Rio Tinto recreates life on coral reef in Western Australia

Rio Tinto’s commitment to environmental sustainability has proven what has never been done before: vibrancy of life can be orchestrated on human-made reef.

Rio Tinto’s iron ore business has facilitated coral life on an artificial reef as the first project of its kind in Western Australia.

Using over 10,000 tonnes of reconstituted concrete and 24 custom-made reef balls, the project has managed to facilitate coral colonisation despite thermal bleaching – in the presence of insufficient precedence. And the recreated life stood the test of time more than 10 years later.

A 10-year monitoring result has shown that fish, as a biodiversity indicator, has rapidly colonised the reef – not only in a population size similar to that of the local reefs, but also in greater diversity.

In fact, 10 per cent of the coral was covered two years ahead of the estimated time period, exceeding the Artificial Reef and Coral Translocation (ARCT) project’s 10-year key performance indicator (KPI) within just eight years.

Rio Tinto’s effort in this biodiversity preservation project has led it to bring home the Metso Excellence in Environmental Management award from the 2018 Australian Mining Prospect Awards.

The award goes to show the success of a project that was instigated by Rio Tinto’s port expansion at the Parker Point operations in Dampier in Western Australia, bringing net positive impact to the community in ecological values.

Rio Tinto’s environment superintendent – port operations – Martin Buck, says, “We feel incredibly proud of this project, and it is satisfying to see the project being recognised within such a prestigious forum.

“We see the award as an opportunity to further promote the project, allowing other parties to be aware of and learn from the work we’ve done to allow replication elsewhere.”

The artificial reef project involved numerous stakeholders within Rio Tinto: originally incepted and designed by Rio Tinto’s studies and approvals teams, it was constructed by the company’s own engineering group and then managed by its marine and environment teams.

“Externally, collaboration was similarly extensive,” says Buck. “With engagement with regulators at both state and federal levels, the Pilbara Ports authority and other key agencies, the City of Karratha, community groups and associations as well as various other stakeholders.

“We were also ably supported by our technical specialists, MScience, who developed the reef’s growth model, supported design, implemented field surveys and drafted scientific reports.”

Within the first five years of moving over 1000 coral colonies, giant clam and anemone species from the original site to the artificial reef and its surrounds, the project team observed a burst in growth patterns.

But the high water temperatures within the region have put the project’s 10 per cent completion target at risk, extending the project’s timeline to an additional three years.

Throughout these challenges, the corals had recovered well from the thermal bleaching, confirming the reef’s resilience; the reef’s final 10-year survey in 2017 observed an exponential growth rate to almost 30-40 per cent of the natural levels.

Buck says, “There have been approximately 40 surveys conducted on the reef since it was constructed, so aside from a few local anglers fishing the area, we plan to give the reef a rest and let nature continue to take its course.”

Rio Tinto’s pioneering work has built a platform for the sharing of knowledge that goes beyond the mining industry: two voluntary peer-reviewed scientific papers and an industry guidance document will be shared to the public.

“Respect for the environment is a core part of our operational philosophy, and wherever possible we prevent, or otherwise minimise, mitigate and remediate, the effects that our operations have on the environment,” Buck remarks.

“The artificial reef project is just one example of how we practically do this within the business. … Its outcomes have exceeded our expectations and are being transparently shared. It doesn’t get much better than that!”