While all care has been taken in the preparation of our Fact Sheets, they are a guide only and are no substitute for legal advice in individual cases. For any specific questions, you should seek legal advice. This Fact Sheet last updated: June 2019
Certain wetland areas have special legal protection under Australia’s national environment protection law: the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
These are wetlands which are recognised as being internationally important under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat 1971 (called the Ramsar Convention).
This Fact Sheet includes information about:
- The Ramsar Convention;
- How the Ramsar Convention applies in Australia;
- The existing Northern Territory Ramsar wetland; and
- The opportunities for public participation in conservation of Ramsar sites.
What is the Ramsar Convention?
The Ramsar Convention is an international legal agreement. Countries that are signatories to the Ramsar Convention are required to ensure the wise use of wetlands in their country and to maintain the ecological character of those wetlands.
A variety of naturally occurring and human-made wetlands can be listed under the Ramsar Convention. A wetland may be eligible for listing under the Ramsar Convention on the basis of its ecology, botany, zoology, limnology or hydrology. The Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance form the basis on which a site can be listed as a Ramsar wetland. The criteria includes sites which:
- Contain representative, rare or unique wetland types;
- Support vulnerable or endangered species, or threatened ecological communities;
- Support species important for maintaining biodiversity;
- Support species at a critical life cycle stage, or provides refuge;
- Regularly support 20,000 or more waterbirds;
- Regularly support one per cent of individuals in a population of one species of waterbird;
- Support a significant proportion of indigenous fish;
- Contain important sources of food for fish, spawning ground, nursery or migration path for fish;
- Regularly support one per cent of the individuals in a population of one species of wetland dependent non-avian animal species.
Wise use of wetlands is ‘the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development’. Ecological character is the ‘combination of ecosystem components, processes and benefits, and services that characterise the wetland’. See ‘What is the “wise use” of wetlands?’ for more information.
Maintaining ecological character
There is an obligation (in Article 3 of the Ramsar Convention) for signatories to make sure that they are notified at the earliest possible time if the ecological character of any wetland has changed, is changing or is likely to change as the result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference.
There is also an obligation to notify the Ramsar Secretariat if the ecological character of a wetland changes.
What is a declared Ramsar wetland?
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 protects ‘declared Ramsar wetlands’.
A ‘declared Ramsar wetland’ is an area that has been designated under Article 2 of the Ramsar Convention to be included in the List of Wetlands of International Importance or declared by the Minister to be a declared Ramsar wetland. The Minister for Environment and Energy may declare a wetland to be a Ramsar wetland if this is consistent with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention and the Minister is satisfied that the declaration will promote the management of the wetland in accordance with the Australian Ramsar management principles.
The main legal obligations in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which prohibit people taking actions that are likely to have a significant impact on a wetland without approval, and set out a process for referral of such actions, apply to declared Ramsar Wetlands.
How does the Ramsar Convention apply in Australia?
The way that Ramsar wetlands are protected by law in Australia is under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This legislation regulates the management of designated Ramsar wetlands by:
- Requiring people who are proposing to take actions which will have or are likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland to refer the proposal to the Commonwealth Minister for Minister for Environment and Energy before taking the action.
- Granting the Minister for Environment and Energy with the power to require environmental impact assessments where proposed actions will have or are likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland.
- Creating offences for taking actions that will have or are likely to have a significance impact on Ramsar wetlands without approval of the Commonwealth Government.
- Requiring management plans to be developed for Ramsar wetlands on Commonwealth land.
These obligations are explained in more detail below.
Referral of actions
A person must not take an action that has, will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland unless the action is taken with Commonwealth Government approval. An action means any project, development, undertaking or any activity or series of activities. This includes taking actions that occur outside the boundaries of a Ramsar wetland but are still able to impact its ecological character.
A person (or company) that wants to take an action that will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland must refer the action to the Minister for Environment and Energy. This is called a referral.
A referral is a document which explains what the proposed action is and whether or not the person taking the action believes that it will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance. In the case of a Ramsar wetland, a referral document would include:
- Information about whether or not the action will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on the Ramsar wetland.
- It may also include information about the impact of the proposed action on any other relevant matters of national environmental significance. For wetlands, this may include a consideration of the impacts of the proposal on migratory birds, threatened species or the marine environment.
For more information about matters of national environmental significance, read our Fact Sheet on Commonwealth environmental impact assessment.
A significant impact is an impact which is important, notable or of consequence, having regard to its context or intensity. There are Significant Impact Criteria in the Commonwealth’s Significant Impact Guidelines which state that actions are likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland if there is a real chance or possibility that it will result in:
- Areas of the wetland being destroyed or substantially modified
- A substantial and measurable change in the hydrological regime of the wetland, for example, a substantial change to the volume, timing, duration and frequency of ground and surface water flows to and within the wetland
- The habitat or life cycle of native species, including invertebrate fauna and fish species, dependent upon the wetland being seriously affected
- A substantial and measurable change in the water quality of the wetland
- Substantial change in the level of salinity, pollutants, or nutrients in the wetland, or water temperature which may adversely impact on biodiversity, ecological integrity, social amenity or human health
- An invasive species that is harmful to the ecological character of the wetland being established (or an existing invasive species being spread) in the wetland.
The ecological character of a Ramsar Wetland is the combination of the ecosystem components, processes, benefits, and services that characterise the wetland at the time it is listed.
Referral documents can be viewed online on the Invitations to Comment webpage of the Department of Environment and Energy. People have the right to make comments on a referral within 10 business days. This deadline is strict, so it is important to make comments within 10 business days. The Department’s website has guidance on how to search for referral documents and how to make comments.
Assessment of proposed actions
The Minister for Environment and Energy makes decisions about whether a referred action will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on the ecological character of a declared Ramsar wetland. The Minister has to take into account any public comments that he or she receives on the referral. The Minister must act consistently with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention.
The Minister can decide:
- That the action is a controlled action – this means that the proposal is likely to have a significant impact on the Ramsar wetlands. It means that the proposal will need to be assessed for its environmental impacts. For more information read our Fact Sheets on environmental impact assessment;
- That the action is not a controlled action provided it is taken in a particular manner – this means that the proposed action will not have a significant impact provided that it is done according to the conditions set by the Minister; or
- That the action is not a controlled action – this means that the action is not likely to have a significant impact and so can proceed without any further Commonwealth environmental assessment.
Offences for taking actions without approval
Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 there are criminal offences for taking actions which are likely to have a significant impact on a declared Ramsar wetlands without approval from the Commonwealth Government.
Where are Ramsar wetlands in the Northern Territory?
In the Northern Territory, there are currently two Ramsar wetlands. These are Kakadu National Park and the Cobourg Peninsula.
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park was listed for meeting all of the possible listing criteria for a wetland of international significance. The Ramsar listing covers the entire National Park. The ecological character description of the site and the listing criteria can be viewed on the Department of Environment and Energy website.
The Cobourg Peninsula Ramsar site is located in the Garig Ganuk Barlu National Park and includes all wetlands of Cobourg Peninsula and nearby Sir George Hope Islands. The Cobourg Peninsula Ramsar site meets four of the nine listing criteria under the Ramsar Convention as follows:
- Criterion 1: The Cobourg Peninsula Ramsar site is located in the Timor Sea Division Australian Drainage Division bioregion and the Northern IMCRA province bioregion. The site is an unmodified example of inland, marine and coastal wetland including: Coral reefs, rocky marine shores, sand shingle or pebble shores, estuarine waters, intertidal mud and sand flats, intertidal forested wetlands, seasonal creeks and permanent saline or brackish marshes and pools.
- Criterion 2: The Cobourg Peninsula Ramsar site supports a number of nationally or internationally vulnerable or endangered species including; Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, Pacific Ridley, Leathery Turtle, the Dugong and Saltwater Crocodile. Over 21 waterbirds listed under international treaties between Australia and China, Korea and Japan have also been recorded at the site.
- Criterion 3: The Cobourg Peninsula Ramsar site is located in the Timor Sea Division Australian Drainage Division bioregion and the Northern IMCRA province. The site supports populations of species, particularly mammals that are now rare in most areas of the Top End of Australia. The isolation of the peninsula and the islands offer some refugial protection for its biota from threatening processes.
- Criterion 4: The Cobourg Peninsula Ramsar site regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds.
The ecological character description of the site and the listing criteria can be viewed on the Department of Environment and Energy website. There is a Management Plan for the Cobourg Peninsula Ramsar wetlands.
How to nominate a site as a Ramsar wetland
The Commonwealth Minister for Environment and Energy has the power to declare wetlands as Ramsar wetlands. The Minister may declare a wetland to be a Ramsar wetland if this is consistent with Australia’s obligations under the Ramsar Convention and the Minister is satisfied that the declaration will promote the management of the wetland in accordance with the Australian Ramsar management principles.
Before the Minister may make a declaration that a particular wetland is to be listed as a Ramsar Wetland, relating to a wetland which is separately owned by a State or Territory, the Minister must refer their proposal to the relevant State or Territory, and give reasonable opportunity for comments on the proposal.
If the Minister decides to declare the wetland as a declared Ramsar wetland, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office sends a completed Ramsar Information Sheet to the Ramsar Secretariat for the site to be added to the List.
The Department of Environment and Energy publishes the Australian Ramsar site nomination guidelines that explain how to nominate a site for recognition as a Ramsar wetland.
Community contribution to conservation of Ramsar wetlands
There are several ways in which the community can contribute to conservation of Ramsar wetlands. Members of the community can:
- Report suspected changes in the ecological character of a Ramsar wetland to the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy, or to the Ramsar Secretariat. Recent assessments indicate that many of Australia’s 64 Ramsar wetlands have changed in ecological character since their listing as a ‘Wetland of International Importance’. The community can play an important role in monitoring environmental values of Ramsar sites.
- Contribute to the development of the Management Plan for a Ramsar wetland. The Australian Ramsar management principles require that there are adequate processes for public consultation on the elements of the management plan and that management plans are reviewed at least every 7 years.
- Comment on a referral of a proposed action under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 when it is published online. People have the right to make comments on a referral within 10 business days (read about this in the section on “referral of actions” above)
- Report breaches of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to the Compliance and Enforcement Branch of the Commonwealth Government Department of Environment and Energy.
Breaches of the law include taking actions without referral to the Commonwealth Government; failing to comply with the conditions of a controlled action particular manner decision; or failure to comply with an approval to take a controlled action.