Wetlands are a critical part of our natural environment and have environmental, cultural, social and economic value. They are important for sustaining biodiversity regionally, nationally and internationally and provide a habitat for threatened species. Threats to the ecological character of a wetland including changes in water level, flow and quality, invasive species, climate change and recreational use. These threats make conserving these sites challenging.
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat, or the Ramsar Convention, is an international intergovernmental treaty that provides a framework for the conservation and wise use of designated wetland ecosystems throughout the world. Australia is a signatory to the agreement and has 65 Ramsar listed sites, 11 of which are in Victoria.
In designating a Ramsar site, countries agree to set up and oversee a management framework aimed at conserving and maintaining the wetland and its ecological character.
The Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning (DELWP) and primary site managers— Parks Victoria and Melbourne Water—all have a role in conserving and maintaining Victoria's Ramsar sites. Site managers must monitor and detect changes and threats to a site's ecological character, implement management practices to address these, and report any actual or likely changes in ecological character to DELWP. As waterway managers, catchment management authorities (CMA) also have a role in managing Ramsar sites—most Ramsar site management plans are incorporated into the regional waterway strategies (RWS) developed by CMAs.
Our audit looked at how effectively Ramsar wetlands are being managed, including interagency collaboration, and whether Victoria is meeting its national and international obligations. We assessed:
- the adequacy of Ramsar wetlands management plans and their implementation
- whether monitoring, evaluation and reporting occurs and is used to understand the impacts of management activities, inform management practices and meet reporting obligations.
As part of this assessment, we visited three Ramsar sites to determine whether management plans were being implemented as intended. The audit did not assess the effectiveness of Commonwealth or non-government agencies.
There is limited evidence that all Ramsar sites are being effectively managed and protected from decline. There is also evidence of potential change in the ecological character of some sites, while changes at other sites cannot be fully determined due to limitations such as a lack of data.
Some of Victoria's Ramsar sites are better managed than others. The one managed by Melbourne Water is a good example—this has a standalone management plan with clear roles and responsibilities for implementation and monitoring. Roles and responsibilities are less clear for the sites where Parks Victoria is the primary site manager. Some projects have improved outcomes for Ramsar sites, but these activities are not clearly linked to Ramsar management plan actions or risks.
Overall, the governance, coordination and oversight of the management of Ramsar sites must improve for Victoria to effectively meet its obligations. Without this improvement, site managers will continue to be guided by their own priorities, rather than responding to key threats to Ramsar sites' ecological character.
Monitoring the implementation of management plans requires improvement. Some short-term output-focused monitoring takes place, but there is limited ongoing monitoring of plan implementation or whether actions are achieving the intended outcomes. DELWP reviews Ramsar sites every three years to detect changes in critical site elements and to inform national condition reporting. This information is provided to site managers, however, it is not intended to inform short-term site management. Management effectiveness is not systematically monitored, reviewed or evaluated.
Encouragingly, DELWP has committed to improving its outcome-based monitoring of management plans through the development of a statewide approach to monitoring Ramsar sites.
Ramsar management responsibilities in Victoria
The state, through DELWP and site managers, has certain responsibilities, however, the Commonwealth Government has overall responsibility for administering the convention nationally.
The Ramsar Convention requires that the following key documents be developed to guide the maintenance and management of the ecological character of the wetland and to set a baseline for measuring change:
- Ramsar information sheet (RIS)
- ecological character description (ECD)
- site management plan.
Ramsar information sheet
The RIS provides essential data on each designated wetland. Signatories to the Ramsar Convention commit to preparing and updating an RIS every six years or when the character of a site changes. DELWP does not comply with this requirement, as no site has a current RIS. Ten sites were last updated in 1999, and the Edithvale–Seaford Wetlands site RIS was updated in 2001. DELWP advised that updates were drafted in 2005 and again in 2016 but have not yet been finalised by the Commonwealth Government.
Ecological character description
An ECD describes the baseline condition at each site at the time of listing and provides the foundation for a management plan. Of Victoria's 11 Ramsar sites, 10 have a published ECD. The Port Phillip Bay (Western Shoreline) and Bellarine Peninsula ECD has been in draft since 2011, as it has not been published by the Commonwealth Government.
Final ECDs for nine wetlands formally listed in 1982 and one in 2001 were only developed between 2010 and 2012, following the development of national guidelines. The amount of time between listing and establishing the ECDs means there is limited information on the historical baseline condition of these sites.
Limits of acceptable change
ECDs must specify limits of acceptable change (LAC) for all identified critical ecological elements of a site. The Ramsar Secretariat must be notified if there has been a change in ecological character. If an LAC is exceeded, this may indicate an adverse change in the wetland's ecological character.
Victoria's ECDs identify 88 critical elements for which LACs must be determined. Currently, 118 of these have been determined. Only five of the 11 Ramsar sites have LACs for all their identified critical ecological elements. This is mainly due to knowledge gaps and poor baseline data.
Site management plans
Management plans should outline the management, monitoring and evaluation activities required to maintain the ecological character of the Ramsar site and to address emerging risks.
There are no national guidelines for the development of Ramsar site management plans. Seven of Victoria's sites have a current management plan embedded within an RWS, three have standalone plans—one of which is in draft—and one has no current management plan. None of these plans met all the Australian requirements to be considered a comprehensive management framework.
Governance, oversight, and roles and responsibilities
Due to the ecological complexity of Ramsar sites and the number of stakeholders involved, sound governance arrangements are required to manage them effectively. There is not a robust governance framework or procedures in place to help implement plans in a risk-based, prioritised manner. As a result, there is little evidence that plans have been effectively implemented.
While most of the management plans in place assign lead agencies to activities, there is limited accountability for implementation and monitoring their effectiveness. Without adequate governance, site managers mainly use their own planning priorities rather than being accountable for delivering management plan actions.
A number of management plans, including Gippsland Lakes, Kerang Lakes and Edithvale–Seaford Wetlands Ramsar sites, specify clear governance arrangements for their implementation. These should be used as examples of better practice.
Limited oversight means management plans are not always effectively implemented. DELWP, which is responsible for promoting the wise use and conservation of Ramsar wetlands and reporting on their ecological status, has limited oversight of how plans for all 11 sites are implemented and evaluated.
Parks Victoria also poorly oversees the implementation of management plans for the 10 sites it manages. While it carries out many habitat-management activities that often improve environmental outcomes, this work is mainly implemented through projects and specifically funded initiatives. It is opportunistic and reactive, based on available funding. These activities are generally not guided by the current Ramsar management plan, and this can result in significant ecological risks not being addressed in a timely way.
Roles and responsibilities
Site managers and CMAs are generally responsible for implementing management plans, but roles and responsibilities for specific actions are not always clear or documented. This means that, while lead agencies are identified, actions are not always implemented. CMAs led the development of management plans for most Parks Victoria sites, but are they not fully responsible for implementing all actions. This results in limited accountability. This is not the case for Melbourne Water, which is the site manager for the Edithvale–Seaford Wetlands site and responsible for developing and implementing its management plan.
DELWP acknowledges that improvements should be made in governance and in better integration between agencies that have a role in Ramsar site management. It is planning to address this.
Funding for delivery
Inadequate ongoing resourcing arrangements are a major hurdle to the effective management of Ramsar sites in Victoria. Not all management plan actions are funded, so responsible agencies rely on grants, and meeting sometimes competing Commonwealth and state priorities is challenging.
Funding is provided to DELWP through the State Budget process, and DELWP allocates a large portion of these funds to CMAs to deliver the actions in their RWSs. CMAs may allocate funding to other parties, including Parks Victoria, to complete this work. In addition, there are other grant and program funding opportunities available.
Parks Victoria should be able to assess its 10 Ramsar sites and know what resources it requires to manage them, but it currently cannot do so. It is planning to collect this information as it introduces its new planning process.
The Commonwealth Government had a Ramsar program from 2008−09 to 2011−12 that funded the development and review of ECDs and some RIS updates. It also funded the first Ramsar rolling review in 2011. It no longer provides funding for this, and DELWP funded the second round.
Monitoring and reporting against management plans
Monitoring and reporting of Ramsar site management plans is focused on implementation of actions rather than their effectiveness. That is, monitoring focuses on short-term and output-based actions—for example, hectares of fencing installed—rather than long-term, outcome-focused actions—for example, water quality changes.
Parks Victoria does not monitor and report on the implementation of management plans for the 10 sites it manages and does not evaluate its actions. Instead, it monitors actions against its own regional plans, which are not clearly linked to Ramsar management plans.
In 2013, Parks Victoria reviewed the status of its Ramsar management activities using the Ramsar management plans it prepared in 2002–03. This review identified outstanding actions but did not make further recommendations, and it is not clear how it has helped planning. The most common reason identified for not carrying out actions was a lack of funding, and there was also confusion over responsibilities. This reinforces the need to improve governance and accountability for implementing plans.
Melbourne Water monitors a number of environmental outcome indicators at its two Ramsar sites. It regularly monitors the ecological indicators outlined in the management plan for the Edithvale–Seaford Wetlands site. In the absence of a specific plan for the Port Phillip Bay (Western Shoreline) and Bellarine Peninsula site, Melbourne Water uses the Western Treatment Plant plan to monitor indicators such as the number of shorebirds, ibis and growling grass frogs every year.
Catchment management authorities
RWSs are supported by an overall monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement framework based on an eight-year adaptive management cycle set out in the Victorian Waterway Management Strategy. However, not all CMAs have developed plans to apply this framework. Two regional plans have been completed, with the remaining eight plans to be completed by the end of 2016. These will link activities and outputs to long‑term resource condition outcomes and regional goals.
Monitoring for adaptive management
Monitoring is important to support an adaptive management approach—the ongoing adjustment of strategies based on monitoring and evaluation. There is limited evidence of an overall adaptive management approach being applied to each of the Ramsar sites. However, we found some examples of adaptive management to address specific threats, which had resulted in improved environmental outcomes.
Reporting on site management plans
Reporting on the implementation of Ramsar site management plans or on the outcomes of monitoring occurs infrequently. As a result, reporting by site managers and CMAs is inadequate. DELWP reports the outcomes of its monitoring as part of the Ramsar 'Rolling Review' process, but this is not linked to management plans or used to inform management practices. Melbourne Water advised that it reports every seven years—when the management plans are renewed.
CMAs do not directly report on Ramsar site management, as their annual reports to DELWP are framed against agreed outputs contained in service level agreements. These outputs are not directly linked to Ramsar sites. Reporting to DELWP on the progress of RWS actions, where Ramsar management plans are embedded, is scheduled to occur in 2018 and 2022.
State-level monitoring by the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning
DELWP reviews the condition of Ramsar sites and reports to the Commonwealth Government on their status through:
- the national Ramsar Rolling Review
- a state project to improve the monitoring of Ramsar sites.
Ramsar Rolling Review
The first Ramsar Rolling Review was undertaken in 2011 and aimed to identify changes in ecological character. This was a nationally funded program coordinated by the Commonwealth Government. The Rolling Review takes place every three years to assess the status of the ecological character of each site by comparing the condition of the critical elements against the LAC. The status of the key threats is assessed at the same time. The review is not publicly available but, if there are changes to the site, these are made public.
A second state-funded review took place in 2014–15 and 2015–16 which found that some LACs were not met and, in several instances, LACs could not be assessed due to a lack of data. The results of this second round are still in draft and have not yet been endorsed by the Commonwealth Government.
Project to improve Ramsar site monitoring
In October 2015, DELWP began a project aimed at improving monitoring at Ramsar sites, which included addressing data gaps and deficiencies and improving the link between monitoring and Ramsar site management planning. The project is scheduled to be completed by 30 November 2016.
Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning reporting to the Commonwealth Government
DELWP is required to advise the Commonwealth Government as soon as it becomes aware of a potential or actual change in ecological character at a Ramsar site. DELWP also reports on changes to the ecological character of Ramsar sites to the Commonwealth Government through:
- six-yearly updates to the RIS, in which DELWP reports whether there have been any changes to the area or to the ecological character of a site
- three-yearly reports to inform national reporting on changes to the ecological character of wetlands.
DELWP has not reported a change in the ecological character of Ramsar wetlands since the sites were listed. However, the draft results of the 2014–15 Ramsar Rolling Review indicate a potential change in ecological character at some Victorian sites. DELWP has advised that this will be reported to the Commonwealth Government.
- That the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning, in conjunction with Parks Victoria and catchment management authorities:
- develop and implement robust governance arrangements for managing Ramsar sites, including clarifying roles, responsibilities and accountabilities for planning, management and reporting
- strengthen management plans to include time frames and resourcing to ensure that actions are carried out effectively and in a timely way.
- That the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning:
- oversee the development of a finalised Ramsar management plan for the Port Phillip Bay (Western Shoreline) and Bellarine Peninsula and Western Port sites
- work with catchment management authorities and site managers to develop and assess options for the direct funding of management plan activities focused on high-priority threats that impact on the ecological character of Ramsar sites
- implement arrangements to oversee how management plans are put into effect.
- 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.
Submissions and comments received
We have professionally engaged with the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning, Parks Victoria, Melbourne Water, Corangamite Catchment Management Authority, North Central Catchment Management Authority, Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority, East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority and West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority throughout the course of the audit. In accordance with section 16(3) of the Audit Act 1994 we provided a copy of this report to those agencies and requested their submissions or comments. We also provided a copy of the report to the Department of Premier & Cabinet.
We have considered those views in reaching our audit conclusions and have represented them to the extent relevant and warranted. Their full section 16(3) submissions and comments are included in Appendix C.