Freshwater protected areas in Australia

Current or emerging issues paper
Jon Nevill, OnlyOnePlanet Consulting
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006

This document was commissioned for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee. This and other commissioned documents support the Committee's Report but are not part of it.


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Nevill J 2006, 'Freshwater protected areas in Australia', paper prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra,

Freshwater protected areas in Australia

Freshwater plants and animals are particularly imperilled, both in Australia and globally. Although there are many threats (Nevill and Phillips 2004) the 'big three' are:

  1. regulation and extraction of natural flows,
  2. habitat destruction linked to catchment development, and
  3. the effects of invasive species.

Protected areas are places where some major threats can be effectively managed. Amongst a wide variety of protective mechanisms (Nevill and Phillips 2004) the use of protected areas is the single most important tool available for biodiversity conservation. Protected areas also support ecosystem functions beyond their boundaries and have other economic and cultural benefits (Nevill and Phillips 2004). The protection of freshwater ecosystems on private land (as well as public land) is important, and incentive measures need to be more widely applied (Whitten et al 2002).

As a general rule, the long-term benefits of creating freshwater protected areas far outweigh short-term costs. Some freshwater protected areas will enhance recreational fishing and hunting opportunities outside the protected zone. Australian tourist operators will benefit from healthy and impressive rivers and wetlands. Farmers benefit from the protection of aquifer recharge areas. Indigenous groups supported the formation of the first listed Ramsar1 site in the world: Coburg Peninsula in the Northern Territory. All Australians benefit from the protection of our living freshwater environments – which have huge economic, cultural, recreational, educational, spiritual and scenic values.

Management of freshwater protected areas must recognise the critical importance of connectivity – biological processes within a protected area will depend on flows through administrative boundaries. The management of the surrounding watershed will affect values within the protected area (Pringle 2001, Saunders et al 2002).

According to the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992, the conservation of biodiversity, including aquatic biodiversity, requires the protection of representative examples of all major ecosystem types, coupled with the sympathetic management of ecosystems outside those protected areas. This requirement was re-affirmed by the 2004 World Conservation Congress. Although the Australian Government, and all eight Australian state and territory governments are committed to this principle (Fitzsimons and Robertson 2005) only Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory have funded specific programs aimed at establishing fully representative systems of inland aquatic ('freshwater') protected areas. In Victoria and Tasmania, however, these systems remain incomplete (Nevill and Phillips 2004).

Although all Australian jurisdictions have established some reserves (Australia's 64 Ramsar sites for example) which protect freshwater ecosystems, the degree to which such reserves protect representative aquatic ecosystems has not been systematically assessed in any Australian state, although work is progressing in Tasmania. Rivers and subterranean ecosystems are undoubtedly neglected by the existing reserve network, although the fact that comprehensive inventories of freshwater ecosystems are incomplete in most Australian states makes this conclusion anecdotal rather than quantitative.

Australia has hundreds of substantial rivers (Nevill 2005). A comparison of national river and protected area databases shows that 14 Australian rivers have catchments almost completely protected within eight large national parks and/or Ramsar sites. The largest of these rivers is the South Alligator in the Northern Territory.

Approaches to protection

A variety of statutory and strategic approaches have been developed (if not always applied) for the protection of freshwater areas in Australia. Broadly, these can be divided into approaches which apply to specific areas, or general approaches such as those aimed at water quality controls, environmental impact assessment of proposed developments, land use zoning, and threatened species protection. In various states, statutes focusing on catchment management, fisheries, water resource management, national parks, or the protection of threatened species all have specific area-protection provisions which allow the development of aquatic protected areas. At this stage few of these provisions have been applied specifically to protect freshwater ecosystems (Nevill and Phillips 2004). At the national level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 provides mechanisms which can be used for area protection, including provisions relating to Ramsar sites which can over-ride state authority where an ecological asset of national or international importance is threatened.

National databases of assets

At the level of strategic catchment or land use planning, the most important national inventory of freshwater ecosystem assets is the Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia (DEH 2001) ( which, as well as listing 'still' wetlands of national and international importance, includes 143 rivers or river sections. While not formally linked to Government protection programs (apart from Queensland's Integrated Planning Act 1997), the Directory is considered in the planning processes of many local government and regional resource planning bodies. At this stage the Directory does not include all wetland types in a comprehensive way, and certainly does not include sufficient rivers or underground ecosystems. This is because, historically, the Directory was first developed with a focus only on inland surface 'still' wetlands. Since the first edition of the Directory an effort has been made to expand coverage in line with the full Ramsar wetland definition – however coverage of other wetland types is still less than representative.

Other important national databases for the study and management of freshwater ecosystems are the national river condition database (formerly called the wild rivers database ( ), the water and biodiversity databases of the National Land and Water Resources Audit  ( ) , and the Commonwealth protected area database (CAPAD,

So far Victoria is the only State to have published a strategic review of river and stream protection, and is the only state to have passed legislation specifically to protect listed rivers (the Heritage Rivers Act 1992). Victoria has 18 designated Heritage Rivers and 15 Representative Rivers – the latter falling outside the provisions of the Act (Nevill and Phillips 2004). The Queensland Government nominated 19 rivers for consideration under their Wild Rivers Act 2005, and declarations are being prepared for some of these. In December 2005 the NSW Government announced the listing of five 'Wild Rivers' within existing terrestrial protected areas. A government report on aquatic ecosystem protection in Tasmania is expected in mid-2006.

At regional and national levels, the Murray Darling Basin Commission's Native Fish Strategy (MDBMC 2003) and the National Reserve System's Direction Statement (NRMMC 2005) both emphasise the need to expand freshwater protected areas, and these initiatives need strong support.

According to a recent scientists' consensus statement on the issue of freshwater protected areas (Kingsford et al 2006): “While there is no shortage of relevant policy in Australia, some protective mechanisms have not yet been used (many years after their development). (See for example see (Word - 153 KB) ). In other cases 'protection' has been only partially applied without regard to important issues of hydrologic connectivity – with species extinction as a direct consequence. The most urgent initiative is to identify those ecosystems most at risk. A comprehensive national assessment of the conservation status of freshwater ecosystems should be undertaken immediately. Such an assessment would provide both a platform and an impetus for the systematic expansion of the nation's freshwater protected areas.”

In conclusion, Australia's Ramsar sites, as well as a few of our largest national parks, do protect many important freshwater ecosystems. However the coverage of these reserves is neither representative nor comprehensive, and it is highly likely that many freshwater ecosystems are not represented at all within the protected area estate. The most urgent initiative, as Kingsford et al (2006) have suggested, is to identify which ecosystem types are not protected, and which are under most immediate threat.

Key references

DEH [Department of the Environment and Heritage] 2001, Directory of important wetlands in Australia; third edition. Published at, accessed January 2005.

Fitzsimons JA and Robertson HA 2005, Freshwater reserves in Australia: directions and challenges for the development of a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of protected areas. Hydrobiologia, 552: 87-97.

Kingsford RK et al. (2006) Urgent need for a systematic expansion of freshwater protected areas in Australia: a scientists' consensus statement. Pacific Conservation Biology, March 2006.  The full version (with endnotes) is available from, accessed 17/2/2006. (This statement has been prepared by an informal working group of Australian scientists, and is supported by additional scientists from academia and private industry, with over 50 total signatories).

MDBMC [Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council] 2003, Native fish strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin 2003-2013. June 2003. Murray- Darling Basin Commission, Canberra ACT.

Nevill J 2005, Counting Australia's protected rivers. 20 pages. From,  accessed 29 May 2005.

Nevill J and Phillips N 2004, The Australian freshwater protected areas resourcebook. OnlyOnePlanet, Hampton Melbourne. 275 pages.  Available from, accessed July 2006.

NRMMC [Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council] 2005, Directions for the National Reserve System - a partnership approach. Department for the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.

Pringle CM 2001, Hydrologic connectivity and the management of biological reserves: a global perspective. Ecological Applications 11(4):981-998.

Saunders DL, Meeuwig JJ and Vincent ACJ 2002, Freshwater protected areas: strategies for conservation. Conservation Biology 16(1):30-41.

Whitten S, Bennett J, Moss W, Handley M and Phillips B 2002, Incentive measures for conserving freshwater ecosystems. Environment Australia; Canberra.  145pp.

Additional further reading

Barmuta LA 2003, Imperiled rivers of Australia: challenges for assessment and conservation. Special Issue Freshwater Biodiversity in Australia. Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management (6):55-68).

Boulton AJ and Brock MA 1999, Australian freshwater ecology: processes and management. Adelaide: Gleneagles.

Chadderton WL, Brown DJ and Stephens RT 2004, Identifying freshwater ecosystems of national importance for biodiversity – discussion document,  Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand.

Conference of the Parties 2004, Report from the 7th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity: resolution VII/4: biological diversity of inland water ecosystems.  United Nations Environment Program website:, accessed 22/11/04.

Cullen P 2002, The heritage river proposal; conserving Australia's undamaged rivers. Paper presented to the World Congress on Aquatic Protected Areas, August 14-17 2002, Cairns Australia.

Dunn H 2000, Identifying and protecting rivers of high ecological value; LWRDDC Occasional Paper 01/00. Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation, Canberra.

ESA Ecological Society of Australia (2003) Protected areas: a position statement by the Ecological Society of Australia. ESA website accessed 12/4/05

Georges A and Cottingham P 2001, Biodiversity in inland waters: Priorities for its protection and management. Recommendations from the 2001 Fenner Conference on the Environment, Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology Technical Report 1/2002; University of Canberra.

Humphreys WF and Harvey MS (eds.)2001, Subterranean biology in Australia 2000. Records of the WesternAustralianMuseum, Supplement No. 64. 242 pp.

Kingsford RT, Brandis K, Thomas RF, Crighton P, Knowles E and Gale E 2004, Classifying landform at broad spatial scales: the distribution and conservation of wetlands in New South Wales, Australia.  Marine and Freshwater Research (55) 1-15.

Lake PS 1978, On the conservation of rivers in Australia.  Australian Society for Limnology Newsletter  16:24-28.

Margules CR and Pressey RL 2000, Systematic conservation planning. Nature (405) 243-253, 11 May 2000.

Master LL, Flack SR and Stein BA (eds)1998, Rivers of life: critical watersheds for protecting freshwater biodiversity. Special publication of the Nature Conservancy. NatureServe; Arlington, VA.

Meyer JL, Kaplan LA, Beilfuss R, Carpenter Q, Newbold D, Semlitsch R,  Strayer DL, Watzin M,  Woltemade CJ, Zedler JB and Zedler PH 2003, Where streams are born: the scientific imperative for defending small streams and wetlands. 23pp. Sierra Club; Washington. 

Morton S, Cristofani P, Cullen P, Possingham H and Young M 2002, Sustaining our Natural Systems and Biodiversity: An independent report to the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. CSIRO and Environment Australia, Canberra.

National Land and Water Resources Audit 2001, Australian water resources assessment 2000. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Ponder WF 2004, Endemic aquatic macroinvertebrates of artesian springs of the Great Artesian Basin – progress and future directions. Records of the South AustralianMuseum Monograph Series, 7: 101-110.

Ramsar Secretariat 2002, Resolution VIII.6 on wetland inventory. RS, Gland Switzerland.

Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists 2003, Blueprint for a national water plan. Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF); Sydney.

1 Ramsar wetlands sites The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources