by Luke Elder
Sabine Wetlands Walk, Hackberry, Louisiana (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Tourism Locations & Events – Peter A Mayer Advertising / Assoc. Creative Director: Neil Landry; Account Executives: Fran McManus & Lisa Costa; Art Production: Janet Riehlmann)
Sabine Wetlands Walk, Hackberry, Louisiana (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Tourism Locations & Events – Peter A Mayer Advertising / Assoc. Creative Director: Neil Landry; Account Executives: Fran McManus & Lisa Costa; Art Production: Janet Riehlmann)

Each year, anxious coastal communities watch the forecast for impending tropical cyclones—known as hurricanes or typhoons when they mature, depending on where they are.  When those storms approach land, as Hurricane Isaac did late last month, the communities in the path of the storm are reminded of the value of coastal wetlands, forests, and other habitat in protecting them from the worst of the storm’s effects.

In today’s world of rising sea levels and a warming climate, wetlands and wetland ecosystem functions are integral to climate change adaptation and mitigation.   In addition, wetlands are an important source of economic, scientific, and recreational value. Yet these ecosystems are facing degradation and destruction.
RAMSARThere can be irreparable loss to wetlands from the progressive intrusion of development into wetlands from the land side, and the erosion of wetland areas from the water due to man-made waterways and other activities.  Just over 40 years ago, nations came together to recognize the value of wetlands and nearby habitats, and to develop a framework for their protection.  The Ramsar Convention is an international agreement designed to help prevent this encroachment, as well as support efforts to restore, rehabilitate, and conserve wetlands worldwide. The Ramsar Convention protects wetlands for their unique ecological functions and services, like the regulation of water regimes and the habitat that they provide for biodiversity from the ecosystem level all the way down to the species level.
The original Convention on Wetlands was held in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971.  By 1975, the Convention was in full force, providing a framework for national and international action and cooperation for the sustainable protection and maintenance of wetlands and their natural resources and services. The Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that commits its member countries to maintaining the ecological integrity of certain wetland sites and to maintaining the sustainable use of these wetlands. The convention’s mission statement is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.
The Ramsar Convention is unique from other similar global environmental efforts in two important ways. First, it is not affiliated with the United Nations system of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, although it does work with other MEAs and NGOs and is a noted treaty associated with all other biodiversity-related agreements. Second, it is the only global environmental treaty that deals with a specific ecosystem: wetlands. The Convention uses a relatively broad definition of wetlands, which includes “swamps and marshes, lakes and rivers, wet grasslands and peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, near-shore marine areas, mangroves and coral reefs, and human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs, and salt pans.”
The keystone of the Ramsar Convention is the Ramsar List of Wetlands of  International Importance, a list of all the wetlands that the Convention has designated as sites that are important to the health of coastal and marine resources all over the world
The List’s objective 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 through the maintenance of their ecosystem components, processes and benefits/services.” By joining the Ramsar Convention, each country is obligated to designate at least one wetland site as a Wetland of International Importance, while other sites are selected by other member states for inclusion in the list of designated wetlands.
Some examples of Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance found in North America include the Chesapeake Bay Estuarine Complex (U.S.A.), Laguna de Términos Reserve in Campeche (Mexico), the reserve at the southern end of Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud, the Everglades National Park in Florida (U.S.A.), and the Alaskan site in Canada’s Fraser River Delta.  Any Ramsar site that is having trouble maintaining the ecological and biological integrity established by the Convention can be placed on a special list and can get technical assistance to solve the problems the site is facing. In addition, countries can apply to receive support through the Ramsar Small Grants Fund and Wetlands for the Future Fund for completing wetland conservation projects.  The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service serves as the lead agency for the 34 Ramsar sites in the U.S. and coordination with other countries.
The Ramsar Convention has a Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP) every three years to discuss and promote the further application of the Convention’s guidelines and policies. In terms of day-to-day activity, there is a Ramsar Secretariat in Gland, Switzerland, who manages the Convention internationally. At the national level, each Contracting Party has a designated Administrative Authority who oversees the implementation of the Convention’s guidelines in their respective country. While the Ramsar Convention is an international effort, the Convention also encourages member nations to establish national wetland committees of their own, include NGO engagement, and incorporate civil society engagement in their effort towards wetland conservation.
July of 2012 marked the 11th Meeting of the Conference of Contracting Parties of the Ramsar Convention, which was held in Bucharest, Romania. There, how the sustainable tourism of wetlands contributes to a green economy was highlighted.
The conference ended with accolades honoring great work done, and an acknowledgement of the necessity of continued perseverance and dedication to wetland conservation and restoration around the world.  From an ocean conservation perspective, the Ramsar Convention supports the protection of one of the most critical building blocks for ocean health.
United States of America: 34 Ramsar Sites, 4,122,916.22 Acres as of 15 June 2012 (Source: USFWS)

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge    18/12/86    
9,509 ha
Bolinas Lagoon    01/09/98    
445 ha
Cache-Lower White Rivers    21/11/89    
81,376 ha
Cache River-Cypress Creek Wetlands    01/11/94    
24,281 ha
Caddo Lake    23/10/93    
7,977 ha
Catahoula Lake    18/06/91    
12,150 ha
Chesapeake Bay Estuarine Complex    04/06/87    
45,000 ha
Cheyenne Bottoms    19/10/88    
10,978 ha
Congaree National Park    02/02/12    
South Carolina
10,539 ha
Connecticut River Estuary & Tidal Wetlands Complex    14/10/94    
6,484 ha
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary    23/03/09    
5,261 ha
Delaware Bay Estuary    20/05/92    
Delaware, New Jersey
51,252 ha
Edwin B Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge    18/12/86    
New Jersey
13,080 ha
Everglades National Park    04/06/87    
610,497 ha
Francis Beidler Forest    30/05/08    
South Carolina
6,438 ha
Grassland Ecological Area    02/02/05    
65,000 ha
Humbug Marsh    20/01/10    
188 ha
Horicon Marsh    04/12/90    
12,912 ha
Izembek Lagoon National Wildlife Refuge    18/12/86    
168,433 ha
Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs    02/02/12    
4,355 ha
Kawainui and Hamakua Marsh Complex    02/02/05    
414 ha
Laguna de Santa Rosa Wetland Complex    16/04/10    
1576 ha
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge    18/12/86    
Georgia, Florida
162,635 ha
Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge    01/04/11    
204,127 ha
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge    14/03/93    
1,908 ha
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge    12/02/02    
8,958 ha
Roswell Artesian Wetlands    07/09/10    
New Mexico
917 ha
Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge    03/08/98    
South Dakota
8,700 ha
Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin &
Hopper Lakes    02/02/12    
1,117 ha
The Emiquon Complex    02/02/12    
5,729 ha
Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve    02/02/05    
1,021 ha
Tomales Bay    30/09/02    
2,850 ha
Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands    05/01/10    
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois
122,357 ha
Wilma H. Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetland Research Park    18/04/08    
21 ha
Luke Elder served as a TOF research summer intern for the summer of 2011. The following year he spent studying in Spain where he had an internship with the Spanish National Research Council working in their Environmental Economics Group. This summer Luke worked as a Conservation Intern for The Nature Conservancy doing land management and stewardship. A senior at Middlebury College, Luke is majoring in Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies with a minor in Spanish, and hopes to find a future career in marine conservation.