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Friday, February 02, 2007

Today is World Wetlands Day: Awareness article by David Boseto

Over the past years most of the research and work on conservation has been concentrated in the terrestrial and marine environments. This is simply because these two ecosystems support the majority of animal and plant life on earth. Less work has been done and information has been produced about the wetlands environment.

Wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life. Despite the fact that there is a lot of work carried out on the marine environment, little has been done on natural wetlands ecosystems such as rivers, creeks/streams, lakes, marsh lands and bogs. In addition human-made fish and shrimp ponds, farm ponds, irrigated agricultural land, salt pan, reservoirs, gravel pits, sewage farms and canals have received little attention.

Today is World Wetlands Day, a day to celebrate the beauty and bounty of wetlands all over the world.

It was on this particular day, 36 years ago on February 2, 1971, in a small city in a distant country, that the representatives of 18 governments signed an international agreement committing themselves to preserve and make wise use of the wetlands in their territories. The agreement was called the "Convention on Wetlands", and because it was agreed in the city of Ramsar, in Iran, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the treaty is now known as the "Ramsar Convention.”

It was not until February 2, 1997 when the WORLD WETLANDS anniversary was first celebrated. Since then the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day is celebrated by government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and groups of citizens at all levels of the community. The celebration usually aimed at raising public awareness of wetland values and benefits and the Ramsar Convention.
As of today, there are 154 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1636 wetland sites, totaling 145.7 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

What is a Wetland?
The Ramsar Convention takes a broad approach in determining wetlands, which come under its aegis. Under the text of the Convention (Article 1.1), wetlands are defined as:
"areas of marsh, fen, peat land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres".

In addition, for the purpose of protecting coherent sites, the Article 2.1 provides that coastal wetlands to be included in the Ramsar List of internationally important wetlands:
"may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands".

There are five major wetland types that are generally recognized:
· marine (coastal wetlands including coastal lagoons, rocky shores, and coral reefs);
· estuarine (including deltas, tidal marshes, and mangrove swamps);
· lacustrine (wetlands associated with lakes);
· riverine (wetlands along rivers and streams); and
· palustrine (meaning "marshy" - marshes, swamps and bogs).

They can be summarized into three categories: Marine and Coastal Wetlands, Inland Wetlands, and Human-made Wetlands.

Is our country (Solomon Islands) a Contracting Party of the Ramsar Convention?

You may ask, is our country a contracting Party of the Ramsar Convention? The answer is NO. However, there are a few intact Wetland environments in the country that require comprehensive studies that can potentially be listed as wetlands of international importance. This may be a starting point for our nation to become a contracting party of the Ramsar Convention. Nevertheless, this is something that depends completely on the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Government to work on. Furthermore, there is no specific wetlands legislation in our country.
In the Pacific, there are six countries (Papua New Guinea, Palau, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia and Fiji) who are part of a contracting party of the world that together are under the umbrella of the Ramsar Convention to protect and make wise use of their wetlands.

WETLANDS THEME for this 2007
Every year there is a theme to for Wetlands Day celebrations. This year, the international theme for World Wetlands Day is 'Wetlands and Fisheries', in recognition of the importance of fish and fisheries to all people around the world. Raising our awareness of the importance of wetlands and fish increases our appreciation of the challenges we are now facing in sustainable managing our wetlands amidst the many, often conflicting, uses.

The World Wetland Day slogan 'Fish for tomorrow?' encapsulates many of these challenges we are facing, which include:
· Sustainable management of fish (and other marine species) populations, especially those that are commercially fished
· Supporting sustainable aquaculture practices
· Effectively managing wetlands and other important fish habitats to protect and conserve fish populations
· Increasing buyer awareness of fish species for consumption

Healthy and functional inland and coastal wetlands play a very important role in the management and conservation of our important fish resources. They provide important habitats for fish populations, including rare and endangered fish species, and are spawning and nursery areas for many fish and other marine species.

Fishes are an extremely important resource. To date there are one billion people world wide who rely on fish as their primary source of animal protein. Therefore, there is a need to monitor and conserve our fishes. Sustainable harvesting of the fish resources for domestic consumption or commercial industries should be constantly monitored so that we do not deprive our children and grandchildren of the future benefits of healthy fisheries.

In addition to fishes, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds also use the wetlands as their home. They constitute a great asset for the diversity of animal life. Local communities, apart from enjoying the beauty and the calm company of these animals, can also make use of them as a tourist attraction and, thus, convert their beauty into tangible earnings for the development of the area, for education and health, and for improving the earnings of local families.

Recent studies shows that at a global level 44% of wetland bird populations for which trend data is available are decreasing or have become extinct, 34% are stable, and 17% are increasing. Asia is the continent where concern is greatest. In Asia, 62% of the water birds populations are now decreasing or have become extinct, and only 10% show an increasing trend. In Oceania one in six species have already become extinct.

Threats to WETLANDS flora and fauna
Wetlands systems worldwide are under severe threat. These threats are due to human activities such as poor land use practices as a result of logging and mining; catchment alteration primarily for irrigation, weirs or hydropower dams; pollution from urban areas, industry and mines; and invasion of exotic species.

Poor agricultural and mining practices often result in erosion of soil and increased turbidity, which may disrupt feeding success of fishes. Dams or weirs reduce or block flow to the extent that lower reaches of waterways can no longer support aquatic life and migratory species such as eels and amphidromous species lose their migratory paths and cannot complete their life cycles.

Increased world population raises the volume demands of water use in the agricultural sector, unsustainable harvesting of fish for food and industrial processes on which economic development depends. According to a United Nations report (1997) inevitable per capita shares of water for human use are increasing and water stress is becoming more widespread. Industrial untreated chemicals from increased agricultural practices are often washed into the water by heavy rain. These pollutants pose a major threat by significantly altering the chemical and biophysical characteristics of the water, making

Other threats to Wetlands include habitat loss due to land reclamation, overfishing and the pet trade. Loss of habitat through unsustainable development can cause a major loss to the biodiversity of the local area that has been affected.

Finally, our humbly request for our local communities is for them to become fully involved in the wise management of Wetlands. They are a great asset that we have the responsibility to preserve and at the same time the right to benefit from. This is the central philosophy of the Ramsar Convention, that there is a vital link between wetlands and people. Using this link wisely will help people to have a better life, and by doing so people will be ready to help conserve the beauty and bounty of these special places.

For the "Wise use of wetlands is the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development, will assured of Fish for Tomorrow."

*David Boseto is a Freshwater Biologist with the Institute of Applied Science at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. He is from Choiseul Province in Solomon Islands

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