Ramsar's "Montreux Record" -- analysis and recommendations (1996)

This paper was presented by Dr Max Finlayson to Technical Session B of the 6th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties in Brisbane, Australia, March 1996, and is reprinted here from volume 10/12a of the Brisbane Proceedings. It provides a clear and succinct evaluation of the operation of the Montreux Record at that time, and helped pave the way for the adoption of the Guidelines for Operation of the Montreux Record (Resolution VI.1, Brisbane 1996, Annex, section 3). -- Web Editor.

"The Montreux Record: a Mechanism for Supporting the Wise Use of Wetlands"

C. M. Finlayson
Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist
Jabiru, Australia

An important obligation under the Ramsar Convention is for each Contracting Party to "designate suitable wetlands within their territory for inclusion in a List of Wetlands of International Importance" (Article 2.1 of the Convention). The text of the Convention (Article 2.2) states that wetlands should be listed according to their "international significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology, limnology or hydrology". To assist the Contracting Parties in listing sites, a set of criteria was drawn up in Heiligenhafen, Germany, in 1974, revised and accepted in Cagliari, Italy, in 1980 (Recommendation 1.4), with further revisions at Regina, Canada, in 1987 (Recommendation 3.1) and at Montreux, Switzerland, in 1990 (Recommendation 4.2). Further, in Kushiro, Japan, in 1993, there was a call to investigate further changes to the criteria with an emphasis on fish habitats with regard to biological diversity and fishery yields (Recommendation 5.9). Thus, the process of recognizing wetlands as sites of international importance has been an evolving one and has still not reached a steady-state.

Whilst listing a site as internationally important is an important obligation under the Convention, it may not constitute anything more than a passive step for conserving wetlands. Thus, the Convention also obliges the Contracting Parties to "formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List" (Article 3.1) and inform the Ramsar Bureau "if the ecological character of any wetland in their territory and included in the List has changed, is changing, or is likely to change as the result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference" (Article 3.2). Thus, the Contracting Party is obliged to undertake active conservation steps (and management planning) to prevent the site from being degraded and to restore the value of any degraded sites.

Whilst the issue of change in ecological character of listed sites has been recognized for some time and is a fundamental feature of the Convention, there have been no official definitions or guidance to Conracting Parties as to what constitutes a change in ecological character. Recognizing the fundamental nature of these issues the Contracting Parties, Standing Committee and Bureau of the Convention have requested the Scientific and Technical Review Panel of the Convention (STRP) to develop guidelines for interpreting "ecological character" and "change in ecological character" and review the operation of the Montreux Record (Resolutions 5.4/5.5 and Recommendation 5.2).

The Montreux Record and ecological character

The Contracting Parties of the Ramsar Convention have addressed the policy aspects of change in ecological character in a number of recommendations and a resolution at Conferences spanning two decades. These pronouncements form the basis for addressing the important and, at times, sensitive policy issues within the framework of the Convention, although various critics have argued that requests for further consideration of these issues are indicative of the inability or unwillingness of Contracting Parties to really "grasp the nettle" and resolve them. Similar attention has not been given to the technical issues of monitoring and assessing the extent of change in ecological character at Ramsar sites. Thus, not only are the policy and conceptual issues dealing with effective monitoring unresolved, but we do not have a solid technical base for the active management steps that are required once the policies are in place.

Adverse change in the ecological character of Ramsar sites has been noted "with regret" since the 1987 Regina Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Convention. In Recommendation 3.9 it was noted that "a number of listed sites have been severely damaged or are under imminent threat of degradation". This recommendation further urged "all Contracting Parties to take swift and effective action to prevent any further degradation of sites and to restore, as far as possible, the value of damaged sites". The issue was taken further in Montreux 1990 in Resolution 4.8 which instructed "the Convention Bureau, in consultation with the Contracting Parties concerned, to maintain a record of Ramsar sites where such changes in ecological character have occurred, are occurring or are likely to occur, and to distinguish between sites where preventive or remedial action has not as yet been identified, and those where the Contracting Party has indicated its intention to take preventive or remedial action or has already initiated such action". The Annex to this resolution established the basis of the so-called Montreux Record of Ramsar sites where changes in ecological character have occurred, are occurring, or are likely to occur.

The Montreux Record has attracted considerable debate, with some Contracting Parties taking a very firm stance on the mechanisms for placing sites on the Record. These mechanisms were confirmed at the 1993 Kushiro Conference of the Contracting Parties (Resolution 5.4 annex). The critical part of the mechanism is that a site can only be placed on the Montreux Record on the basis of information provided by the Contracting Party. Where information comes from other sources, the Ramsar Bureau is required to consult with the Contracting Party and to obtain the agreement of this Party before adding the site to the Record. Needless to say, this clause has attracted considerable adverse comment from non-government sources, whilst governments are equally forthright in their determination not to relinquish any sovereign rights in this matter.

Given the many caveats within the 1990 recommendation (Recommendation 4.8) and 1993 resolution (Resolution 5.4) which established and then confirmed the basis of the Montreux Record, there is every chance that many sites undergoing adverse ecological change will not be placed on the Montreux Record. Thus, except for the fact that sites on the Record may receive priority attention under the Ramsar Monitoring Procedure (recently renamed the Management Guidance Procedure) and possibly attract financial support from the Ramsar Small Grants Fund, there would seem to be little effective reason for having the Record. This conclusion is supported by the analysis of Dugan & Jones (1993) which ascertained, on the basis of information supplied by Contracting Parties, that some 289 sites could potentially be on the Record. This disparity raises some questions about the process of placing sites on the Montreux Record and stresses the clear need for guidelines for interpreting "change in ecological character". This requirement was recognized in Kushiro 1993 (Recommendation 5.2).

Clarification of these concepts and the development of guidelines would seem to be essential if the Montreux Record is to be a meaningful mechanism for bringing attention to the status of the world’s wetlands as represented by those sites designated as internationally important. Given this situation, it is not unreasonable to assume that the very integrity of the Convention and its Contracting Parties will be questioned if this issue is not tackled and resolved in a transparent and effective manner.

Ecological character

The ecological character of a wetland generally refers to the characteristics that make the wetland of local, national or international importance. Thus, at the international level the Ramsar criteria for listing wetlands of importance could be used to describe the ecological character of Ramsar sites, although except for the waterbird criteria these lack precision.

Due to the dynamic nature of environmental and evolutionary processes the ecological character of a wetland changes with time, the rate of change varying among different types of wetlands. Thus, when determining the ecological character of a site some account of temporal change is needed. In relation to Ramsar sites, the date of listing as being of international importance could provide a suitable reference point. However, even this is a subjective measure and is heavily influenced by societal values at that particular time. Given that the Ramsar criteria for listing as internationally importance are generally imprecise and strongly biased towards waterbirds, some caution should be exercised in rigidly accepting these criteria as an unequivocal measure of the ecological character of a wetland. Thus, if the criteria are adopted as the basis for describing the ecological character of a Ramsar site, it may be necessary to supplement the criteria with specifically chosen information on the overall description of the site. Thus, whilst the existing criteria could form part of the description, they may not always be adequate by themselves.

The present descriptions of Ramsar sites vary greatly and should be reassessed with the objective of ensuring that they are standardized and provide a suitable baseline description of the ecological character of the site (Finlayson 1994). The adoption of the Ramsar Information Sheet (Recommendation 4.7 and Resolution 5.3) has provided a standardized mechanism for describing sites, but the response by Contracting Parties to using this sheet has not been overly encouraging. Again, unless the Contracting Parties can provide the basic data at the time of listing a site as internationally important, the basis for adjudging whether or not change has occurred will not exist. As with the operation of the Montreux Record this failure to comply with past decisions of the Convention raises serious questions of credibility.

Whilst it is not unreasonable to expect that a competent wetland scientist could describe the ecological character of a wetland at a particular moment in time, it is not as reasonable to expect that the extent of natural variability and evolutionary change could be described. A description that presents a ‘snap-shot" in time has value, but for assessing changes in ecological character resulting from anthropogenic factors it may not be adequate. The ecological character of a wetland is often not static in either the short or the long-term.

Noting the above comments on the difficulty of obtaining an adequate description of the ecological character of a wetland site, a basic definition of the concept was devised by Dugan & Jones (1993) and adopted by the STRP. This definition is presented below:

The ecological character of a wetland is the sum of the wetland’s functions, products, and attributes that are derived from the individual biological, chemical , and physical components of the ecosystem and their interactions.

The definition reflected an international consensus, given technical input to STRP from regional delegates (Ramsar’s global base is divided into seven broad geographic regions) and observers from IWRB and IUCN. It has been presented as a working definition that could be changed following further discussion.

The definition refers to wetland functions, products and attributes (values and benefits) that have been previously described within the Ramsar context (Dugan 1990, Davis 1993, 1994) and were also developed with international input, including that from IWRB and IUCN. These terms are given in Table 1 and provide a theoretical basis for describing the ecological character of a wetland, but do not assist with the practical and perplexing problem of interpreting the significance of a change in the ecological character of a wetland. Thus, we have achieved some level of consensus (but not complete agreement) on key concepts (i.e. definitions), but we still have not resolved the harder questions relating to the ecological meaning of change when it is detected. Monitoring can provide the information, but it does not necessarily provide the answer. Assessment of the information must follow if we are to provide guidance to those who are earnestly attempting to use wetlands wisely.

Change in ecological character

Changes in ecological character occur when the biological and physical components, and the interactions between them, are enhanced or diminished as a result of both human and natural processes. Thus, change in ecological character can be considered to either enhance or diminish the value of a site. In the context of listing sites on the Montreux Record, it is the latter that is of concern, i.e., adverse ecological change. This concept is captured in the definition of change in ecological character proposed by Dugan & Jones (1993) and modified by STRP:

The alteration of the biological and/or physical components of the ecosystem, and/or the interaction between them, in a manner which results in a reduction in the quality of those functions, products and attributes which give the wetland value to society.

The ecological character of wetlands can be adversely altered in a diverse number of ways: drainage, pollution and eutrophication, overfishing and hunting, dam and barrage construction, water extraction, canalisation and diversion of waterways, and the introduction of pest species, to name a few. Dugan & Jones (1993) also concluded that the processes that lead to ecological change could be combined into three general groups:

i) Changes in the water regime: dams and water extraction, including groundwater, alter the hydrological regime; eutrophication and pollution alter the cycling of energy and productivity capacity of the wetland; and dykes and canals have increased flow rates along channels, reduced seasonal inundation of floodplains and increased the risk of floods.

ii) Physical alteration: specific activities that replace wetlands with agricultural, urban or industrial land; drainage, infilling, polder construction and conversion to aquaculture ponds are all intentional changes that can destroy wetlands.

iii) Biological change: over-utilization of specific plant and animal species through fishing, hunting and harvesting can be devastating; additionally, the purposeful or accidental introduction of exotic species can result in intractable change.

All of these processes reduce the value of wetlands. Accepting this basis, the IWRB workshop on ecological change reiterated that only adverse ecological change was being considered.

However, the situation for Ramsar sites is not simply one of measuring adverse changes in ecological character, given that in Kushiro 1993 it was agreed (Resolution 5.4 Annex) that "the Convention Bureau . . . shall remove a site from the Montreux Record upon receipt of documents detailing either the remedial actions implemented successfully at the site, or the reasons why the ecological character of a site is no longer likely to change." Thus, there is also a need to consider processes that enhance or restore the ecological character of the site. This moves the discussion into the realms of wetland restoration as considered in Montreux 1990 (Recommendation 4.1) and wetland wise use and management planning as considered in Kushiro 1993 (Resolution 5.6 and Annex and Resolution 5.7 and Annex respectively).

When considering changes in the ecological character of wetland sites, it is therefore necessary to enter fully into the realm of wetland management planning on a holistic basis. Unfortunately, it would appear that holistic planning for Ramsar sites is even more elusive than comprehensive descriptions of said sites!

Guidance for describing the ecological character of listed sites

At the time of listing a site as internationally important, a Contracting Party is required to describe the site and submit an adequate map. The Information Sheet on Ramsar Wetlands forms the basis of this description, although a number of changes have been suggested by the STRP in order to increase the value of the information collected for assessing the ecological character of the site. New headings have been proposed to:

i) establish a baseline for describing the functions, products and attributes of the site that give it benefits and values of international importance (necessary as the existing Ramsar criteria do not cover the full range of wetland benefits and values which could be considered when assessing the possible impact of change at a site);

ii) provide information on human-induced factors that have affected or could significantly affect the benefits and values of international importance;

iii) provide information on monitoring and survey methods in place (or planned) at the site;

iv) provide information on the natural variability and amplitude of seasonal and/or long-term "natural" changes (e.g. vegetation succession, episodic/catastrophic ecological events such as hurricanes) that have or could affect the ecological character of the site.

It is recognized that, for many sites, such information will not be known at present, nor be readily available. The sheets will also only provide a snap-shot in time. However, the level of information in the Ramsar Information Sheet is the minimum necessary for determining management steps to maintain the ecological character of a listed site.

Sources of information which might be consulted by Contracting Parties in describing the ecological character of a site include international, national and regional scientific inventories of wetlands. It is realized, however, that many inventories may not contain sufficient information (see papers in Finlayson & van der Valk 1995). Existing management plans and other site specific scientific surveys or reports may also be useful sources of information. In gathering new data or assembling existing data, Contracting Parties should give emphasis to sites where there appears to be a high-medium risk of human-induced change with a high-medium ecological impact. International technical and/or financial cooperation may be needed to assist in gathering information about listed sites, particularly in developing countries.

Noting the need to keep the data on listed sites up-to-date, the Contracting Parties are further requested to verify the data on the Ramsar Information Sheets every six years. This could be done through the triennial National Reports submitted to the Convention Bureau, or during the intervening period urgent information on changes could be conveyed to the Bureau using the existing mechanisms of regular, day to day contacts. Provision of timely information will further enhance the value of the Ramsar site database and the credibility of the Convention.

An effective monitoring and survey programme is a prerequisite for assessing whether or not a wetland has undergone an adverse change in ecological character. Such a programme is an integral component of a wetland management plan (Resolution 5.7 Annex) and should enable full consideration of the values and benefits of the wetland when assessing the extent and significance of change. Monitoring should establish the range of natural variation in ecological parameters at each site, within a given timeframe. Change in ecological character occurs when these parameters fall outside their normal range. In addition to monitoring an assessment of the extent and significance of change is required, taking into account the need for each wetland to have a favourable conservation status.

Monitoring has been defined in the Additional Guidance for the Implementation of the Wise Use Concept (Resolution 5.6 Annex) as "the process of measuring change in ecological character in any wetland over a period of time". It differs from general surveillance in that there is a specific reason and method for collecting particular data or information. Further, monitoring does not automatically require sophisticated technology or high investment and can be carried out at different levels of intensity. There are many different techniques for monitoring and Contracting Parties should select the most appropriate to its priorities and available resources.

A framework for designing an effective monitoring programme is given in Figure 1. This is based on that presented by Finlayson (1994) and developed further for the Mediterranean wetland programme (Finlayson 1996). The framework is not a prescriptive recipe for any particular monitoring programme. It simply provides a series of steps, in a logical sequence, that can be used by wetland managers and planners to design a programme based on their particular circumstances and needs. Feedback links in the framework emphasize the dynamic nature of planning and implementing a monitoring programme where assessment and adjustment of the programme are an iterative process.

Guidelines for operation of the Montreux Record

As discussed above, the Montreux Record is the principal tool of the Convention for highlighting those sites where an adverse change in ecological character has occurred, is occurring, or is likely to occur. The steps outlined in Tables 2 and 3 are presented as guidance for the operation of this procedure as requested by the Contracting Parties (Recommendation 5.2). These guidelines cover both the inclusion and removal of a site from the Montreux Record. A questionnaire (Table 4) is also presented as further assistance. Implementation of these guidelines is encouraged in order to eliminate confusion and unevenness in the operation of this important mechanism for wetland conservation.

The guidelines and questionnaire reflect the attitude of the STRP with modifications requested by the Standing Committee of the Convention. The latter expressed comment on the issue of national sovereignty, the role of the STRP ,and the optional use of the questionnaire. The recommended guidelines therefore now represent a broad consensus of attitudes from technical and policy experts. The STRP also discussed the implications of more compulsion within the guidelines, but these were not deemed operable. However, it is anticipated that such questions will arise in the future if Contracting Parties are not seen to be using the Montreux Record in a transparent and constructive manner.


  • Davis, T.D. (ed.) 1993. Towards the Wise Use of Wetlands. Ramsar Convention Bureau, Gland, Switzerland. 180 pp.
  • Davis, T.D. (ed.) 1994. The Ramsar Convention Manual. Ramsar Convention Bureau, Gland Switzerland. 207 pp.
  • Dugan, P.J. (ed.) 1990. Wetland Conservation: A Review of Current Issues and Required Action. IUCN The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland. 96 pp.
  • Dugan, P.J. and Jones, T.A. 1993. Ecological change in wetlands: A global view. In Waterfowl and Wetland Conservation in the 1990s - A global perspective, eds M. Moser, R.C. Prentice & J. van Vessem, IWRB Special Publication No 26, Slimbridge UK, pp. 34-38.
  • Finlayson, C.M. 1994. Monitoring ecological change in wetlands. In Monitoring Ecological Change in Wetlands of Middle Europe. eds G. Aubrecht, G. Dick & C. Prentice, IWRB Special Publication 30, Slimbridge, UK, pp. 163-180.
  • Finlayson, C.M. 1996. Framework for designing a monitoring programme. In Monitoring Mediterranean Wetlands: A Methodological Guide, ed. P. Tomas Vives, MedWet publication, Wetlands International, Slimbridge, UK. pp. 25-34.
  • Finlayson, C.M. and van der Valk, A.G. (eds) 1995. Classification and Inventory of the World’s Wetlands. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands. 192 pp.

Table 1: Terms used in the working definition of "ecological character" recommended by STRP. These terms have been previously described within the Ramsar context (Dugan 1990, Davis 1993, 1994).

Functions performed by wetlands include the following: water storage; storm protection and flood mitigation; shoreline stabilization and erosion control; groundwater recharge; groundwater discharge; retention of nutrients, sediments and pollutants; and stabilization of local climatic conditions, particularly rainfall and temperature. These functions are the result of the interactions between the biological, chemical and physical components of a wetland, such as soils, water, plants and animals.
Products generated by wetlands include the following: wildlife resources; fisheries; forest resources; forage resources; agricultural resources; and water supply. These products are generated by the interactions between the biological, chemical and physical components of a wetland.
Attributes of a wetland include the following: biological diversity; geomorphic features; and unique cultural and heritage features. These have value either because they induce certain uses or because they are valued themselves.
The combination of wetland functions, products and attributes give the wetland benefits and values that make it important to society.

[Editor’s Note: Table 2 (Procedure to observe when considering the possible inclusion of a listed site in the Montreux Record), Table 3 (Procedure to be followed when considering the removal of a listed site from the Montreux Record), Table 4 (Questionnaire to be voluntarily used by Contracting Parties when considering using the Montreux Record), and Figure 1 (Description of the framework for designing a wetland monitoring programme) were adopted by the Contracting Parties as an Annex to Resolution VI.1 and published in Volume 4/12 of these Proceedings, and are thus omitted here.]

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