Why are there no true freshwater protected areas in Australia?

Australia’s north is home to many pristine rivers, but most national parks are focused on land-based conservation. Carole Mackinney/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Freshwater ecosystems such as rivers, lakes and wetlands are precious. They contain several-times more vertebrate species per unit area than land and ocean environments, and they are more degraded.

Protected areas such as Alpine National Park and the Great Barrier Marine Park are a crucial tool for conserving wildlife on land and in the sea. But there is no similar protection for freshwater ecosystems in the world’s driest continent, Australia. Why not?

Protected parks don’t protect freshwater ecosystems

Australia’s National Reserve System is a network of more than 10,000 protected areas, covering approximately 17.88% of the continent. Naturally, there are freshwater environments within these areas and in state parks and international reserves (called Ramsar wetlands).

One example is the Paroo-Darling National Park in New South Wales. This area, like many others, meets International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria for listing as a protected area. But does this listing protect freshwater biodiversity?

Protected areas in Australia and overseas are rarely designed specifically to protect freshwater ecosystems. These areas have clearly defined boundaries, whereas the boundaries of freshwater systems are, by their nature, more fluid. Furthermore, restrictions based on terrestrial environments often do not protect freshwater biodiversity. Collectively, protected areas don’t limit many of the threats to freshwater ecosystems.

For example, the IUCN listing that covers Paroo-Darling National Park does not limit fishing, alien species, boating, or upstream threats such as water extraction, land-use modification, dam construction or pollution.

In other words, the National Park does not limit the major threats to the Paroo and Darling rivers. It’s a similar story right across Australia, where Ramsar wetlands and other freshwater areas remain vulnerable, despite their apparent protection.

The park’s named after its rivers, but it doesn’t necessarily protect them. Cgoodwin/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

River systems are complex networks of interconnected channels, floodplains and wetlands, through which sediment, organic matter, energy, animal and plant populations, communities and species all move and are transformed. This means that the design of protected areas must be tailored specifically to ensure that rivers flow freely, that their entire catchment is connected together without barriers, and that they are also connected to their lowland floodplains.

Free-flowing river systems in Australia represent an opportunity to create true freshwater protected areas. We suggest that free-flowing rivers should be considered for protection as either IUCN category Ia (“areas that are strictly set aside to protect biodiversity”) or category Ib (“large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character”).

Upgrading entire free-flowing river catchments to category I status would limit the number of people and type of activities allowed, but in most cases it would still allow limited-entry tourism, including strictly managed boating and fishing.

This strategy could generate both social and ecological benefits, but would obviously require careful consultation with regional communities. Yet there are examples of how it can be done: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the US-Canada border has been successfully given IUCN category I status. The result is that it has retained much of its natural character while supporting a tightly managed and lucrative ecotourism industry.

If we could harness ecotourism in isolated, protected river systems here in Australia, it could bring real benefits to regional communities, especially indigenous people.

Most of Australia’s free-free flowing rivers are in the northern half of the continent and represent the most diverse freshwater ecosystems in the country. Free-flowing rivers across Australia have been mapped as part of the National Wild Rivers Program, but this classification does not limit human use of these systems.

Restoration versus Conservation

Billions of tax dollars are being spent on ecosystem restoration programmes such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. However, there has been little consideration of the potential benefits of investing in freshwater conservation.

The main focus of conservation is preventing loss, whereas restoration projects such as the Murray-Darling plan tend to be more focused on recovery. To use a medical analogy, conservation is like preventative health measures, whereas restoration is like treating people once they are sick.

Prevention is better than cure, and the same is true for environmental conservation versus restoration. Yet Australia currently invests more in freshwater restoration than it does in freshwater conservation. This is understandable in southern Australia, where there are far more degraded systems in need of restoration than there are intact systems. But it is not the case in northern Australia.

The Murray-Darling plan, like most freshwater environmental interventions in Australia is largely a response to over-exploitation and degradation. But for more pristine rivers, we need to start focusing on protection, for example by preventing new dam projects and avoiding water extraction.

Where best to spend our environmental dollars

Given limited funds, we suggest that scientific analysis is needed to identify the most effective and cost-efficient methods of delivering environmental protection, through restoration and conservation.

The default approach largely ignores potential economic, social and environmental benefits of preventing biodiversity loss before it happens. If we are to conserve what we have, right across Australia, we need to protect it.

That means not just setting up national parks around rivers and hoping for the best. It means designing protected areas and restrictions specifically for the conservation of river and wetland biodiversity.