings, these natural places can feel out of reach, almost incomprehensible.
Which is why Operation Crayweed is a standout – it’s solution-based environmental science at work, right on Sydney’s sandy and rocky fringes. And the team want to involve the local community as much as possible.
We’ve teamed up with Operation Crayweed for Underwater Forest Project, our crowdfunding campaign that’s aiming to raise $42,000 and replant an entire crayweed site!
Photo by John Turnbull
Who runs Operation Crayweed?
Co-founded and now led by Professor Adriana Vergés and Dr Ziggy Marzinelli, Operation Crayweed is a band of marine ecologists, biologists, scientists, and students, with the shared goals of replanting Sydney’s lost underwater forests, and getting the Sydney community stoked on seaweed. Yep, seaweed.
In fact, that’s exactly what drew Adriana to Australia in the first place. From her Mediterranean seaside home in Spain where she studied ‘Science of the Sea’, Adriana travelled to Australia backpacking, captivated by the country’s marine environment.
‘Australia is a bit of a mecca for seaweeds and seagrasses. We have the highest biodiversity of seaweeds in the whole world. So for me it was always a bit of a dream,’ she tells me.
While travelling in Australia, Adriana volunteered at a lab before returning to study a chapter of her PHD here, and then, well, she stayed. Adriana now lives in Sydney with her family and is a marine ecologist and a professor at UNSW. Working on Operation Crayweed is her dream come to life.
‘It’s kind of funny because for most people it’s the Great Barrier Reef, right? But for me, it’s the seaweed and the seagrass,’ Adriana says.
Her seaweed-loving counterpart, Ziggy, grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, right by one of the widest estuaries in the world, fed by freshwater from the Amazon. Like Sydney in the 80s, Buenos Aires’ waterways were very polluted, but unlike Sydney, the trend hasn’t changed.
Despite this, Ziggy’s parents instilled in him a love of the water. Between endless trips to the beach and a prized collection of Jacques Cousteau documentaries, Ziggy’s dream of being a marine biologist was born.
‘When I was five and people asked “What do you want to become when you grow up?”,
I was always like, “I wanna be a marine biologist”, because that’s what Jacques Cousteau was doing,’ Ziggy says.
Ziggy started his studies in Buenos Aires, but because of his city’s woes with water pollution, sought out somewhere else to study his PHD. After reading about marine experiments and research happening in Australia, Ziggy applied for a scholarship from the Australian government to do a PHD here and got it. That was 17 years ago, and he’s been here ever since.
Planting the Foundations
Ziggy’s PHD focused on the transplanting of kelps, so when he started working at UNSW with Peter Steinberg, the former Director of the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, who two years earlier had co-authored the research paper on the disappearance of crayweed forests from Sydney’s coastline, it seemed like starfish had aligned.
‘We had the idea of testing whether the history of it being linked with poor water quality was true,’ Ziggy says.
‘We started doing those first experiments where we were just trying to test, if we transplant them [crayweed] and put them back in Sydney, will they survive now that the water quality seems to be good? And they did and they had babies and they started expanding,’ Ziggy tells me.
Photo by John Turnbull
Adriana had started working at UNSW the same year as Ziggy and her love of seaweed meant she was on board from the get go. But it was the fact that they were creating a solution to a problem that really grabbed her.
‘As academics and scientists, for a long time we’ve been documenting the changes and losses. And all of us, when we started this project, we were looking for solutions,’ she tells me.
‘We have these jobs that allow us to investigate pretty much whatever we want, so we can focus on research projects where we can actually develop solutions to environmental problems, not just quantify how terrible things are,’ Adriana says.
And so with the experience and excitement of a driven group of marine scientists, Operation Crayweed was born.
Photos by Leah Wood
Out of the Lab & Into the Community
Despite having the solution, the problem of 70km of missing underwater crayweed forest is literally not in the public’s field of vision – it even took scientists around 20 years to realise it’d vanished! So inspiring communities to care about an issue few people can lay their eyes on
is a task in itself. Especially, when the public believes water quality in Sydney is actually getting worse.
‘We asked Sydney citizens, “Do you think water quality has gotten better or worse in the last 20 years?”. And 70% of people thought it had gotten worse,’ Adriana says.
‘Older people were more likely to get it right because obviously they probably remember it themselves…not so long ago, 50% of the days you couldn’t actually go swimming in Bondi.’
Changing perceptions about the fact science is actually dramatically improving lives can be a hurdle. But Adriana says, when people see solutions, they become inspired.
Take for instance, one of the local schools in Newport that the Operation Crayweed team has visited. When I spoke to Adriana and Ziggy, the school had recently contacted them with news of a surprise.
As we chatted, Adriana held up a weighty sack filled with coins – $1000 to be precise – that the students had fundraised themselves to go towards the project.
‘That is just so heartwarming when you see the impact it has on the children. That makes me so happy,’ she says.
Community education and action are a huge part of Operation Crayweed’s aim. On planting days, community groups are invited to come down to the designated planting site to watch science in action and volunteer to lend a hand, literally. You can snorkel with the scientists and hand them the crayweed plants in the water, before they dive down to attach them to their new homes.
Photos by Leah Wood
‘People tell us it builds a sense of stewardship and belonging. I think that’s part of the reason why it’s been so successful is that people want to know what’s there on their doorstep,’ Adriana says.
‘It’s weird that we know more about the Great Barrier Reef, which is thousands of kilometres away, than what’s right here.’
So despite Sydney’s concrete facade, under the surface, there’s a natural world waiting for us to remember it exists and to get excited about the solutions we have to restore it.
It’s not too late to get stuck in!
We Are Explorers has teamed up with Operation Crayweed and we’re running our very own crowdfunding campaign, Underwater Forest Project. We’re aiming to raise $42,000 to fund the replanting of a whole crayweed site that’ll naturally reproduce and help restore crayweed forests along Sydney’s coastline.