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Monday, 4 September 1989
Page: 925

Senator JENKINS(11.09) —I want to raise a matter that I think will be of concern to the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories (Senator Richardson). I refer to the plight of Australian wetlands which are of international significance, especially those in the south-west of Western Australia. Wetlands are amongst the most productive of all biological systems. They support a diverse range of wildlife, including many species which are important for agriculture, tourism and fishing, in addition to their water and landscape values.

Western Australia has relatively few wetlands. Only the Kimberleys and the south-west provide reliable feeding and breeding sites for water birds. However, on the Swan coastal plain more than 80 per cent of the original wetlands have been destroyed by drainage, clearing and development. Those which remain are vital for the conservation of wildlife. The remaining 20 per cent of wetlands, including some of international importance, continue to be targeted for inappropriate developments.

International agreements to protect wetlands are supported because waterfowl do not observe national boundaries and they migrate annually between different parts of the world. Many water birds from Japan, China and Siberia visit Australia. For this reason, Australia has negotiated agreements on migratory birds with other countries. Thus, Australia has legal obligations to protect migratory water birds and their habitat. Australia is also a signatory to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the RAMSAR Convention. Australia was one of the original 12 countries which, in 1974, signed the Convention. The list of signatories has now grown to 52 countries and several other nations are negotiating to join the Convention.

The Convention includes general undertakings to protect important wetlands and specific undertakings to protect certain wetlands which are placed on the list. Each signatory must designate at least one wetland for inclusion on this list. At present there are more than 400 listed wetlands comprising 30 million hectares. Australia has 29 wetlands listed. So far no Queensland and Western Australian wetland has been listed, although both States have wetlands which qualify. Many developing countries have shown greater awareness and have listed wetlands.

Advantages of listing on the Convention include increased tourism, increased visitation by bird watchers and naturalist groups, and increased interest and input of resources from scientific and educational agencies. In Western Australia 12 wetlands have been identified as meeting the criteria for listing on the Convention. Australian States, other than Queensland and Western Australia, have successfully nominated wetlands. Most States are proud to have wetlands included on the list. Listing on the Convention helps to ensure that the roles of the listed wetlands in the network of transmigratory water bird habitats are recognised and protected. Wetlands under the Convention are managed by the relevant State government. However, the Commonwealth Government could show good faith and could allocate money to assist in the protection and management of the listed areas.

The Western Australian Government has indicated on several occasions over the last four years that such nominations are being considered. Procrastination has allowed degradation to occur. As Minister Richardson said the other day, in Western Australia they are particularly slow. The degradation, which is now being used to justify wetland developments, is incompatible with wildlife habitat protection. In respect of Western Australian wetlands, I seek leave to table a photocopy of a leaflet titled The Vasse-Wonnerup Estuaries-A Vital Waterbird Refuge and Community Asset.

Leave granted.

Senator JENKINS —I thank the Senate. This brochure was produced by the Busselton Naturalists Club and the Royal Australasian Ornithologist Union. The Vasse-Wonnerup wetlands qualify for inclusion in the Convention list. I quote now from the leaflet:

The progressive loss of wetlands on the Swan Coastal Plain is well recognised. This places even move pressure on the remaining wetlands to provide sustainable resources for wildlife particularly waterbirds.

Given the significance of the Vasse-Wonnerup Estuaries the protection and maintenance of their conservation values is a matter of high priority.

Wetlands in the Dunsborough to Bunbury coastal strip have been reduced to the extent that many waterbirds in the region now have no summer refuge other than the Vasse-Wonnerup Estuaries. In their present condition, the Estuaries are of regional, national and international importance for waterbirds and therefore the community has a special responsibility to ensure that this asset is retained for this purpose and for future generations to enjoy.

The Vasse-Wonnerup area was proposed for conservation protection in 1974 and endorsed by the State government in 1976. The leaflet, which I have tabled, was published in 1987. Despite these expert recommendations no protective status has been accorded the Vasse-Wonnerup wetland system. Recent approvals by the Western Australian Government for construction of a marina and canal development on the Vasse-Wonnerup wetlands, not including further proposals yet to be approved, will inevitably destroy shallow wetland habitats. Photographs of these are featured in the leaflet which I have tabled. Another wetland of national significance on the south-west coast, the Peel Inlet, has already suffered such losses. The leaflet states:

Tens of thousands of waterbirds depend for their survival on the continued ability of the Vasse-Wonnerup system to provide much of their total requirements.

I raise this matter for the information of the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism, and Territories because I believe that when other signatories to the Convention are informed of the degradation of the Vasse-Wonnerup wetlands they will express their concern to the Australian Government. I draw this to the attention of the Minister in the hope that he may act to prevent Australia's good international reputation for habitat protection being diminished as a result of the short-sighted decisions of State governments intent on development at any cost.