Farmers put new value on Gippsland salt marshes to earn blue carbon credits

A change in the way carbon credits are counted for coastal environments means farmers on traditionally ‘unusable’ properties are now considering large-scale restoration projects.

In January, the federal government released its first method of calculating how much carbon could be sequestered when tidal areas return to their natural state.

For Hollands Landing rancher Anthony Simpson, it has changed the value of his paddocks on Gippsland lakes, which are becoming increasingly saturated with tidal salt water after a flood in 2007.

“This salt marsh wetland is about 200 hectares of pretty much unusable farmland,” Mr Simpson said.

A team of researchers from Deakin University’s Blue Carbon Lab visited their Gippsland property last week to take baseline measurements of the carbon stored in the marshes on their property.

The Blue Carbon Calculator allowed landowners to claim carbon credits on additional carbon stored as a result of restoration projects, rather than carbon already stored.

“There will never be a huge profit from grazing in that kind of area,” Mr Simpson said.

To encourage adoption of blue carbon, the Commonwealth planned to fund restoration costs for four pilot projects, the locations of which have yet to be announced.

Dr. Melissa Wartman wrote her thesis on the ecosystem of lakes in Gippsland. (ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis)

Blue carbon up to 40 times more storage

The researchers said the benefits of blue carbon go beyond the use of traditionally unproductive agricultural land.

Dr Melissa Wartman of the Blue Carbon Lab said coastal wetlands per square metre, like those on Mr Simpson’s property, were able to store significantly more carbon than forests over a long period of time.

Indeed, saltwater ecosystems were hostile to microorganisms that consumed aquatic plants, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

“It’s also harder to set them on fire,” she said.

Dr Wartman wrote his doctoral thesis on the complex lake ecosystem of Gippsland, forever altered by the man-made opening at Lakes Entrance.

“Gippsland is one of the few areas where you’re actually seeing an increase in salt marshes,” she said.

The Blue Carbon Lab held a workshop with local landowners to explain the potential of blue carbon to shape the landscape.

“They’re trying to figure out what they can do to stop it. [encroachment of saltmarsh]but our role here is to say ‘it’s not really the worst thing,'” Dr Wartman said.

Land of Healing Together

A Gunaikurnai woman standing in front of a coastal wetland
Auntie Sandra Nielson said that before settlement the area around the Gippsland lakes would have had “a lot of activity”. (ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis)

A group of 10 young Gunaikurnai joined the researchers on Mr Simpson’s property to throw boomerangs, catch insects and take soil carbon samples.

Culture Connect group leader Aunty Sandra Nielson said the Gippsland lakes were a hive of activity before settlement.

“They would have walked this land, living off this land, some of the insects and plants we find today would have been staples in their diet,” Ms Nielson said.

Her joint project focused on cultural heritage restoration and education.

“It’s also a way forward for our own children to learn about it, to continue to take care of it. We used to have all the elders around us teaching us to take care of the earth , a lot of them are gone now,” she said.

Gunaikurnai teenager Jason Mullett said he relishes the opportunity to get his hands dirty while fighting climate change.

A young Aboriginal man holding a boomerang standing in front of a wetland.
Jason Mullett, 14, wants to help restore the landscape to fight climate change. (ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis)

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