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Mural Hall, Parliament House
3 March, 1998

Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment

[Media Releases and Speeches]

Thank you Mr Steven Hunter and Dr Ponder. I am very pleased to be here today to launch the next volume in the Fauna of Australia series on Molluscs, produced by the Australian Biological Resources Study.

Unfortunately, Senator Hill who was to launch the books was called away at very short notice to attend Cabinet matters. He has asked me to congratulate all involved in the production of this two volume set, especially Pam Beasley the Volume Editor and her team.

For the first time ever there is now a comprehensive overview of one of the major animal groups, the Molluscs, covering all of Australia from the red centre to the edge of our marine territory.

Few animal groups are so well known by the public as Molluscs. Molluscs range from the squids, conchs and giant clams along our coasts, over mussels in our rivers to a multitude of lands snails, including the common slugs in our back yards.

Molluscs are widely distributed across the entire spectrum of habitats, from the deep ocean through our coastal waters, estuaries and river systems to highly saline lakes; and from the hottest parts of the central deserts to the rainforests of Tasmania and the Top End of Australia.

The mollusc group is very large, with an estimated 17000 marine and 2000 non-marine species in Australia and its territories. The total is comparable with that for all of Australia's vascular plant species . More than 98 percent of the 2000 non-marine molluscs are endemic, that is known only from Australia, which makes them one of the most unique components of our generally unique fauna. They are a very important group in the monitoring of our freshwaters and native vegetation habitats

In all habitats molluscs comprise an important component of ecological communities. The ability of some snails to survive in the incredible dryness and heat of the Red Centre is indicative of molluscan versatility. In summer these snails simply shelter under a rock, secrete a cover across the shell opening, and withdraw into the top most whorls of the shell to wait for more humid cooler periods.

Molluscs have always been an important economic resource for Australian communities, long before European settlement over 200 years ago. Many of us will have seen mollusc remains in middens across Australia.

Today they are very significant economically, both locally and overseas. Many are favoured food on our tables, feared pests in our primary industries, or treasured objects of beauty and elegance. The economic importance of Molluscs to our society is measured in many hundreds of million dollars, and includes Australia's significant pearling industry.

On the positive side, at least from a human viewpoint, most molluscs are highly edible, a fact not lost on lovers of Australia's finest seafoods - those we know very well include oysters, mussels and calamari.

Exports of scallops and, particularly, abalone bring in earnings close to $300 million per year.

Pearls cultured in farms along Australia's northern shores earn an additional $125 million per year.

Many of us see molluscs as the beached washed shells we collect and keep as souvenirs of our summer holidays.

For others though, shell collection is an all-absorbing concern based on good quality fresh specimens. The result is a thriving and expanding industry supplying national and export markets worth several years ago over $2.5 million dollars. Just six families, particularly cowries, volutes and cones, make up three quarters of all these exports.

Over exploitation of giant clams for their meat in the 1960s and 1970s over much of the Pacific and Asia endangered them throughout their range, including those in Australian waters. This has led to the highly successful program pioneered by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research to farm giant clams in mariculture, which has demonstrated clearly the viability of commercial meat production in mariculture and use of juveniles to restock depauperate areas

I have been informed that this program was so successful, producing so many Giant Clams, that to move the clams the Defence ships had to be called in.

On the negative side, molluscs, like most animals, are host to a wide range of parasites.

Several of these cause diseases in livestock and humans, such as liver fluke infections, which cost livestock producers an estimated $100 million per year. The situation has worsened since the unintentional introduction of exotic carrier snails by way of the tropical fish trade.

A number of other introduced snails and slugs are agricultural pests, which graze on or contaminate crops and orchards or transmit plant diseases. The annual cost of their control exceeds $150 million.

Human activity, where-ever undertaken and by whom and whatever its nature, has an impact on our biological diversity and on the national effort to maintain that diversity

Many molluscs are highly endangered, occurring only in one or a few streams, as relicts on mountain peaks in the Great Dividing Range, or in or immediately around our unique mound springs in the dry inland.

Drawdown of artesian water has destroyed numerous artesian (mound) springs associated with the Great Artesian basin, including all those in north-western New South Wales. These springs harbour endemic aquatic invertebrate faunas. As these faunas were only recently investigated, it is highly probable that many unique forms may have already disappeared without trace.

One species of freshwater snail has been squeezed out of its natural habitat so completely that it survives only in some irrigation pipes in agricultural areas of the Murray Darling Basin. Here it has the paradoxical status of both pest and endangered species, as it attempts to survive strenuous efforts by the pipeline authority to remove it by chlorination!

Two terrestrial families of molluscs together constitute over 60% of the named fauna and about half of the unnamed forms: in total about 1000 species. Both families are prominent in woodland areas, especially associated with areas of limestone. The effects of the extensive land clearing and subsequent pastoral activities over the past 200 years will have had an enormous, but undocumented effect on these and other terrestrial molluscs.

Freshwater molluscs are also affected by changes in river systems. Only one species of 18 native gastropod snail species recorded from middens along the Murray River remains abundant. Prime factors in this decline are predation and habitat destruction by common carp, and constraints on flooding by intensive flow regulation.

What all of this highlights is the vital need for information.

It is of great importance that broadly based information on our biodiversity is made available to all people interested in conserving our unique biological heritage.

Nowhere is this more important than in our schools and higher education system.

Equally such information is vital for decision makers and implementers of policy.

It is information like that presented in this book which gives us the necessary baseline from which we can make informed decisions. Initiatives like our Natural Heritage Trust programs and the Oceans Policy that we are now developing rely very much on this sort of fundamental baseline information.

We are very proud of our Natural Heritage Trust program. The Howard Government is committed to the environment and has invested over $1.2 billion in repairing and enhancing our unique but fragile environment.

With all the media comment around recently I should assure you all that Molluscs aren't voters, although they would be thrilled with the significant amount of Natural Heritage Trust funding through programs like the Murray-Darling Basin, River Care and Bush Care going to areas they inhabit.

This stunning work, Mollusca: the Southern Synthesis is the most comprehensive and authoritative treatment yet of Australia's marine, freshwater and terrestrial molluscs. It is a significant international reference, comprising contributions from 70 authors from 11 countries. Some 7700 papers in the primary literature are cited; 50% of these were published after 1980, ensuring that the text is fully up to date. The 423 families described in the book constitute nearly three quarters of the world's molluscan families, making this title an essential reference for malacologists worldwide.

The subtitle to this work 'The Southern Synthesis' reflects the fact that the diversity of Australian Molluscs is so great that the books have relevance at least around the entire Southern Hemisphere with its continental links to the old Gondwana landmass.

This contribution from the Australian Biological Resources Study reaches out to regional and wider international audiences concerned with knowledge about, and conservation of, Molluscs.

The volume is aimed at professional and amateur malacologists and a broad non-specialist readership, including ecologists, biologists, palaeontologists, conservationists, land managers and tertiary students. To ensure the widest possible readership, the text is profusely illustrated with hundreds of beautiful drawings and photographs, almost all commissioned for this volume and based on Australian material. These are coupled with an extensive glossary and a comprehensive index.

ABRS is to be congratulated on producing this world class product, the first volume on invertebrates in the series

Commonwealth of Australia