No one government agency is solely responsible for managing wetlands in Western Australia. The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) is responsible for reporting on Ramsar wetlands and management of wetlands on CALM Act land. DBCA provides advice to decision makers and is involved in wetlands research and monitoring.

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are areas that are permanently, seasonally or intermittently waterlogged or inundated with water.

This water can be fresh or salty, flowing or still.
Wetlands occur naturally however. some may be artificially created.
Lakes are an easily identified type of wetland. These permanently inundated basins are well documented world-wide and notable in our dry landscapes.

Less familiar wetland types include sumplands, damplands, playas, palusplains, barlkarras, paluslopes and palusmonts.

Wetland types (adapted from Semeniuk & Semeniuk)
  Basin Flat Channel Slope Highland
Permanently inundated Lake   River    
Seasonally inundated Sumpland Floodplain Creek    
Intermittent inundation Playa Barlkarra Wadi    
Seasonally waterlogged Dampland Palusplain Trough Paluslope Palusmont

Waterlogged wetlands are being lost at a faster rate than other wetland types because since European settlement they have tended to be less valued than other wetlands. They have also posed less of a constraint to development or use because they hold less water.

Why are wetlands important?

Although Australia is the driest inhabited continent, it has a large number of the world’s internationally recognised wetlands.

  • Australian wetlands are critical to the survival of birds that migrate across the globe each season, and Australia is responsible for these birds under international treaties. Nearly 20 per cent of Australia’s bird species depend on wetlands, many on different wetlands for different parts of their life cycle.
  • Wetlands provide a home for other animals such as fish, frogs, tortoises and invertebrates, and many types of plants. They provide vital habitat for threatened plants and animals, such as the western swamp tortoise (Pseudemydura umbrina) found naturally in only two wetlands in the state's south west. They provide nursery areas for fish, and breeding grounds for wildlife, particularly waterbirds.
  • Wetlands help keep water clean and healthy by filtering out pollutants such as sediments, nutrients and pathogens.
  • Wetlands help reduce the severity of floods, while providing refuges for wildlife during drought.
  • Many are great spots for recreational activities such as camping, swimming, boating, fishing, bushwalking and birdwatching.
  • Many wetlands are culturally significant, for example gnammas.
  • They provide educational and scientific research sites for the community and academic institutions.

Wetlands of national and international importance

The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty on the conservation of important wetlands.

Australia has 65 Ramsar sites, covering more than 8.3 million hectares.

Being a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, Australia has undertaken to ensure our internationally important wetlands are conserved.

The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, protects Australia's Ramsar wetlands by applying consistent management principles and arrangements between the Australian Government and the states.

Any activity that may have a significant impact on a Ramsar wetland goes through a rigorous environmental assessment and approvals process.

Ramsar wetland sites in Western Australia

There are 12 Ramsar wetland sites in Western Australia.

Parks and Wildlife has the lead role in recommending suitable wetlands to the state government for nomination on the List of Wetlands of International Importance via the Australian Government and the Ramsar Bureau.

This process involves consulting with key stakeholders and preparing nomination documents containing details of the values and other features of each wetland.

Wetlands of national importance

As a key part of their commitment to recognising Australia's most important wetlands, all state, territory and commonwealth governments have jointly compiled a Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia.

The Directory identifies more than 800 nationally important wetlands, and provides a substantial knowledge base of what defines wetlands, their variety, and the many plants and animals that depend on them.

It includes information about their social and cultural values, and some of the benefits they provide to people. It is a valuable tool for managers and others interested in Australia's important wetlands.

Visit the Australian Wetlands Database for up-to-date information on nationally important wetlands.

Wetlands are identified as nationally important if they:

  • provide a good example of a wetland type occurring within a biogeographical region in Australia
  • play an important ecological or hydrological role in the major functioning of a major wetland system/complex
  • provide important habitat for animals at a vulnerable stage in their life cycles, or a refuge when adverse conditions (such as drought) prevail
  • support at least one per cent of the national populations of any native plant or animal species
  • support nationally threatened plant or animal species, or ecological communities
  • are of outstanding historical or cultural significance.

Of the 904 currently listed nationally important wetlands, 65 are recognised as internationally important under the Ramsar Convention.

Western Australia's nationally listed wetlands

Western Australia has 120 nationally important wetlands and wetland systems covering more than 2.5 million hectares.

Most of these wetlands occur within existing or proposed reserves managed by DBCA.
Some occur on private property or pastoral lease, or lands for other purposes so their conservation depends on community assistance through programs such as Landcare.

Migratory waterbirds

Migratory waterbirds include species such as plovers, sandpipers, stints, curlews and snipes.

These incredible birds make round trip migrations of up to 26,000 kilometres each year between their summer breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere and their feeding areas in the south.These trips are made in several weeks, with brief stops at staging sites along the way to rest and refuel for the next leg of their journey.

The corridor through which these waterbirds migrate is known as the East Asian - Australasian Flyway.

  • It extends from within the Arctic Circle, through east and south-east Asia, to Australia and New Zealand.
  • Stretching across 22 countries, it is one of eight major waterbird flyways recognised around the globe.

At least two million migratory waterbirds visit Australia each year during our summer.

  • At least 36 species of migratory waterbirds visit Australian wetlands each year.
    • A further 16 species occasionally visit Australia.
    • Another 15 species—at least 1.1 million birds—permanently live in Australia.
  • In about September each year, hundreds of thousands of migratory waterbirds begin to arrive and inhabit wetlands of Western Australia's north- and south-west, feeding mostly on the invertebrates that live in shallow water in drying wetlands, tidal flats and salt marshes.
  • Common species include the red-necked stint, curlew sandpiper, sharp-tailed sandpiper, bar-tailed godwit and greenshank.

Conserving migratory waterbirds

Migratory waterbirds and their habitats are internationally protected because:

  • land use activities such as agriculture, mining and urban development can impact on wetlands visited by migratory waterbirds.
  • along their migratory route, the birds stop at many different wetlands. Because disturbance at one site affects the entire network of wetlands used by these birds, it is important to protect wetlands all along the flyway.

Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy

Australia, with other countries, has developed regional strategies to help protect the habitats of migratory waterbirds, the most recent of which is the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.

Its goal is to recognise and manage a network of important wetland sites to ensure the long-term conservation of migratory shorebirds along the flyway.

Nineteen of these important sites are in Australia, four in Western Australia within Ramsar Sites and managed by the department:

Its goal is to recognise and manage a network of important wetland sites to ensure the long-term conservation of migratory shorebirds along the flyway.

Nineteen of these important sites are in Australia, four in Western Australia within Ramsar Sites and managed by the department:

Thomsons Lake
Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve (Ord River Floodplain)
Eighty Mile Beach Marine Park
Roebuck Bay Marine Park.

International agreements on migratory waterbird conservation

Australia is a signatory to three international agreements that protect and recognise the importance of conserving migratory birds and their habitats:

Species of migratory birds that occur in Australia, Japan, China and the Republic of Korea are listed under the three agreements.

Related Resources:

Shorebirds and seabirds of the Pilbara coast and islands

The Pilbara coast and islands, including the Exmouth Gulf, provide important refuge for a number of shorebird and seabird species. For migratory shorebirds, sandy spits, sandbars, rocky shores, sandy beaches, salt marshes, intertidal flats and mangroves are important feeding and resting habitat during spring and summer, when the birds escape the harsh winter of their northern hemisphere breeding grounds.