National framework and guidance for describing the ecological character of Australian Ramsar wetlands

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 2008

Module 2 of the National Guidelines for Ramsar wetlands - Implementing the Ramsar Convention in Australia

Executive summary

Understanding and documenting ecological character is central to maintaining and protecting the values of internationally and nationally important wetlands. As part of the Ramsar Convention, contracting parties are expected to manage their Ramsar sites so as to maintain the ecological character of each site, remain informed of any changes to the ecological character of Ramsar sites and notify the Ramsar Secretariat of any changes at the earliest opportunity (Ramsar Convention 1987, Article 3.2 and further clarified by the Parties in Resolution VIII.8, 2002; Ramsar Convention 2005, Resolution IX.1 Annex B).

Ecological character is the combination of the ecosystem components, processes, benefits and services that characterise the wetland at a given point in time (Ramsar Convention 2005a, Resolution IX.1 Annex A). Changes to the ecological character of the wetland outside natural variations may signal that uses of the site or externally derived impacts on the site are unsustainable and may lead to the degradation of natural processes, and thus the ultimate breakdown of the ecological, biological and hydrological functioning of the wetland (Ramsar Convention 1996, Resolution VI.1).

The Australian Government is working with the state and territory governments to establish a more systematic and strategic approach to the management of Australia's Ramsar wetlands. This will ensure that Australia's responsibilities under the Ramsar Convention are discharged effectively and efficiently, with particular emphasis on the maintenance and improvement of the ecological character of Ramsar sites in Australia.

The ecological character description of a wetland provides the baseline description of the wetland at a given point in time and can be used to assess changes in the ecological character of these sites. Ecological character descriptions should be prepared for all existing Ramsar sites and for all proposed Ramsar nominations before the required documentation is forwarded to the Ramsar Secretariat.

The purpose of this document is to help wetland managers, consultants and researchers to describe the ecological character of their wetland. The framework is designed to establish a standard method for describing ecological character for wetlands in Australia. It was developed using the outcomes from a national workshop held in Canberra in May 2006, the Framework for Describing Ecological Character of Ramsar Wetlands (DSE 2005a) and substantial input from the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council's (NRMMC) Wetlands and Waterbirds Taskforce, which includes representatives from Australian, state and territory government agencies.

The framework provides background information on ecological character, guidance on interpreting terms, the essential elements of an ecological character description, and a step-by-step guide to developing a description of ecological character for wetlands. The step-by-step guide is the preferred process for preparing an ecological character description; however, the exact order in which the information is presented can be altered slightly to suit the requirements of the site. If the process is varied, or an alternative method is used to prepare the description, the method used should be described in an appendix to the ecological character description.

Certain essential elements should be included in any ecological character description, whatever the method used to prepare it. These elements include an executive summary; acknowledgments; table of contents; site details; statement of purpose; relevant legislation or regulations; conceptual model; description of the components, processes, benefits and services of the site; limits of acceptable change; potential threats to the site; knowledge gaps; changes to ecological character; key monitoring needs; glossary; methods used for the description; and lists of community assemblages for the site. It is advisable that the Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) be consulted during the development of the ecological character description.

Once completed to the satisfaction of the site manager and the relevant jurisdiction, the ecological character description should be forwarded to the department who will check the description to ensure it meets the minimum requirements of the framework. The ecological character description will be appended to the Ramsar Information Sheet and forwarded to the Ramsar Secretariat.