Meeting Obligations to Protect Ramsar Wetlands

Tabled: 14 September 2016

3 Monitoring, reporting and continuous improvement

At a glance

Background

Meeting obligations under the Ramsar Convention requires the effective monitoring and reviewing of management plans. This allows site managers to understand the impact and effectiveness of their activities and informs changes to these to more effectively manage risk.

Conclusion

Site managers cannot evaluate whether management activities are effective in preventing a decline in the condition of Ramsar sites. This is because the limited monitoring and review that occurs is generally short term and focused on outputs, rather than long term and focused on outcomes. The Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning (DELWP) reviews the character of Ramsar sites every three years to detect changes and to fulfil national reporting requirements. However these reviews are not intended to inform short-term site management. Encouragingly, DELWP has committed to improving monitoring by adopting a statewide approach.

Findings

  • Parks Victoria has limited evidence to demonstrate that it monitors and reports on the progress of management plan actions. However, catchment management authorities do track progress.
  • The frequency and quality of monitoring across Ramsar sites varies. The monitoring that does take place is short term and focuses on outputs.
  • At some sites, changes in management practices that have resulted from evaluation have led to improved environmental outcomes.

Recommendation

That the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning lead the development of a statewide approach to monitoring the ecological character of Ramsar sites, through a specific monitoring, evaluation and reporting framework.

3.1 Introduction

Long-term ongoing monitoring, evaluation and reporting of management actions is necessary to meet obligations under the Ramsar Convention. This approach allows site managers to detect changes and emerging threats to a site's ecological character, as well as helping them to assess the effectiveness of management activities and change their practices if risks are not being managed.

3.2 Conclusion

There is limited evidence that site managers are monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of management plans. Although some short-term output-focused monitoring takes place as a result of individual projects, there is limited ongoing outcome‑focused monitoring. The status of the ecological character of some sites cannot be fully determined due to limitations such as a lack of data. There is evidence of potential change at some other sites.

The Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning (DELWP) reviews Ramsar sites every three years to detect changes in critical site elements and to fulfil national condition reporting requirements. However, these reviews are not intended to inform short-term site management, though they may trigger management actions. Encouragingly, DELWP has committed to improving outcome-based monitoring through the development of a statewide approach to monitoring Ramsar sites.

3.3 Monitoring and reporting against management plans

3.3.1 Monitoring of site management plans

Parks Victoria is the site manager for 10 Ramsar sites, but it does not monitor and report on progress and actions of current Ramsar management plans and does not evaluate the effectiveness of its actions through long-term monitoring. Instead, it carries out short‑term output monitoring against its own regional action plans, which are not clearly linked to Ramsar site plans. Melbourne Water monitors the effectiveness of site management plans more effectively using environmental indicators and outcomes.

Parks Victoria

In 2013, Parks Victoria reviewed the status of its Ramsar management activities against Ramsar management plans prepared in 2002–03. This review consisted of telephone interviews with Parks Victoria staff about progress on actions. A report provided some insight on the outstanding matters. However, the review did not make recommendations, and it is not clear how it has helped further planning.

Our analysis of this review found there were 404 actions listed for 10 Ramsar sites. Of these, about half—51 per cent—had been carried out, while 83 actions—20 per cent—had not. The most common reasons for not implementing actions were the lack of funding and resourcing and the lack of a plan to guide the action. The remaining 115 actions were only partly carried out or deemed by Parks Victoria to be the responsibility of another agency. This reinforces the need to improve governance and accountability for implementing actions and identifying and assigning appropriate resources up-front.

Parks Victoria uses its Signs of Healthy Parks program to monitor parks and reserves. This monitoring program is designed to evaluate the effectiveness of its management of parks and protected areas and to inform and improve park management. However, this program was not designed to monitor Ramsar sites or progress of specific actions against management plans, nor does it provide an accurate and current description of the ecological state of Ramsar sites.

Melbourne Water

Melbourne Water monitors some environmental outcome indicators at its two Ramsar sites. Even though there is no current plan for the Port Phillip Bay (Western Shoreline) and Bellarine Peninsula site, Melbourne Water annually monitors indicators such as the number of shorebirds, ibis and growling grass frogs, under the Western Treatment Plant management plan.

For the Edithvale–Seaford Wetlands site, Melbourne Water regularly monitors the ecological indicators outlined in the management plan. These indicators include:

  • mosquito numbers
  • monthly bird counts, carried out by Bird Life Australia
  • water level
  • water quality.

The case study in Figure 3A demonstrates how Melbourne Water's monitoring of the growling grass frog informed management strategies.

Figure 3A

Case study: Growling grass frogs at the Western Treatment Plant

The Western Treatment Plant, managed by Melbourne Water, forms part of the Port Phillip Bay (Western Shoreline) and Bellarine Peninsula Ramsar site, listed in 1982. It contains a network of lagoons, wetlands, inter-tidal and shoreline areas that provide a haven for thousands of birds.

Melbourne Water used an adaptive management approach in the protection of the growling grass frog, which is listed as a vulnerable and threatened species. The agency's efforts resulted in record numbers of the frog at the site.

In 1998, to meet new requirements, Melbourne Water began an environmental improvement project, which included upgrading the treatment process to reduce impacts to Port Phillip Bay. To ensure that the growling grass frog did not suffer from this process, Melbourne Water prepared a management plan to address habitat and monitoring requirements for the growling grass frog. Melbourne Water has been monitoring the growling grass frog population at selected areas of the Western Treatment Plant every year since 2002. The results of this monitoring are shown below.

The results indicate a large decline in population numbers from 2010–11 to 2014–15, likely the result of declining water levels during the summer breeding season.

Growling grass frog count at selected areas at the Western Treatment Plant

Graph shows the amount of growling
  grass frogs i selected areas
  at the Western Treatment Plant

 

To address the decline, Melbourne Water allocated water to achieve a balance between the conservation requirements of waterfowl, shorebirds, saltmarsh restoration and the growling grass frog. It maintained the western lagoon drain at capacity for the duration of the breeding season to provide refuge for growling grass frogs in case other ponds dried out.

Melbourne Water created additional ponds at the Western Treatment Plant to encourage breeding. By using an adapted management plans informed by the data and evidence available, Melbourne Water saw the number of growling grass frogs at the Western Treatment Plant increase to a record of more than 1 100 in the 2015–16 breeding season.

Source: VAGO based on data provided by Melbourne Water.

Regional waterway strategies

Regional waterway strategies (RWS), incorporating Ramsar site management plans, have an overall monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement framework based on an eight-year adaptive management cycle—see Figure 3B. However, not all catchment management authorities (CMA) have developed plans to apply this framework. They are in the process of doing so. Plans will be based on a model that links activities and outputs to long-term resource outcomes and regional goals.

Two of these plans have been completed and the remaining plans are expected to be completed by the end of 2016. Completed plans consider the monitoring needs for the Ramsar site within its region. To support monitoring the ecological character of the sites, the plans refer to the three-year Ramsar Rolling Review and DELWP's statewide project to improve monitoring at Ramsar sites. These are discussed in Section 3.4.

At two sites we assessed—Kerang Lakes and Western District Lakes—there was no ongoing monitoring of ecological character or condition. CMAs' regular monitoring of these Ramsar sites was restricted to checking progress on actions and outputs in management plans and did not focus on impact or outcomes. There is some ongoing monitoring at Gippsland Lakes, but the frequency and quality of monitoring varied. Some wetlands within Ramsar sites were not monitored. For example, the ecological character of Foster's Swamp—an urban wastewater treatment facility at Kerang Lakes—is not monitored by the CMA, but there is some community monitoring. CMAs at the sites we visited advised that monitoring did not regularly occur because of the uncertainty around who is responsible and because of a lack of resources.

There are, however, examples of good practice where standalone plans—such as the Gippsland Lakes plan and the draft Western Port plan—specifically outline monitoring requirements and responsibilities. These requirements often include monitoring ecological character, limits of acceptable change and threats to the site. Monitoring commonly includes water quality, native fish and waterbird abundance and diversity, threatened species and vegetation mapping. Such monitoring is better practice and should be adopted more widely.

Monitoring for adaptive management

Monitoring is important for assessing overall wetland condition and for supporting adaptive management. Adaptive management is the ongoing adjustment of management approaches based on monitoring and evaluation. This approach is illustrated by Figure 3B.

Figure 3B

Adaptive management cycle

Image of adaptive management principles

Source: VAGO.

There is limited evidence of adaptive management principles being applied at Ramsar sites. However, with some exceptions, adaptive management practices used by site managers led to improved environmental outcomes, as outlined in Figure 3C and 3D.

Figure 3C

Case study: Restoring habitat for the little tern and fairy tern at Gippsland Lakes

At Gippsland Lakes, Parks Victoria used adaptive management to restore habitat and breeding grounds for the little tern and fairy tern—threatened migratory birds. The ecological character description (ECD) for the site includes the presence and breeding of the terns as part of the Gippsland Lakes ecological character. However, because of the poor quality of the habitat, terns had not used Crescent Island in Lake Victoria for more than six breeding seasons.

From May to June 2015, sand from dredge sites was relocated to Crescent Island and Pelican Island to address erosion, alongside targeted revegetation. The project resulted in 19 fairy tern fledglings and eight little tern fledglings being raised at these islands. Also, three pairs of endangered hooded plovers nested on the new habitat and raised six fledglings between them. More than 20 species of non-threatened birds also used the new habitat at Crescent Island.

Source: VAGO based on information provided by Parks Victoria.

Photo of a fairy tern bird

A fairy tern. Photograph courtesy of Glenn Ehmke, BirdLife Australia.

Figure 3D

Case study: Environmental watering and environmental outcomes at Kerang Lakes

Between April 2015 and February 2016, the North Central CMA allocated environmental water to Johnson Swamp—part of the Kerang Lakes site—three times. The CMA strategically planned the volume and timing of the environmental water delivery to help improve environmental outcomes.

North Central CMA monitored and photographed the biological and hydrological changes in this wetland after water delivery, recording birds, frogs, vegetation and water quality and quantity. It compared the results from before the water delivery in April 2015, during delivery in September 2015, after delivery in March 2016 and again in June 2016. This monitoring showed:

  • an increase in vegetation, including 13 threatened species
  • an increase in bird species from 21 to 59, including 21 threatened species
  • numerous waterbird species breeding, including nationally listed Australasian bittern and threatened Australian little bittern and brolga
  • many frogs, including the spotted marsh frog, pobblebonk, barking marsh frog and Peron's tree frog.

Source: VAGO based on information provided by North Central CMA.

3.3.2 Reporting on site management plans

Most site managers and CMAs do not adequately report progress against Ramsar management plans, and there is no reporting on the outcomes of monitoring outside the Ramsar Rolling Review. This is because there is currently no Commonwealth requirement to do so. Melbourne Water has advised that reporting takes place only every seven years—when the management plans are renewed. DELWP acknowledges that improvements can be made in this area.

CMAs have an annual process for reporting to DELWP on activities funded through annual service level agreements, where they report on progress against agreed outputs. These output-based reports do not directly report on management actions for Ramsar sites. Parks Victoria is also required to report every year to DELWP on its management services agreement.

Where Ramsar management plans are incorporated into regional waterway strategies (RWS), reporting to DELWP is scheduled at their mid-term review and renewal. For the current strategies, this is not expected to happen until 2018 and 2022 respectively.

DELWP has advised that, in 2018, it will fund each CMA to conduct an internal review to assess its progress in implementing the management activities outlined in its RWSs, including activities associated with Ramsar sites. As a result of this, CMAs may adapt their management activities for the remaining years of the RWSs.

RWSs will also be independently reviewed in 2022 to determine progress against all targets and to capture the lessons learned, to inform future regional programs and management approaches.

Standalone Ramsar management plans identify monitoring programs that assess progress towards resource targets and any changes in ecological character. The monitoring program for the Western Port site identifies responsible agencies and links to existing relevant programs. However, it recognises that implementation of this program will depend on agency resources. The draft plan for this site specifies that a targeted intervention monitoring and evaluation program should be developed, to assess the effectiveness of management actions on ecosystem condition. The results of intervention monitoring are intended to inform future management actions.

For Gippsland Lakes, an eight-year monitoring program has been adopted in line with the RWS. The program reports on changes in the condition of the site's ecological character and progress towards meeting resource targets.

3.4 State-level monitoring by the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning

DELWP assesses the condition of Ramsar sites and reports to the Commonwealth Government on their status through:

  • the national Ramsar Rolling Review
  • a statewide project to improve the monitoring of Ramsar sites.
Ramsar Rolling Review

The first Ramsar Rolling Review was undertaken in 2011. This was a nationally funded program coordinated by the state. The Rolling Review takes place every three years and assesses the status of the ecological character of each site by comparing its critical elements against the limits of acceptable change (LAC). The status of key threats is also assessed at the same time. This review is outcome focused and is intended to inform medium- to long-term site management.

Site managers and CMAs have the opportunity to review results from the Rolling Review to confirm that they reflect their understanding of the conditions at the site. However, this could be communicated more broadly—some staff at the sites we visited were not aware of the results nor that that the reviews occurred. Outside this review, site managers do not report any potential change in ecological character to DELWP.

If the Ramsar Rolling Review finds a potential change in ecological character, DELWP follows the formal process set out in the national guidelines. While the review is not publicly available, any changes to the site are made public through a range of online and published reports.

A second state-funded Rolling Review round took place over 2014–15 and 2015–16. Six sites were assessed in 2014–15, and the remaining five in 2015–16. The results are in draft as they have not yet been endorsed by the Commonwealth Government. Figure 3E provides a snapshot of the ecological character status of each site from the latest review.

Figure 3E

Draft ecological character status of Victoria's Ramsar sites

Site(a)

Have any LACs been exceeded?

Does this indicate a potential change in character?

1

Yes—three LACs were exceeded.

Yes—while two of the exceeded LACs are not considered to indicate a change in character, one does represent a potential change.

2

Yes—three LACs were exceeded.

No—a reassessment of the data on which the LACs were based indicates the benchmarks were incorrect.

3

This site has no LACs. DELWP's project to improve monitoring will determine LACs for the site.

No

4

Yes—one LAC was exceeded.

Yes

5

Yes—three LACs were exceeded.

No

6

Yes—one LAC was exceeded.

No

7

Yes—one LAC was exceeded.

No

8

Yes—two LACs were exceeded.(b)

No

9

Yes—one LAC was exceeded.

No

10

Yes—three LACs were exceeded.

Yes

11

Yes—one LAC was exceeded.

No—the benchmark may require review.

(a) Sites have been de-identified.

(b) Draft results are not available for this site. The assessment is based on the national report to the Conference of Contracting Parties 2015.

Source: VAGO based on documents provided by DELWP.

The Rolling Review process is important as it is currently the only systematic process to detect changes in ecological character. However, in some instances it is made difficult by a lack of baseline data.

The draft results of the latest round of the review indicate that around 70 per cent of LACs have not been exceeded and 15 per cent have been exceeded. The remaining 15 per cent have insufficient data to allow for assessment, meaning there is no assurance that a change in ecological character has not taken place.

Project to improve monitoring of Ramsar sites

In October 2015, DELWP began a project aimed at:

  • improving Ramsar site monitoring
  • addressing data gaps and deficiencies
  • improving the link between monitoring and site management planning.

The project is scheduled to be completed by 30 November 2016.

This project will result in:

  • an addendum to the published ECDs for Victoria's Ramsar sites where DELWP and the Commonwealth Government agree that changes are warranted
  • a final published ECD for the Port Phillip Bay (Western Shoreline) and Bellarine Peninsula Ramsar site
  • a monitoring schedule covering the needs of all of Victoria's Ramsar sites
  • an analysis of current gaps in monitoring
  • a monitoring tool to help plan and oversee a monitoring program for Ramsar sites.

In addition, DELWP is working on improving the link between management outputs, environmental outcomes and long-term changes at Ramsar sites through its Wetland Intervention Monitoring program. This project is in its early stages.

3.4.1 Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning reporting to the Commonwealth Government

DELWP is required to inform the Commonwealth Government when it becomes aware of any potential change in the ecological character of a site through the Ramsar Rolling Review or any other means. An investigation then takes place, to confirm the change before the Ramsar Secretariat is notified.

DELWP has not reported such a change since Victoria's sites were listed. While past assessments have found a number of potential changes in ecological character, to date, these have not been considered as actual changes by the Commonwealth Government.

Recommendation

3. That the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning lead the development of a statewide approach to monitoring the ecological character of Ramsar sites, through a specific monitoring, evaluation and reporting framework.

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