Ramsar wetlands in NZ: Why are they important and where are we going?

By Waiology 05/02/2013

By Hugh Robertson

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is a global environmental treaty that “provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”. The Ramsar Convention was established in 1971, in the city of Ramsar, Iran.

Awarua wetland Ramsar site, Southland. Source: DOC.

New Zealand became a signatory to the Ramsar Convention in 1976, in the initial cohort of members. Nowadays, there are 164 countries committed to the Ramsar Convention – a truly international community.

A key focus of the convention is to designate Ramsar sites – wetlands of international importance, and more generally to improve the management of all wetland systems. Globally, there are over 2000 Ramsar wetlands, covering 204,700,000 hectares.

The same year NZ signed the convention, our first wetland became listed as one of international importance: Waituna Lagoon, Southland (3,556 ha). Since then a further five sites have been listed (Table 1). Waituna Lagoon has also expanded to form the broader Awarua wetlands Ramsar site of 18,900 ha, our largest Ramsar site.

The NZ sites are special. The mudflats of Farewell Spit, for example, support an immense biomass of invertebrates, birds and fish – with flow on benefits across Golden Bay (and wider). Waituna Lagoon is of high cultural significance and the Firth of Thames is a critical site for migratory species (Table 1). Recognising their Ramsar status also takes account of the ecosystem services that wetlands provide society, whether in the form of fisheries production, reducing flooding or tourism (PDF).

NZ Ramsar site Known for Area (ha) Date listed
Awarua wetlands, incl. Waituna Lagoon Extensive, intact peatlands, estuary, coastal lake. 18,900 1976
Farewell Spit Expansive mudflats and sandspit, high bird diversity, migratory species. 11,400 1976
Manawatu Estuary Important feeding ground for migratory species. 200 2005
Whangamarino wetland Very large raised peat dome/swamp complex. Australasian bittern stronghold. 5,900 1989
Kopuatai Peat Dome Largest raised peat dome in North Island, peat-forming Sporadanthus (rare bog plant). 10,200 1989
Firth of Thames Shell banks, tidal mud and sand flats offer extensive feeding for wading birds and waterfowl. 7,800 1990

*For more information, see the DOC website.

The global vision of the Ramsar list is to “develop and maintain an international network of wetlands which are important for the conservation of global biological diversity and for sustaining human life”. To achieve this, the Ramsar Convention has published a strategy (PDF) that recommends the development of “national networks of Ramsar Sites… which fully represent the diversity of wetlands”.

In a NZ context, I am often asked what the value of Ramsar status is. A typical question is, “isn’t our effort better invested in improving catchment management, or developing a fully representative network of protected areas such as covenants and national parks?”

My response is that the value of Ramsar listing is to significantly increase the international and national awareness of our most ecologically significant wetland ecosystems. The long-term benefits of having elevated community and stakeholder awareness can be hard to predict, but should not be underestimated. Ramsar status may also lead to the investment of more resources from government agencies, NGOs, business partners, community groups and iwi. While Ramsar sites are not closely aligned with any particular legislation, all NZ Ramsar sites (with the exception of Manawatu Estuary) are listed in Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act, and are therefore closed to mining.

The Department of Conservation has outlined future priorities for implementing the Ramsar Convention – including developing a more strategic approach to site nomination. Guidelines on what constitutes ‘internationally significant’ within a NZ context are in review.

Ramsar sites in waiting. Wetlands such as those within O Tu Wharekai (Ashburton Basin) may make complementary additions to the Ramsar network. Source: H. Robertson (DOC).

Once a site becomes a Ramsar wetland, maintaining their condition is a priority. DOC recently produced a national report summarising the condition of our six sites. Overall, there was little change in their ecological state over the past four years. Some wetlands showed improvement, for example through wide-scale invasive plant control, while others (Whangamarino, Waituna Lagoon) were under threat from declining water quality [1][2]. Initiatives such as the DOC Arawai Kakariki wetland restoration programme [3] and the efforts of community groups continue to help maintain these internationally significant ecosystems.

World Wetland Day provides an opportunity to recognise the successes of what Ramsar has achieved since 1971, and to reflect on both the positive and challenging issues relating to water management. For me, this includes recognition that New Zealand has come a long way since becoming a signatory to the Ramsar Convention in 1976, and an appreciation that 164 countries are able to reach agreement on global issues such as climate change and water (PDF) – yet recognising that many of our freshwater ecosystems remain under threat.


[1] Blyth, J.M. (2011). Ecohydrological characterisation of Whangamarino wetland.Master of Science (MSc) Thesis, University of Waikato.

[2] Robertson H.A. and Funnell E.P. (2012). Aquatic plant dynamics of Waituna Lagoon, New Zealand: trade-offs in managing opening events of a Ramsar site. Wetlands Ecology and Management 20: 433-445.

[3] Robertson H. and Suggate R. (2011). Arawai Kakariki wetland restoration programme 2007-2010: Implementation report. Department of Conservation, Christchurch.

Dr Hugh Robertson is a wetland ecologist with the Department of Conservation. He is the STRP (Science and Technical) National Focal Point for the Ramsar Convention in NZ.

0 Responses to “Ramsar wetlands in NZ: Why are they important and where are we going?”

  • II wonder at times, given the peculiar challenges and pressures humans have on wetlands, that the Ramsar Convention showed remarkable foresight. It predates CITES by a couple of years.

    Wetlands have never had the glamour of charismatic species, or the scenic aesthetics of forest reserves. Having a specific treaty that raised the conservation profile of wetlands, and encourage their preservation, was very encouraging.

  • I am concerned that the Waituna wetland is not fulfilling its original function as a tidal mudflat for 18 species of migratory
    wading birds. the local Authorities are determined to let it remain closed. All the flats are flooded, the water levels build up until the local farmers are also flooded then they let it go and they are back to square one until the long shore drift blocks the channel again and the 2-3 year cycle is repeated, Instead of dredging the creeks to minimise on sediment buildup, they should hold the tidal outlet open with a barrier to angle the longshore drift further out to sea.