Wetlands: under threat

Author Sheena Gilman

Cassim Island at Toondah Harbour, a wetland at risk (Panthus Wikimedia Commons)

Cassim Island at Toondah Harbour, a wetland at risk (Panthus Wikimedia Commons)

Ramsar is not an acronym; it is a small town on the southern edge of the Caspian Sea in Iran.

It is the westernmost city in Mazandaran province with a population of 35,000 people. An early Iranian civilization flourished in the beginning of the first millennium BC in Tabarestan (Māzandarān). It was overrun in about AD 720 by the Arab general Yezid ibn Mohallab and was the last part of Iran to be converted to Islām. It was ceded to the Russian Empire by a treaty in 1723, but was restored to Iran under the Oajar dynasty. The northern section of the region consists of a lowland alongside the Caspian and an upland along the northern slopes of the Elburz Mountains. Marshy backlands dominate the coastal plain, and extensive gravel fans fringe the mountains. The climate is permanently subtropical and humid with very hot summers.

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance holds the unique distinction of being the first modern treaty between nations aimed at conserving natural resources.

The signing of the convention on wetlands took place in 1971 at this small Iranian town of Ramsar. Since then, the convention on wetlands has been known as the Ramsar convention.

The Ramsar convention’s broad aims are to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands and to conserve, through wise use and management, those that remain. This requires international cooperation, policy making, capacity building and technology transfer.

The Ramsar convention encourages the designation of sites containing representative, rare or unique wetlands, or wetlands that are important for conserving biological diversity.

Once designated, these sites are added to the convention’s list of wetlands of international importance and become known as Ramsar sites.

In designating a wetland as a Ramsar site, countries agree to establish and oversee a management framework aimed at conserving the wetland and ensuring its wise use.

Under the Ramsar convention, a wide variety of natural and human-made habitat types ranging from rivers to coral reefs can be classified as wetlands. Wetlands include swamps, marshes, billabongs, lakes, salt marshes, mudflats, mangroves, coral reefs, fens, peat bogs, or bodies of water - whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary. Water within these areas can be static or flowing; fresh, brackish or saline and can include inland rivers and coastal or marine water to a depth of six metres at low tide.

Contracting parties to the convention agree to:

Designate at least one site that meets the Ramsar criteria for inclusion in the list of wetlands of international importance.

Promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands.

Include wetland conservation within their national land-use planning.

Establish nature reserves on wetlands and promote wetland training.

Consult with other contracting parties about the implementation of the Ramsar convention.

Australia was one of the first countries to sign the Ramsar convention, and in 1974 designated the world’s first wetland of international importance - the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.

Australia currently has 65 wetlands of international importance listed under the Ramsar convention, covering approximately 8.1 million hectares, an area greater than Scotland or Tasmania.  Queensland has 6 Ramsar Sites:

Coral Sea reserves of Coringa, Herald and Lihou Reefs & Cays

Bowling Green Bay

Shoalwater and part of Coria Bay

Great Sandy Straits including Tin Can Bay and part of Tin Can inlet

Moreton Bay

Currawinya Lakes Wyara and Numalla & supporting wetlands

Moreton Bay, Shoalwater Bay and The Great Sandy Straits are three Ramsar sites under threat of adverse development and all are significant coastal environments for critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable migratory waders and shore birds

The Ramsar treaty prohibits the destruction of any part of a Ramsar site unless that destruction is in the urgent national interest.

Moreton Bay is the site for the Walker Corporation development of Toondah Harbour. This is a precedent case of a development application over both marine park and the roost sites of Cassim Island.

A coal mine application threatens the Great Sandy Straits and a further coal mine proposal looms over the magnificent Broadsound.

These significant sites meet the criteria for listing to the Ramsar convention and both state and federal governments must protect them against any inimical activity, now and into the future. Apart from being significant for migratory shorebirds, all provide safe marine environments for Dugong and turtle species; they are deemed key biodiversity areas.

Destroying part of a Ramsar site for a residential development or a coal mine, is not in the ‘urgent national interest’. Approval of these developments sends the completely wrong message to other countries where ongoing loss and degradation of habitat is clearly responsible for large declines in migratory shorebirds.

It is incongruent that government has an active application for UNESCO World Heritage listing of the Great Sandy Straits and in asking the federal environment department to insist on an Environment Impact Assessment (EIS), we were informed ‘there had been no material changes’ since the initial permits were provided over ten years ago.

We would also argue there have been considerable changes in the past decade including the up listing and continued decline of several shorebird species; 18 nationally listed threatened species visit our shores each year. Threatened Australian humpback dolphin frequents shallow estuarine water in the Styx River mouth at Broadsound and the area has six species of marine turtles including threatened loggerheads and green turtles.

We should treat their habitats with reverence; we have unique systems worthy of protection. That is why they are Ramsar sites. We are calling for increased accountability for the protection of some of the most magnificent coastal areas in Queensland. Australians are obliged at the highest level to protect not exploit; we must value nature for what it is, irreplaceable.