Wetlands are amazing places. Combining land and water, they are home to an incredible array of plants and animals and are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth. More than that, recent research has shown that they have the potential to capture and store large amounts of carbon for hundreds of years. Wetlands should be on the forefront of the fight against climate change!
Unfortunately wetlands are not seen in that light. Here in Victoria we have already bulldozed or drained most of our freshwater wetlands and we are not looking after what’s left. In recent weeks, we’ve seen several worrying stories about recreational and commercial interests threatening the long-term health of wetlands.
We need a reappraisal of where we are at with wetlands – current protection is clearly inadequate. A great way forward would be a proper investigation of their status and management as part of a wider VEAC (Victorian Environmental Assessment Council) inquiry into freshwater-dependent ecosystems. VEAC has the independence and expertise to make recommendations on how wetland protection and management could be improved.
The Baillieu/Napthine government promised a VEAC investigation into freshwater ecosystems, then reneged and gave the council some pretty shonky jobs instead. Now the Andrews Government has the opportunity to set VEAC a really useful task. An inquiry into the status and management of Victoria’s freshwater dependent ecosystems – including rivers, wetlands, estuaries and groundwater – is well overdue and would set up a long-term framework for their protection. Then we wouldn’t need to report stories of conflicts of interest any more.
Hird Swamp is a freshwater wetland internationally recognised for its birdlife as part of the Kerang Lakes Ramsar site. It is also a game reserve where duck hunting is allowed, which sets up a conflict of interest.
Some types of wetland need to go through drying phases to keep their ecology intact. Drying out helps control weeds and manage nutrients, allows plant (in this case river red gum) regeneration and provides food and habitat for different types of birds, for example brolgas, bitterns and migratory shore birds. Ducks prefer their wetlands with water in them and tend to congregate where water is available.
Hird Swamp is currently in a drying phase and is being used by rare and endangered species such as the Australasian bittern and Painted snipe. The vegetation is doing well and there is no plan to deliver environmental water this year. Despite this happy state of affairs, Field and Game Australia has requested the Water Minister to fill the wetland with environmental water (1) to attract ducks prior to the opening of the duck hunting season on 21 March. So far the Minister has resisted, but this type of request totally undermines the principles of environmental watering which is to provide the biggest environmental benefit possible and conserve our freshwater environments for the long term. Providing environmental water to advantage particular species so that they can be shot is not part of the plan.
Lake Toolondo is a disused reservoir near Horsham that has been stocked with trout to provide recreational fishing. Given the parched conditions in western Victoria, water levels in the lake have been dropping and the trout were in danger of being left high and dry. The Andrews Government made an election commitment to provide extra water for the lake, which is now being delivered. The water is available because a local mining company is not using its full entitlement.
This sounds like a happy story for the trout fishers, which it is, but it has set an unfortunate precedent. The fact that water has been provided by the Government to support the recreational fishing of an introduced species in an artificial lake has been noticed, and the Government is now being inundated with requests to provide water for lakes and reservoirs that are drying out across the state. While these lakes have undoubted community and recreational value, they are not necessarily priorities for environmental watering. The job of the Environmental Water Holder is to provide water where it has the greatest environmental benefits, not to provide ideal conditions for introduced species like trout. There’s a whole Fisheries Department for that.
Reedy Lake is another internationally recognised wetland with a conflict of interest. It’s near the mouth of the Barwon River between Geelong and Barwon Heads and provides important feeding and breeding habitat for endangered fish and birds. Environmental water can be supplied through regulators, depending on the water level in the Barwon River.
The conflict here is with eel aquaculture which has been long established in the lake. Like Hird Swamp, the ecology of Reedy Lake would benefit from a drying phase. But eels need water all the time to grow and allowing the lake to dry out could impact on commercial interests. The Corangamite Catchment Management Authority has established a Lower Barwon Wetlands Advisory Group to help them sort out the issues, but so far the commercial interest has the upper hand and there’s no prospect of the lake being allowed to dry out. This could damage its long term health and put the values for which it is internationally recognised in danger.