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WA wetlands protection list untouched for 21 years as development soars

Lake MacLeod is a salt lake near the WA coastal town of Carnarvon which was considered for Ramsar status by the state government in 2006.

Posted on September 8, 2022

Concerns the listing of West Australian wetlands as environments of significant international importance would interfere with agricultural and residential land use have seen the state government fail to add any new sites for 21 years.

In the meantime some of WA’s existing 12 Ramsar sites – named after a city in Iran where a treaty was signed in 1971 by countries including Australia regarding wetland protection – may have declined in value to the point where they no longer meet the criteria.

Australia has 66 Ramsar wetlands out of the 2455 global sites.

Scientists identified more than 30 other suitable places for inclusion in 1999 for Ramsar status in WA but only three were added up to 2001.

Those three – the Becher Point Wetlands, Lake Gore in the Goldfields and the Muir-Byenup System in the South West – were recommended alongside five other sites in a 1999 report to the then Department of Conservation and Land Management for nominating more Ramsar sites.

The Chandala Swamp, Spearwood Creek Wetlands and Ellen Brook Swamp System all on the Swan Coastal Plain, the underground waterways of Cape Range in Exmouth and the 37,000 hectare Lake MacLeod north of Carnarvon were the other five which have not been progressed.

Lake MacLeod near Carnarvon in WA.
Lake MacLeod got the closest to a nomination out of the five when a community consultation period was opened in 2006.

The consultation was chaired by Dampier Salt, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto which has run salt and gypsum operations on a small portion of the site, which was supportive of a Ramsar listing.

But concerns around impacts the listing would have on agricultural interests, despite general support, meant the department did not take the nomination any further.

The white-bellied frog is a rare amphibian found around the Lower Blackwood.

The only other attempt at a Ramsar nomination since has been for a stretch of the Blackwood River in the South West running from the top of the Hardy Inlet at the southern town of Augusta and inland.

The Lower Blackwood River is a nationally significant wetland which supports two of WA’s most critically endangered frog species.

The white-bellied and orange-bellied frogs.

Once again there was an open consultation with general support only for the nomination not to proceed.

“While there was overall general support for both proposed Ramsar sites, there were concerns that the Ramsar listing would limit or prohibit current land practices … including agricultural and residential uses,” a spokesperson for the modern Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions said.

“Therefore, the department was not able to progress the nominations.

The Lower Blackwood River and its tributaries are a nationally significant wetland that was considered for Ramsar listing.

“The requirements to add a wetland to the Ramsar list are set out in the international convention and require a number of supporting documents including a summary of consultative outcomes for the nomination.

“The completion of the consultative outcomes document should demonstrate in-principle support by relevant landowners.”

WA Greens MP Brad Pettitt said it had been a failure of leadership that no listings for important sites had been progressed in the past decade with the last community consultation taking place 12 years ago.

“This is despite overall general support for both proposed Ramsar sites even back then. A lot has changed in the last decade and the latest State of the Environment Report shows that stronger environmental protections are going to be required if we are to protect these species,” he said.

“It is an upside-down process when key sites in Western Australia – which are identified as being of international importance in conserving biological diversity for Ramsar listing – are not listed due to agricultural and residential uses.

“Especially when these current uses are clearly not compatible with their international importance for migratory species.

“Species protection needs to be given greater weight in decisions making otherwise our key biodiversity indicators will continue to go backward.”

Biodiversity values have already gone backwards at Ramsar wetlands in Australia and WA.

In 2009 the country was criticised for not providing information on the neglected state of its listed wetlands.

A report from the WA Conservation and Parks Commission, which oversees the DBCA, in 2017 found Forrestdale and Thomsons Lakes in Perth had exceeded the acceptable limit of change for criteria they were originally listed for.

“The most significant cause of the exceedance of the limits of acceptable change for waterbirds at Forrestdale and Thomsons Lakes is the alteration of hydrological conditions that support populations of greater than 5000 birds,” the report said.

“Principally, this is a combination of lower maximum water levels, earlier drying out and reduced inundation periods. Associated causes are the spread of plants that prefer drier conditions and a resultant loss of wader habitat.”

Systematic waterbird monitoring stopped at Thomsons Lake in 2010.

The report suggested there was a lack of resources for proper monitoring of the Ramsar sites.

The need for more monitoring was also identified in the much maligned Strategic assessment of the Perth and Peel Regions, which has stalled under both the McGowan and Barnett governments.

A DBCA spokesperson said it was continuing to investigate opportunities to acquire lands for conservation estate that were within proposed Ramsar boundaries as they come up.

They said Lake Carnegie, an ephemeral lake near Wiluna, has been raised with the DBCA by traditional owners as a site of ecological significance which a biological survey has confirmed meets Ramsar criteria for listing.

“Any nomination will be progressed in partnership with traditional owners, through the Tarlka Matuwa Piarku Aboriginal Corporation, and will include broader stakeholder consultation as required,” the spokesperson said.

WA Ramsar sites

Becher Point Wetlands, Swan Coastal Plain – added 2001

Eighty Mile Beach, Kimberley – added 1990

Forrestdale and Thomsons Lakes, Swan Coastal Plain – added 1990

Lake Gore, Goldfields-Esperance – added 2001

Lake Warden System, Goldfields-Esperance – added 1990

Lakes Argyle and Kununurra, Kimberley – added 1990

Muir-Byenup System, South West – added 2001

Ord River Floodplain, Kimberley – added 1990

Peel-Yalgorup System, Swan Coastal Plain – added 1990

Roebuck Bay, Kimberley – added 1990

Toolibin Lake, Wheatbelt – added 1990

Vasse-Wonnerup System, South West – added 1990



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