Freshwater ecosystems are amongst the most threatened, not only in Australia but around the planet (Saunders et al. 2002). Protected areas, as the name implies, exist to protect identified values pertaining to a specific area from processes which threaten those values. As is the case in terrestrial and marine environments, there are a number of roles that freshwater protected areas can play. These include (from section 4.3 below):
at a national level, protection of biodiversity against threatening processes through the establishment of a comprehensive, adequate and representative (CAR2) system of protected areas containing examples of all major inland aquatic ecosystems in relatively undisturbed condition;
the facilitation - through a process of the identification of natural values, ecosystem condition, and threats - of broad strategic planning processes aimed at the protection of biodiversity across the entire landscape;
provision for the conservation of special groups of organisms – for example, species with complex habitat requirements, or mobile or migratory species, or species vulnerable to disturbance and which may depend on reservation for their conservation, or species heavily dependent on particular (possibly threatened) habitats during certain life history stages;
provision of biodiversity ‘banks’ to recolonise damaged or degraded environment, whether such degradation has occurred by natural disaster, bad long-term management practices, or by accident (such as a major pollutant spill);
provision of scientific reference sites, either for research, or to provide benchmark indicators by which sustainable management may be judged;
protection of areas of high conservation value including those containing unusual diversity of habitats, communities or species; rare or threatened geological or geomorphological features; natural refugia for flora and fauna; and centres of species endemism;
protection of areas sufficiently large to allow extremely long term processes to take place, such as the evolution of species or landscapes;
assistance in the provision of ecosystem services: that is the provision of environments which sustain human life, including clean air and water, fertile soils, food, transport, flood mitigation, and the regulation of global weather patterns; and
within the constraints of the above, provision for the recreational, aesthetic and cultural need of indigenous and non-indigenous people.
Within overall frameworks for the protection of biodiversity and other natural values, representative reserves play an important, in fact critical, role. However systems of representative reserves cannot be established in the absence of background information; comprehensive inventories of aquatic ecosystems are a prerequisite before possible protected area sites can be identified and areas selected and managed. Most importantly, protected areas are not a replacement for good stewardship of lands and waters outside the reserve system. Aquatic reserves, with their issues of drainage and connectivity, involve important management problems often absent in relation to terrestrial reserves. These issues are discussed in more detail below.
1.5 State commitments and programs:
Generally speaking, freshwater protected areas can be established either through special purpose legislation (eg: Victoria’s Heritage Rivers Act 1992); through legislation designed primarily for the purposes of creating terrestrial reserves (eg: the Australian Capital Territories’ River Reserves, created under the Land (Planning and Environment) Act 1991); through fisheries legislation containing area protection provisions; or through management plans having authority under a variety of different statutes (eg: Canada’s Heritage River System3, which, if instituted in the Australian context, might take advantage of area protection provisions within catchment legislation such as Victoria’s Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994).
Table 1.1 (overleaf) presents summary information on a variety of Australian and overseas approaches to the establishment of aquatic protected areas. All Australian States have established protected areas over wetlands4. In most cases these reserves have been created using statutes focused mainly on the creation of terrestrial reserves. The statutes authorising the creation of terrestrial reserves are often called by titles like ‘Land Act’ or ‘National Parks and Wildlife Act’. This table, however, is focused on mechanisms created for the purpose of protecting inland aquatic areas.
Administrative models for establishing protecting areas over rivers, estuaries or aquifers.
Table 1.1 Administrative models for establishing aquatic protected areas:
A comparison of protected values and protection mechanisms.
yes – obligation to protect “free flowing condition”
both public and private
Western Australian reserves
Land Administration Act 1997
Implicit aquatic purpose27
Victorian Heritage Rivers
Heritage Rivers Act 1992
Act requires mandatory management plans s.10.
certain activities prohibited or controlled s.10, s.12.
obligation to maintain "free flowing state" s.9
Victorian Fisheries Reserves
Fisheries Act 1995
passive recreation only
Act requires mandatory management plan s.8928.
both public and private29
yes, s.88. protection of species and habitats.
Table 1.1 includes examples of different approaches which either have been used to protect inland waters (such as the ACT’s land-based river reserves), or have been created with a clear intention of protecting inland waters. Note that at the moment, Queensland fish habitat areas and New South Wales aquatic reserves have not been established in freshwater, although they could be in the future. They have been established in estuarine and marine waters. Similarly the Tasmanian Fauna Reserve provisions have not been used at this stage. The NSW Wild River provisions will be used for the first time in the near future30.
Table 1.1 is not intended to be comprehensive; for example South Australia's aquatic reserve provisions are not included31. These also, like the equivalent provisions of the Victorian Fisheries Act, have not yet been used to protect freshwater areas. Table 1.1 does not include discussion of ‘special area' controls in NSW32 and Victorian33 legislation, or the 'environmental protection provisions' in the NSW Water Management Act 2000 (see Chapter 6 and Appendix 4) – all of which may be used to protect discrete areas. The Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 provides powers to designate and protect critical habitat areas, which could apply to aquatic ecosystems: it is noteworthy that these provisions have not yet been applied to protect freshwater areas. In summary, the same comment applies, in fact, to the area protection provisions of fisheries legislation in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania – they all remain unused (in relation to freshwater) as of the time of writing.
An expanded version of Table 1.1 is available at the freshwater policy page of www.onlyoneplanet.com.au. The specific URL at the date of writing is http://www.onlyoneplanet.com/PolicyFailure.doc.
Table 1.2 (below) lists specific State commitments to the development of systems of representative freshwater protected areas, and the programs developed to put these commitments in place. More detail on State programs is contained in the discussion below, and in Chapter 6 and Appendix 4.
Table 1.2 State representative freshwater reserve commitments and programs
Commitment contained in:
Specific implementation program
National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development 1992
Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment 1992
National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity 1996
National Reserve System Program
Nature Conservation Strategy 1998
Nature Conservation Program - effectively complete.
Rivers and Estuaries Policy 1992;
Wetlands Management Policy 1996;
Biodiversity Strategy 1999;
The State Aquatic Biodiversity Strategy, due for release in 1999, has not yet been published.
Strategy for the conservation and management of Queensland wetlands 1999
None, however a comprehensive State wetland inventory under preparation should enable identification of poorly represented freshwater ecosystems. The wild rivers program, although a separate commitment, seems likely to assist in meeting systematic conservation objectives.
Wetlands Strategy 2003. The policy has an explicit commitment to representative wetland reserves, set against a wide interpretation of the meaning of 'wetland'.
None – however efforts are being made within the Parks program to purchase poorly represented wetland types (Nevill and Phillips 2004).
Nature Conservation Strategy (2000)
State Water Development Plan 2002, Conservation of Freshwater Ecosystem Values (CFEV) Project (design phase 2002-2004)
State budget 2002 funded the CFEV project (see Appendix 10 of Nevill and Phillips 2004). No specific funds allocated for project implementation in the 2004 or 2005 State budgets.
A Conservation Strategy for Victoria (CS)1987;
Biodiversity strategy 1997a, 1997b, 1997c
Healthy Rivers Strategy 2002
Heritage Rivers Program
representative wetlands component of the CS incomplete although progressing slowly.
This commitment was not reinforced by the draft Waterways WA Policy 2002 (Nevill and Phillips 2004).
The Waterways WA Policy, due for publication initially in 2003, has not yet been released.
All States have programs in place designed to meet commitments under the Ramsar convention - these commitments include the development of freshwater ecosystem inventories, and the establishment of systems of reserves covering the full range of wetlands included in the Ramsar definition of the term. In no State are these programs complete and up-to-date, although work, particularly on ecosystem inventories, continues - with Victorian, Tasmanian and ACT inventories being the most advanced.
The ACT is the only jurisdiction to establish a reasonably comprehensive system of representative freshwater protected areas including both still and flowing ecosystems. The ACT has had the advantage of being the smallest Australian jurisdiction, as well as having, historically, the most favourable funding. The ACT, Victoria, and Tasmania are in fact the only jurisdictions to attempt to directly action their "representative freshwater protected area" commitments. The Victorian program, while seemingly ambitious, has not been completed and is currently under review as part of the Healthy Rivers Program, with major commitments dating back more than a decade incomplete. The Tasmania system is under development, with the inventory phase due for completion at the close of 2004 - and no specific funds for program implementation in the current State budget.
Of the remaining five jurisdictions, Queensland and New South Wales have commenced the construction of State-wide freshwater ecosystem inventories, and South Australia is committed to do so (regional wetland inventories are available). In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, action has not been taken to put in place either comprehensive ecosystem inventories, or systems of representative freshwater protected areas - although regional ecosystem inventories have been prepared (see below). Instead, these States have concentrated on the broader bioregional framework of the Commonwealth's National Reserves System Program (NRSP), which itself did not highlight the freshwater reserve issue until 2004 (see discussion below). It is to be hoped that action will be taken within the NRSP to establish a nationally agreed approach to the classification of freshwater ecosystems into categories or types which could provide a framework for the long-term development of a national system of representative freshwater reserves. However, a recently-completed Commonwealth (Land and Water Australia) contract aims to obtain State consensus on the need for a national framework to protect high-value rivers and estuaries. This project could ultimately result in a cohesive national approach to the development of river and estuarine inventories, which could in turn be expanded to include all inland aquatic ecosystems.
Victoria, although a leader in policy, suffers from serious implementation problems. Major commitments relating to three important areas: representative wetland reserve systems, protection of representative rivers, and protection of heritage rivers, remain basically without effect after more than 12 years (see below).