State parliament investigating management of Victoria's wetlands, including the Gippsland Lakes

THE Victorian parliament is holding a public inquiry to investigate the management of Victoria's Ramsar wetlands, which includes the Gippsland Lakes, after a report found "limited evidence" of effective management.

The Gippsland Lakes are one of 12 bodies or networks of water in the state categorised under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands because of their ecological character.

But a damning report by the Auditor-General in 2016 found there was fragmented management of the lakes, significant problems with management strategies, "potential decline" in the ecological condition of some wetlands, and "limited ongoing outcome-focused monitoring".

A core reason behind the failings, the report found, was the "chaotic division of management strategies" between agencies.

The Gippsland Lakes includes a network of lakes, marshes and lagoons over an area of about 400 square kilometres, and is managed by Parks Victoria with support from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and catchment management authorities.

The Environment Protection Authority also has a role, and has conducted regular water monitoring in the lakes since 1990, at five sites.

Gippsland fishers have long held concerns about the increasing salinity of the Gippsland Lakes, and say degrading water quality is exacerbated by sea water, as well as some farm run-off, making its way into the lakes system.

They fear rising salinity levels in the world-renowned lakes system is putting the wetlands at risk and threatening the ecosystem.

In recent years there have been at least two major fish kills in the water channels leading into Lake Wellington, the shallowest of the lakes system, which fishers believe were caused by extreme salinity and oxygen loss.

The audit report found that monitoring the health of some of the states' wetlands was being impeded because of a lack of data and other "limitations", and concluded that long-term ongoing monitoring, evaluation and reporting of management actions was necessary to meet obligations under the Ramsar Convention.

Parks Victoria, which the report found did "no monitoring and reporting of implementation of its plans", did not provide a response to the Gippsland Times.

However, a spokeswoman for DELWP said it had systems to track and monitor the implementation and effectiveness of Ramsar site management plans, and, as part of $10 million of funding announced in the 2016-17 state budget to support the Gippsland Lakes Coordinating Committee, the Gippsland Lakes Priorities Plan was developed to maintain and restore habitat, protect fauna, manage nutrients and sediments, and manage water regimes.

EPA water sciences manager Caroline Martino said its tests continued to examine nutrients, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, salinity, pH and metals, and since 2000, the results, combined with DELWP data, had been compiled into the annual Gippsland Lakes Report Card.

She said the larger variations in salinity were a result of droughts and floods, but that the State Environmental Protection Policy (Waters) plan included targets for reducing phosphorus in Lake Wellington and set out environmental quality indicators and objectives for Gippsland Lakes, including salinity.

The monitoring results were also used in the development of the 2016 Gippsland Lakes Priority Plan and 2014 West Gippsland Waterway Strategy.

A spokesperson for the East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, which is the designated site coordinator, said the Gippsland Lakes Ramsar Site Management Plan 2015 (Ramsar Plan) was in place at the time of the audit, with the coordination of activities led by EGCMA in conjunction with the land managers, based on the Ramsar Plan priorities.

"The Ramsar Plan sets out priorities for monitoring across the lakes and a range of projects are underway by many different interest groups and agencies in our community, all working together on monitoring projects focused on specific Ramsar values including water quality and important species and habitats," she said.

The spokeswoman said the lakes were "dynamic", meaning water salinity levels could vary, driven by issues like the drought being experienced now.

"The Ramsar Plan prioritises actions to manage a large area that experiences changes constantly," she said.

The inquiry is expected to be an opportunity to examine what actions government agencies have taken in response to the Auditor-General's findings and recommendations.

Committee chair Lizzie Blandthorn said the inquiry would seek information from the agencies such as Parks Victoria on the steps it had taken to address the issues identified.

"At the same time, we are keen to hear from people and groups with expertise and interest in the wetlands and their management," she said.

Public submissions to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee inquiry can be made until November 29, 2019, with public hearings to begin in December.

Submissions can be made online.

The Gippsland Lakes Report Card is available online.

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