Rocky Reef Interactions

Photo credit: Olivia Johnson

In Tasmania, the majority of rocky reef environments are dominated by canopy forming algae (e.g. kelp) which creates a complex habitat for a wide variety of marine life (e.g. fish, octopus, crayfish, abalone etc.). Whilst many of the basic functional components of temperate rocky reefs will be quite similar around the coast of Tasmania, the ways in which we interact and utilise these reefs does differ; some reefs are highly important fishing grounds, others are important for tourism or recreational activities and many are just fringing reefs that bound our coastline, some reefs will be more prone to human interactions than others, and all of these factors will influence their potential resilience/ vulnerability.

It is well known that marine salmon farming practices result in the release of un-eaten salmon feed, salmon faeces, and other nutrient rich organic matter (e.g. biofouling debris) into the water column. Some of this organic matter is dissolved in the water column while some of it forms particles which float in the water column, sinking to the sea floor (at varying rates depending on their size and water current speeds). The release of these materials has the ability to interact with rocky reef environments in a number of ways:

  • Nutrient enrichment
  • Sedimentation
  • Non-indigenous and problematic species

However, the magnitude of interactions depends on the location of the farm in relation to rocky reefs, the intensity of farming, the local hydrodynamics and the sensitivity of the rocky reef ecosystem. It is possible to manage these interactions and ensure the sustainability of both farming and the environment, but this requires an understanding of both the farming practices and the prevailing environmental conditions. 

Nutrient enrichment

How can the extra nutrients interact with rocky reefs?

  • In most instances nutrients will be diluted and dissipated quite quickly.
  • However, even when salmon farms are not located directly above or beside rocky reef habitats it is possible for some of the dissolved nutrients to be carried to them by water currents. The effects of extra dissolved nutrients on rocky reef ecosystems depends on the amounts involved and the sensitivity of the rocky reef species present. Studies are showing that initial increases in nutrients can result in increased growth of opportunistic species (e.g. sea lettuce) and epiphytic species (species which grow on the surface of another marine plants). These species in the first instance are the environment’s mechanism to adjust to an increase in nutrients and can be good early warning indicators of change, but if their growth is prolonged or sustained they can change the dynamics of rocky reef ecosystems.
  • On reefs where nutrient levels are naturally low nutrient enrichment can enhance productivity. However, in some cases excess nutrient inputs may result in a reduction of reef productivity, and in some extreme cases this may contribute to functional changes in the rocky reef environment. This has not been observed in Tasmania as a result of salmon farming


How can sedimentation interact with rocky reefs?

  • Similar to nutrients, particulate waste from salmon farms can be transported to rocky reef habitats by water currents even where rocky reefs are not located directly below active salmon farms. The distances which particulates are likely to travel are however shorter than for dissolved nutrients. The effects of increased sedimentation (e.g. from discharged salmon farm waste) on rocky reef ecosystems depends on the amounts involved and the sensitivity of the rocky reef species present.
  • Research into the effects of sedimentation on rocky reefs have shown that some species can be negatively impacted by increases in sedimentation while other species gain the competitive advantage. This has the potential to change the community structure of algae on rocky reefs, with a tendency to move away from canopy forming species (e.g. kelps) towards opportunistic species (e.g. filamentous and turfing algae).
  • Our research suggests that sedimentation rates decline rapidly as you move away from the cages and there is no evidence of significant fish feed or faeces accumulating directly on reefs in the areas around fish farms.

For some more detailed information on salmon farming - rocky reef interactions and our research on this topic click here and visit our publications page to browse our research outputs.

Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies
15-21 Nubeena Crescent
Taroona, Tasmania 7053 Australia
+61 6226 8277 
Acknowledgment of Country
We acknowledge the palawa/pakana and Gadigal/Wangal people, the traditional custodians of the land and sea upon which we live and work, and their enduring cultures and knowledge of our oceans and coasts.

We recognise that decisions and practices affecting the future of Indigenous education and research are vital to the self-determination, wellbeing and livelihood of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to shaping the Australian society in which we live.
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