Sydney Harbour Research Program

The Sydney Harbour Research Program (SHRP) is a flagship initiative from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS). It was launched in 2011 as a collaboration of scientists from a range of disciplines, everyone from oceanographers, to biologists and sociologists. Our aim is to expand our understanding of the diversity and dynamics of Sydney Harbour and how human actions influence our underwater world.


The Sydney Harbour Research Program delivers credible, scientific data and expertise to help policy makers, managers, stakeholders and the public understand Sydney Harbour’s unique natural systems. By blending innovative techniques with a collaborative work structure, we are able to provide the best scientific information to successfully manage our unique waterway now, and into the future.

The Sydney Harbour Research Program brings together scientists from six of the city’s largest universities into a single campus and we engage with scientists from all of the state’s major research organisations. Together we can provide a comprehensive overview of the plant, animal, and ecosystem diversity in the Harbour and the threats that may have a negative impact on diversity and ecosystem function. There are a number of NSW and Australian Government organisations already involved in work in, and around Sydney Harbour. SIMS proposes close co-operation with those organisations in a collaborative research project. A key objective will be to ensure that all data is publicly accessible via a central database. This will ensure maximum use of data for policy decisions and education. The other major component of the program will be a focus on public outreach. This will encompass corporations, philanthropic institutions, schools and the community at large.

Because the research will cover the whole extent of the Harbour, right up to Parramatta and beyond and the whole of Middle Harbour, we aim to engage a very broad cross-section of the community throughout the whole of Sydney. It is SIMS’ vision that the first phase of the program will last five years with a budget of at least $10 million. It is anticipated that 75% of the budget will be devoted to science with the remaining 25% to public outreach. A key objective in the implementation of this project will be to ensure high quality management of both the science and the outreach components.

Pressures and Threats to the Harbour

Sydney Harbour has been heavily impacted by its urban past through coastal development, resource extraction, pollution and shipping to name just a few. These days changing climatic conditions add pressure to the system. Harbour Program scientists are now looking to find out which threats have a compounding impact on the biodiversity and ecosystem function of the Harbour. It is particularly important to understand the spatial and temporal extent as well as the severity of the threat. For example, where specifically do we find heavy metal pollution? Is the concentration the same throughout the year or worse after heavy rainfall events? Are there other threats at the same location that have a compounding effect? The aim of this research is to develop an ‘index of harbour health’, a meaningful and up-to-date guide that allows us to identify how impacted and degraded an area has been and currently is.

Biodiversity and Resilience of the Harbour

A wealth of information has been gathered on the biology of Sydney Harbour. Surveys and studies were conducted of mangroves, sea grass beds, rocky shores, and sandy beaches as well as artificial substrates such as pylons and jetties. These studies are now compiled to provide a comprehensive picture of the biodiversity in the Harbour. Once this “baseline” is established SHRP research will focus on the features and attributes in the Harbour that are critical to maintain Harbour health. These could be considered the ‘vital signs’ of a healthy Harbour system, encompassing ecological, physical and societal aspects. Defining, measuring and monitoring these attributes will provide Harbour users, managers and policy makers with the information needed to protect and preserve this resource successfully. Our research focusses specifically on Sydney Harbour but the identified attributes could quite possibly apply to other harbours in Australia and globally.

Future Proofing of the Harbour

What actions can be taken to protect and preserve the biodiversity and ecosystem health of the Harbour from anthropogenic impacts? Based on our findings, we aim to develop novel restoration and remediation tools and techniques that will sustain or enhance biodiversity and ecosystem function in the Harbour.

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