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Framework for describing the ecological character of Ramsar wetlands

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Australian Government

Latest documentation


Designed for use in




Assessment purpose

Processes and components, Values/Services

Assessment criteria

Socio-cultural, Significance, Physical and chemical, Flora, Fauna, Economic

Method type

Field, desktop, expert panel


Medium-long term – The time needed to prepare the baseline Ecological Character Description (ECD) varies depending upon the complexity of the site.


Landscape/Catchment, Site/habitat

Wetland system

Estuarine, Lacustrine, Marine, Other, Palustrine, Riverine

Description and method logic

Method purpose

The framework is intended to guide the preparation of an ecological character description for a Ramsar wetland.


A framework has been developed to assist Ramsar site managers meet the requirements of the Ramsar Convention and the Australian Ramsar Management Principles (Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservations (EPBC) Act (1999)). The framework provides background information on how to identify, describe and assess the ecological character, of a Ramsar site, including guidance on interpreting terms and addressing Ramsar Convention and Australian Government requirements.

The framework builds on previous work to develop a strategic approach to the description of ecological character that focuses on the ecosystem components and processes that support the most significant ecosystem services, primarily those that relate to the Ramsar criteria for which the site is listed.

Method logic

To be included in Ramsar, a wetland must meet at least one of six criteria: biogeographic representativeness, important ecological or hydrological functions, provision of animal habitat during times of vulnerability or adverse conditions, support for more than 1% of national population of any taxa, support for any threatened taxa or communities; and historical or cultural significance.

The Ramsar Convention defines ecological character as the sum of the biological, physical and chemical components of the wetland ecosystem, and their interactions, which maintain the wetland and its products, functions, and attributes. This framework adapts the wetland ecosystem services from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Ramsar Convention to equate specific services to the products, functions and attributes in the ecological character.

It sets out a series of steps to preparing an ECD:
1. Introduction to the description
2. Describe the site
3. Identify and describe the critical components, processes and services
4. Develop conceptual models
5. Set limits of acceptable change
6. Identify threats to the ecological character of the site
7. Describe what constitutes changes to ecological character
8. Summarise the knowledge gaps
9. Identify site monitoring needs
10. Identify communication and education strategies
11. Complete ECD.

Criteria groupings of the method

Criteria are based on the Ramsar criteria. A wetland should be considered internationally important if it:
  • Criterion 1: contains a representative, rare, or unique example of a natural or near-natural wetland type found within the appropriate biogeographic region.
  • Criterion 2: supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities.
  • Criterion 3: supports populations of plant and/or animal species important for maintaining the biological diversity of a particular biogeographic region.
  • Criterion 4: supports plant and/or animal species at a critical stage in their life cycles, or provides refuge during adverse conditions.
  • Criterion 5: regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds.
  • Criterion 6: regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of waterbird.
  • Criterion 7: supports a significant proportion of indigenous fish subspecies, species or families, life-history stages, species interactions and/or populations that are representative of wetland benefits and/or values and thereby contributes to global biological diversity.
  • Criterion 8: is an important source of food for fishes, spawning ground, nursery and/or migration path on which fish stocks, either within the wetland or elsewhere, depend.
  • Criterion 9: regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of wetland-dependent non-avian animal species.

Data required

Published and informal literature relating to the components, processes and services/benefits of the site, including threats.

Resources required

Expertise required

Stakeholders and experts.

Materials required

Ramsar Information Sheet, site management plan, other published and informal information on the site,

Method outputs


This methodology is used to produce formal descriptions of the ecological character of a Ramsar site. The ECD is a rigorous assessment of the ecosystem components, processes and benefits/services of a site at the time of listing. It forms the basis against which any changes at the site can be assessed for significance.


The ECD’s can be used to support the requirements of the Ramsar Convention to maintain the ecological character of Ramsar sites and inform:
  • Assessment of likely impact on ecological character of proposed actions as required under the EPBC Act (1999)
  • Design of a monitoring programme to detect ecological change
  • Basis for reporting to the Ramsar Convention
  • Onsite and offsite management planning an rehabilitation activities
  • Future projects to address knowledge gaps identified in the ECD
  • Education and engagement activities
  • Conservation planning
  • Wetland monitoring
  • Communication

Criteria by category

    Physical and chemical

    • Ecosystem components
      • Chemicophysical
    • Environmental process
      • Biological
      • Chemical
      • Energy dynamics
      • Hydrological
      • Physical


    • Ecosystem services
      • Cultural services
      • Provisioning services
      • Regulating services
      • Supporting services


    • Cultural
      • Cultural services
      • Cultural significance
      • Historical significance


    • Significant components, processes and services/benefits


    • Ecosystem components
      • Vegetation


    • Ecosystem components
      • Fauna species


Recommended user

Australian and Queensland governments, local government authorities, regional NRM groups, wetland site owners and landholders, non-government organisations, environmental industry and consultancies, agribusiness, research and tertiary institutions, regional and local wetland centres, and indigenous interest groups.


  • detailed
  • publically reported


  • information available
  • cost and time

Case studies



  1. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (2008), National Framework and Guidance for Describing the Ecological Character of Australia’s Ramsar Wetlands. Module 2 of the National Guidelines for Ramsar Wetlands: Implementing the Ramsar Convention in Australia.. [online], Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra.. Available at:

Last updated: 7 February 2019

This page should be cited as:

Department of Environment, Science and Innovation, Queensland (2019) Framework for describing the ecological character of Ramsar wetlands, WetlandInfo website, accessed 18 March 2024. Available at:

Queensland Government
WetlandInfo   —   Department of Environment, Science and Innovation