ILWS - Charles Sturt University
ILWS - Charles Sturt University

Analysis of Ramsar Site Information in the Murray-Darling Basin (2012-2015)

ILWS Strategic Research Area
Sustainable Water

ILWS/CSU ($80,000) as part of CSUs contribution to the Murray-Darling Futures Collaborative Research Network (CRN)

Investigators/ Researchers
Professor Max Finlayson (chief investigator) and Dr Mariagrazia Bellio


This project is part of a larger project called 'Conserving Biodiversity' and sits under CRN's theme of "Environmental watering and allocation-understanding and optimising watering requirements, biodiversity, ecosystem services and productive water uses in the Murray-Darling Basin."
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty that provides a framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The flagship of the Convention is the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, or Ramsar sites.

Australia has 65 Ramsar sites listed, covering eight million hectares. Sixteen of these, covering  638ha hectares, are located within the Murray Darling Basin (MDB). On joining the Convention, each contracting party (country) is required to designate at least one wetland within its territory to the List and apply the Convention's Strategic Framework and Guidelines for the Further Development of the List of Wetlands of International Importance . Application of the Framework implies that a systematic approach is used to designate sites for the List and that these will constitute a representative example of wetland types, within a relevant bio-geographical region.

There is no evidence that a systematic approach was used to list Ramsar sites in Australia as all sixty-five Ramsar sites were listed before Australia's National Guidelines (a framework for Ramsar Convention implementation and management of Ramsar sites) were developed in 2008-2012.
The designation of Ramsar sites carry specific responsibilities, one of these being to manage the sites in a way that would maintain their ecological character and promote their conservation values and wise use. Under the Convention each Contracting Party has to inform the Ramsar Secretariat if the ecological character of any Ramsar site within its territory changes as a result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference. It follows that a baseline description of ecological character is needed against which to assess change.

The Australian federal government has adopted a pro-forma for describing the ecological character of wetlands and for determining limits of acceptable change with such descriptions published for thirteen of the sixteen Ramsar sites in the MDB. The ability to recognise objectively and assess changes requires the selection of a benchmark which should be based on the adequacy and reliability of baseline information and knowledge of natural variability for each critical indicator of wetland integrity. Yet, defining natural variability is challenging as data may not be adequate to indicate the range of natural variability.

In line with the earlier emphases within the Convention, waterbirds, which are by definition "species of bird that are ecological dependent on wetlands", have been regularly monitored globally. Their richness composition and abundance are among the most frequently used criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance. Yet establishing trends in the biogeographic population of waterbirds has proven difficult. In particular, data collection and surveys may occur at different spatial and temporal resolution using different methodologies.

Often the best information currently available to assess change is reduced to assess changes in biodiversity where a common misuse of the term biodiversity makes it synonymous with species richness. It has been recently demonstrated that waterbirds species richness per se is a poor predictor of detectable differences among years and wetland sites.

All of this raises questions about the appropriateness of existing data sets for assessing both the representativeness of wetland listed as Ramsar sites and for assessing change in ecological character. For this research project, a novel approach, based on the use of the index of taxonomic distinctiveness developed by Clarke and Warwick (2001), is being explored for describing waterbird biodiversity in the Ramsar wetlands of the MDB as a basis for assessing the representativeness of the listed sites and as a measure for assessing ecological character. We are predicting that this approach, if compared to more traditional measures of biodiversity (e.g. species richness), may provide a more robust assessment of the wetland's waterbird biodiversity values. For this assessment we will be using existing datasets made available from the Ramsar secretariat and from Bird Australia.

In 2014 this project was extended, and now includes analysis of biodiversity and functional traits at Ramsar sites in the MDB


The wider objective of these investigations is to provide recommendations to the Ramsar Convention on potential new approaches for describing waterbird biodiversity in Ramsar wetlands. 

Dr Mariagrazia Bellio
Charles Sturt University – Albury

January 2015