Dr. Chris Gillies, marine biologist and program director, The Nature Conservancy

There are lots of examples of how society can change behaviours and improve livelihoods, so the tools already exist for how we minimise the impact of these issues and improve ocean health ...

As populations across the globe sit in isolation waiting for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to pass, environmental groups are doubling down in their attempts to stress the importance of maintaining (and even improving) conservation efforts when life begins to return to normalcy. Improving the health of our oceans, coastlines and waterways will be crucially important over the coming decades, and Dr. Chris Gillies of The Nature Conservancy is working on the front lines to ensure the organisation’s programs help discover long-term solutions to issues plaguing our marine ecosystems. Before Australia went into lockdown, we chatted with Dr. Chris about The Nature Conservancy’s current projects, how art and and science collide, and what we can do to help the conservation effort.

We’d love to start with what first drew you to the world of marine biology! Can you remember your earliest encounter with water and what initially made you curious to know what existed below?
Like many Australians, I didn’t grow up with direct access to the beach but would migrate to the coast with the family during school holidays. I would spend endless hours camping, fishing and exploring the beaches and rocky shores along the beautiful New South Wales south coast and was always excited by the discovery of strange creatures hiding in amongst the rocky crevices, or washing up on the beach.

What encouraged you to take up environmental science and embark on a career in marine biology?
The curiosity of what lurks below the sea never left me as I went through high school and I was always attracted to professions where I would get the opportunity to work away from a desk. At university and in my early career, I was focused on working to improving the health of rivers and waterways. A lunchtime ‘slide show’ from a colleague who had recently come back from working in Antarctica, rekindled my love of the ocean and adventure, and from that moment I switched from working on river health to marine ecosystems and was lucky enough to work in Antarctica during my PhD studies.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the biggest and most important environmental organisations in the globe – how did you first come to be involved with the group and what does your role within the organisation entail?
The reputation of TNC as an organisation that works alongside all stakeholders – industry, farmers, government and the community to solve some of the world’s most complex social and environmental problems is legendary amongst the conservation sector and so I jumped at the chance to join TNC. I am lucky to lead our Oceans Program across Australia which extends from Perth in the west to Noosa in east and much of southern Australia.

Are there any issues or projects you’re involved in that are particularly of interest to you personally?
I’m passionate about the social, economic and environmental opportunities associated with restoring marine ecosystems. Whist it’s true that the economy benefited immensely from the last 200 years of European settlement, that was largely at the expense of Traditional owners and the environment. What I love about restoration is that it has the potential to improve the environment and Aboriginal custodianship whilst also providing jobs and an economic boost to regional economies. It’s a win-win-win.

HSBC has recently teamed up with The Nature Conservancy on a few projects relating to ecosystem and supply chain outcomes. Can you shed any light on what these projects have achieved to date?
We have a great project supported by HSBC in Melbourne called Shuck Don’t Chuck which recycles oyster, mussel and scallop shells from restaurants, markets and seafood wholesalers and uses them to restore degraded oyster reefs. It’s a fantastic example of the circular economy working to improve the environment, reducing organic material send to landfill and turning rubbish into new reefs. All this creates more sustainable supply chains which is something HSBC is committed to addressing with their clients, and financing as part of the banks environmental commitments. We’ve also partnered with a number of other organisations, on the delivery of Mapping Ocean Wealth Australia, part of a global research project that aims to quantify the economic value marine ecosystems. Coastal habitats provide a home to diverse plant and animal life and support industries that enrich local communities, such as tourism and fishing. The value of these services is well into the millions for South-East Australia, but where coastal ecosystems really shine is in their ability to counteract climate change through carbon sequestration, and the defence they provide against extreme events. In fact, it is estimated that coastal habitats could help prevent three-billion AUD of damage to property over the next 70 years in South-East Australia alone. And coastal wetlands are Australia’s most effective carbon sinks – carbon sequestration in coastal wetlands in Victoria and New South Wales store 36,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, the equivalent of removing 7,826 cars from our roads. And for a partner like HSBC, they can use this information when they’re talking to investors about how nature-based solutions can be used in the transition to a net-zero economy, and to help create new and innovative financial mechanisms, as part of their global commitment to provide 100-billion USD in sustainable finance by 2025. I think our two organisations are well-aligned in terms of how we view climate change, and the role business can play in addressing it.

HSBC was also a key sponsor of Water – a large-scale exhibition that was on show at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art just before the COVID-19 lockdowns. How do you feel art can inform audiences on the plight of our water-based ecosystems and help spur change?
Natural history, science and the arts have been intertwined since at least the beginning of the 18th-century when natural history really took off amongst the European elites. Before photos, the only way you could describe new species and their role in the environment was to draw these accurately and portray their behaviours with artistic flair. Art has an immense role to help convey emotional experiences through pictures that contemporary science supported by numbers, data and facts just cannot do. The Water exhibit is a beautiful example of how art, natural history, and culture can work together to evoke emotional responses that encourage action and thought.

Our oceans and waterways are incredibly complex and so are the issues facing them, but what would you say are the most pressing factors impacting the long-term health and growth of our marine ecosystems?
There are lots of issues facing our oceans with some of the most well-known and studied including overfishing, climate change and marine plastics. The response of the oceans and ocean wildlife is complex but all of the solutions involve working with industry, government and the community to change behaviours and improve community wellbeing. There are lots of examples of how society can change behaviours and improve livelihoods, so the tools already exist for how we minimise the impact of these issues and improve ocean health.

We hear you’re a big advocate for citizen science projects! What are some of the ways you’d recommend people can get involved with science and engage with the natural world around them in positive ways?
Yes! I love that its now possible to help science and conservation at the same time as taking your dog for a walk, going to the beach or taking a hike. There are some great websites which list projects for all occasions, and the Australian Citizen Science Project Finder is a great place to start.

Your work has taken you diving in Antarctica, face-to-face with humpback whales and you’ve even got a spider named after you! It must be hard to pick a career highlight, but what experiences have either been the most rewarding or had the most profound impact on you?
I’m very lucky that my career has taken me to wild and untouched places and I’ve had many experiences that most people don’t get the opportunity to engage in. But amongst all of these, my biggest career highlight was our first dive six months after restoring a shellfish reef in Port Phillip Bay. Seeing marine life come back in abundance to an area in the Bay that was almost devoid of sea life was so rewarding, we know we can bring nature back of if we just give it a little helping hand.


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