Freshwater Protected Area Resourcbook

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5. Inventories of freshwater ecosystems

5.1 Inventories: an introduction


The development of inventories of ecosystem assets is a requirement of the World Charter for Nature 1982 (article 16.) and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands 1971, as well as being a core component of accepted resource management practices. This resourcebook aims to provide a brief overview of the development of State-wide inventories of freshwater ecosystems in Australia’s eight jurisdictions. All jurisdictions have inventories of biota97 or geomorphology at particular freshwater sites – however these are not the subject of this discussion: here we focus on State-wide inventories of particular freshwater ecosystem types. The purpose of the overview is to examine the current state of such inventories in Australia, focussing on (a) the existence of comprehensive classifications and mapping which might support the identification and selection of representative freshwater ecosystem reserves, and (b) the existence of inventories including value and condition data – needed to support Statewide planning and reporting frameworks.
When Watkins reviewed Australian wetland inventories in 1999, 17 inventories, mostly regional, were available (Watkins 1999). Inventories of river and subterranean ecosystems do not appear to have been similarly reviewed.
The definition of the term “wetlands” in this book is that used by Commonwealth of Australia (1997), not that used in the Ramsar convention. This latter definition encompasses both rivers and subterranean freshwater ecosystems. “Freshwater” is used in this book as a shorthand form of “aquatic inland”. The term “reserve” is used to encompass the first four of the IUCN’s six-part protected area classification. “Protected area” is used as defined by the IUCN. For further discussion of definitions, see appendices).
Estuaries98 are included briefly in the discussion below. Estuaries are amongst the most productive ecosystems in Australia, and in some cases the most vulnerable to human impact – absorbing both direct impacts from coastal development together with impacts from the development of their hinterland catchments. Rivers feed estuaries, and the two interact. Small coastal estuaries which open intermittently to the sea are particularly dependent (ecologically) on river flows. Estuaries and rivers should be treated as continuous systems. The continued focus on rivers to the neglect of estuaries seems to have come about because the old Departments of Water in each State were charged with the care of rivers (freshwater), while estuaries were left largely in the care of the immediate local government – a recipe for incremental degradation.

5.2 The need for inventories:


No business could survive without inventories of assets. Businesses seek to maintain or increase the value of assets, while protecting or enhancing the productive capacity of those assets. Asset management is based on knowledge of where assets are located, what their values are, and what their condition is. Where the condition of valuable assets is declining, management efforts can be directed in efficient and effective ways only if management knows what is happening. Inventories enable effort to be focussed where it can be most effective.
Natural values are distributed across the landscape, and must be protected within the landscape. A full range of biodiversity values, for example, cannot be protected within ‘captive ecosystems’. Even if it were possible, it would, in almost all cases, be impractical or uneconomic. Biodomes – simplified ecosystems designed to support a small number of humans – have proved impractical even when constructed at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Human activities also take place across the landscape. To varying extents, governments have designed frameworks (for the control and management of these activities) which seek to protect natural values. These frameworks can only be effective if knowledge is available of where natural values are located. Knowledge is also needed of pressures on these values (threats created by human activities, for example) and the way values are likely to respond to such pressures. This kind of knowledge must be available for particular areas or sites.
The values of freshwater ecosystems cannot be efficiently or effectively protected without inventories of freshwater ecosystems. Such inventories:

  • should be comprehensive – they should include rivers, wetlands, estuaries and subterranean ecosystems;

  • should contain information on the location of the ecosystems – where they start and finish, and where connections occur in terms of water flow;

  • should contain information on the values of particular sites;

  • should contain information on the condition of particular sites, re-assessed at intervals, and

  • should be readily accessible both to decision-makers (such as natural resource managers or local government planners) and to stakeholders inputting into the decision-making process.

Development assessment processes put in place by State governments generally work at one of two levels: (a) assessment of individual development proposals, and (b) assessment of developments within a strategic planning context. The first type needs information on values which may be affected in the vicinity of the development. Different levels of likely impact generally invoke different assessment processes. The second type of assessment process needs information on values in the planning region, to provide a background against which strategic limits on development may be imposed. Inventories can supply information to both kinds of assessment procedures; indeed, without this information the procedures and planning frameworks cannot work effectively.


Methods for assigning and measuring value have been developed. The National Directory of Important Wetlands, and the Ramsar framework both provide criteria of ‘importance’. Dunn (2000) and Bennett et.al. (2002) provide criteria, and general guidance on assigning and measuring the values of rivers and streams. The AusRivAS macro-invertebrate sampling program is focused not on value but on condition; however data from the program have been used in studies aimed at identifying rivers of high conservation value (Chessman 2002). The Commonwealth Government’s National Audit condition data should, by making this information generally accessible, assist in programs aimed at identifying and protecting high value rivers – simply because ‘naturalness’ (or lack of disturbance) is one of the values generally sought. Limitations on the scope of the Audit data, discussed below, imply a need for a layered approach in such studies.


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