A third of global freshwater crayfish populations are threatened with extinction, according to a newly published report. A large team of researchers from the UK, Ireland, USA, Mexico, Australia and Austria, led by Nadia Richman at the Zoological Society of London, evaluated the extinction risk of the world’s 590 freshwater crayfish species based on the IUCN Red List categories.
32% of global crayfish species were classified by the team as ‘at risk of extinction’, a figure far higher than for most marine and land-dwelling animals and plants. This high extinction risk is unlikely to be helped by the fact that only a small proportion of global crayfish populations are covered by existing protected areas for conservation.
Bringing together scattered information on crayfish populations
The team undertook the huge task of collecting species-specific data on taxonomy, distribution, population trends, ecology, biology, threats and conservation measures for all 590 global species, using published and unpublished articles, government reports and personal communications up to 2009.
Interestingly, whilst crayfish were found in 60 countries across the world, 98% of species are endemic (i.e. found only in one place) to a single country. Four described species are now extinct, and 21% of species are ‘data deficient‘, because their populations haven’t been studied by scientists enough to assess their conservation status.
Stressors and threats to crayfish populations
The team used the ‘standard lexicon’ of biodiversity threats proposed by Nick Salafsky and colleagues in 2008 in Conservation Biology to categorise the threats to global crayfish populations.
Whilst the paper doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about the specific threats, it suggests that in the USA and Mexico, crayfish were largely threatened by the development of urban areas (e.g. modification of watercourses, reductions in natural habitat, increased water temperatures), dam construction (e.g. changing water flows and habitat fragmentation) and water pollution.
On the other hand, in Australia, species were predominantly threatened by the negative impacts of agriculture and logging (e.g. habitat alterations), climate change (e.g. changes to rainfall and temperature) and invasive species.
The impact of invasive species
The impact of invasive species was a major factor in many declining crayfish populations. In Europe, population declines of between 50% and 80% have been observed in the white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes) and 50% and 70% in the noble crayfish (Astacus Astacus). These declines were most acute at the northern end of the species’ geographical distributions, where rising temperatures have allowed the larger American signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) to move in and outcompete the native species for habitat and food, with a number of negative effects on the wider ecosystem.
The signal crayfish has also brings the infectious and deadly water mould known as ‘crayfish plague’ (Aphanomyces astaci), to which it is immune, but European species are not. In Australia, young crayfish are eaten by invasive predators such as cane toads and feral pigs, species which also damage the crayfishes’ riparian habitat.
The authors of this study argue that their findings are another indication that not only are freshwater ecosystems under numerous threats, they are also inadequately protected by current conservation schemes. Richman and colleagues suggest that since there are limited resources available for conservation schemes, it is necessary to prioritise areas for protection – a key motivation for the collation of information on crayfish populations in this study.
A key challenge for conservation is that climate change may mean that crayfish populations need to shift their geographical ‘ranges’ to avoid warming temperatures, requiring a network of potential habitats (rivers, streams and lakes) with connectivity – i.e. those that crayfish can move between – in order to maintain their ecological resilience. The study suggests that two-thirds of Australian crayfish populations are at risk from climate-related threats, with poor connectivity between new, potential habitats.
At present, only a small proportion of crayfish populations are covered by existing protected areas. But how can this situation be improved? The authors suggest that freshwater biodiversity is all too often underrepresented in conservation planning schemes because we struggle to put an economic value on it, and conservation funds are more often channelled towards ‘charismatic‘ species with a recognised value.
This ‘if we can better value nature, then we can better protect it‘ argument has become more prevalent in conservation rhetoric in the last decade or so. But what new economic values of crayfish populations would persuade policy makers to put better protected areas in place for their conservation? Crayfish are important food sources for larger fish and bird predators, and a central part to cuisine and culture in southern USA states like Missouri and Mississippi.
But their status as rarely seen parts of large and complex freshwater food webs is likely to make any specific economic valuations of their populations tricky. It’s perhaps helpful to remember that these are beautiful, curious and ecologically important creatures with an intrinsic value in themselves. But how to recognise these values in conservation planning?
In essence, perhaps this is another example of a key issue facing freshwater conservationists: how do we persuade policy makers that our complex, biodiverse and increasingly threatened rivers and lakes are worth conserving and protecting?
REFORM, a European Union FP7 project which has worked to develop strategies for restoring damaged river ecosystems is holding its final project conference in the Netherlands in the summer.
The conference, titled “Novel Approaches to Assess and Rehabilitate Modified Rivers”, will be held at Wageningen in central Netherlands between 30th June and 2nd July at the Hof van Wageningen.
The conference organisers from the REFORM project describe that “The purpose of the conference is to enlarge awareness of the need and appreciation for the benefits of river rehabilitation. It will serve as a platform to present and discuss aspirations, challenges, analytical frameworks and novel approaches to improve our understanding of the causes and consequences of hydromorphological degradation and to enhance river rehabilitation.”
Bringing together over 200 participants from a range of backgrounds, the conference will host sessions on: understanding the impacts of hydromorphological modification and other stressors; achievements by river restoration projects; the effectiveness and costs of river restoration; the wider benefits of river restoration to society, flood protection, agriculture and hydropower; and how to link restoration science to policy, through a set of tools to assess river status and guide rehabilitation.
Registration opens on the 23rd January, whilst the deadlines for submission are 31st January (abstracts) and 20th March (full papers).
The January 2015 edition of the Science of the Total Environment journal features of selection of articles on the theme of “Towards a better understanding of the links between stressors, hazard assessment and ecosystem services under water scarcity.” The issue features three articles by the supporters of this blog, the MARS, SOLUTIONS and GLOBAQUA projects, discussing three different perspectives on studying and managing multiple stressors – i.e. factors such as pollution and drought which may have negative effects on the ecosystem – in freshwaters.
The issue’s editors, Julián Blasco, Alícia Navarro-Ortega and Damià Barceló describe water scarcity and water quality as key issues for environmental management, particularly as growing human populations and climate change are likely to put increased pressure on freshwater resources in the future. Blasco and colleagues outline how water scarcity is not only a stressor in its own right, but that it can ‘drive’ other stressors, stating that, “intermittent water flow has implications for hydrologic connectivity, negative side effects on biodiversity, water quality, and river ecosystem functioning. Water scarcity can amplify the effects of water pollution by reducing the natural diluting capacity of rivers.”
Climate change is likely to further drive the effect of stressors on freshwater ecosystems, as “warmer temperatures and reduced river flows will likely increase the physiological burden of pollution on the aquatic biota, and biological feedback between stressors (e.g. climate change and nutrient pollution) may produce unexpected outcomes.” The impacts of human development on freshwater ecosystems – the “degradation of drainage basins, destruction of natural habitats, over-exploitation of fish populations and other natural resources, or the establishment of invasive species” – are also likely to be worsened in times of drought and water scarcity. The authors state that these relationships between stressors may be synergistic, in that their combined effect may be greater that the sum of their individual effects.
As a result, the issue’s editors write that water scarcity is an important focus for study because it has both direct (i.e. the lack of water availability and flow) and indirect (i.e. the interaction with other stressors) stressor effects on freshwater ecosystem health and ecosystem service provision (e.g. fishing and clean water) Understanding the effects of water scarcity on freshwater ecosystems is particularly important in semi-arid regions, such as the Mediterranean basin where river flows may be highly variable, and at times non-existent (see our post on temporary rivers here).
In this issue, the editors bring together a set of papers on the topic, presented at the 4th SCARCE International Conference held in Cádiz, Spain, on 25–26 November 2013.
The MARS article, written by Daniel Hering and 19 other project scientists, outlines the background and aims of the project (see our blogs here and here), describing how multiple freshwater stressors are caused by a range of human activities such as urban and agricultural development, hydropower development, and (increasingly) climate change. Undertaking experiments and computer modelling on multiple stressors at three geographic scales – the water body (i.e. individual rivers and lakes); the river basin; and the European continent – Hering and colleagues state that “understanding how stressors interfere and impact upon ecological status and ecosystem services is essential for developing effective River Basin Management Plans (in the Water Framework Directive) and shaping future environmental policy.” Accordingly, this is a key focus for the project.
The GLOBAQUA article (open access) written by Alícia Navarro-Ortega and 29 project partners, focuses specifically on managing multiple freshwater stressors in water scarce ecosystems. The team’s focus is on “identifying the prevalence, interaction and linkages between stressors, and to assess their effects on the chemical and ecological status of freshwater ecosystems in order to improve water management practice and policies.” A multidisciplianary team drawn from specialists in hydrology, chemistry, biology, geomorphology, modelling, socio-economics, governance science, knowledge brokerage, and policy advocacy work across six European river basins affected by water scarcity: Ebro, Adige, Sava, Evrotas, Anglian and Souss Massa. Using data mining, field and laboratory research and computer modelling, the project asks:
- How does water scarcity interact with other existing stressors in the study river basins?
- How will these interactions change according to the different scenarios of future global change?
- Which will be the foreseeable consequences for river ecosystems? How will these in turn affect the services the ecosystems provide?
- How should management and policies be adapted to minimise the ecological, economic and societal consequences?
Finally, the SOLUTIONS article, written by Werner Brack and 28 project partners, outlines the project’s work on the complex ‘cocktail’ of new and emerging pollutants entering Europe’s freshwaters, to “develop the tools for the identification, prioritisation and assessment of those water contaminants that may pose a risk to ecosystems and human health.” Working on the Rhine and Danube basins, as well as smaller basins in the Mediterranean region, the project uses new chemical and effect-based (i.e. linking the chemical composition of water to its ecological effects – see a blog on the topic here) monitoring tools, to allow for “early detection, identification, prioritisation, and abatement of chemicals in the water cycle” to support the work of environmental managers and policy makers. In particular, the article outlines how SOLUTIONS is designed to support European-scale environmental policy making, “providing transparent and evidence-based candidates or River Basin Specific Pollutants in the case study basins and assisting future review of priority pollutants under the Water Framework Directive as well as potential abatement options.”
A happy new year to all our readers. In 2014 we made a few changes to this blog, renaming it as The Freshwater Blog, and moving its editorship from the BioFresh project to MARS.
As ever, though, in 2015 we intend to bring you the same mix of features and interviews about why our global freshwaters are special, and what projects like MARS and SOLUTIONS are doing to help conserve and safeguard their future. If you’ve any suggestions, comments or ideas, please feel free to email us: info [at] freshwaterblog.eu
For now, here’s fourteen of our most popular posts from 2014, we hope you enjoy them.
“The heavy floods in early 2014 in the UK have caused two fascinating social effects. First, as freshwater breaks its usual bounds and becomes a risk to life and livelihood, a wider group of people become interested in how our water should be managed, and why. Second, we begin to encounter complex ideas of uncertainty in understanding the drivers and causes of such flooding events and their interaction: heavy, sustained rainfall; urbanisation on the flood plain; silted, hydrologically inefficient (but perhaps, biodiverse) river channels. What are the main drivers of these floods? How do they interact? And what measures should we prioritise for future management?” (link)
“Recently I read a newspaper article about the growing public awareness regarding environmental issues. Despite this, however, there is no effective halting of biodiversity loss in our freshwaters, and salmon shoals do not yet return to German rivers. This seems contradictory, but it is symptomatic of our modern-day society: walking the thin line between green consciousness and green-washing. I believe that MARS can provide a fundamental contribution to enhance sustainable management of our freshwaters for the benefits of humans and nature.” (link)
“At present, much of Israel’s freshwater diversity remains un-catalogued – a shortfall that is particularly acute amongst smaller organisms such as insects, crayfish, snails and worms. Without knowing exactly what biodiversity is present, it is impossible to know what is being lost.” (link)
“In February 2014 a family of wild beavers were photographed on the River Otter in Devon, South West England by a retired ecologist. The animals are believed to be the first evidence of populations living and breeding outside captivity in England for over 400 years. Their (re)discovery prompts a number of questions for the form and function of British freshwaters. What impact will the beavers return have on freshwater ecosystems and human livelihoods? What reference conditions do we use to monitor and assess restoration and reintroductions? How can the new ecological stresses and processes caused by beavers be managed in such environmental restoration, if at all? These questions are central to the MARS project’s wider research on stress and environmental restoration.” (link)
“Recent findings from NASA’s Curiosity Rover mission to Mars have suggested that a large freshwater lake, potentially capable of supporting life, existed on the planet around 3.5 billion years ago – around the time that life began to emerge on Earth. So, as the MARS project works on Earth’s freshwaters, the Curiosity Rover is uncovering evidence of freshwater on Mars.” (link)
“Worldwide efforts to conserve river ecosystems are failing, and new approaches for stronger conservation planning are required. This is the underlying context of a new editorial ‘Rebalancing the philosophy of river conservation’ by MARS scientist Steve Ormerod in Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. Ormerod suggests that the ecosystem service approach can offer a valuable addition to current river conservation strategies, potentially providing convincing new arguments to help halt freshwater biodiversity loss.” (link)
“One of the main values of the blog is as a node on a network of different people loosely connected with freshwater research, conservation and policy. This network also includes wider interest groups: fishermen, aquarium keepers, wild swimmers and the general public. The blog becomes a place where all sorts of information can be pulled together and put across in a clear, engaging way. I think ideally, it brings different people together to find out and celebrate the value of freshwaters.”
“Not all rivers and streams plot a constant course towards the sea. Some naturally dry up when there is little rain, leaving behind a dry stream bed which floods the next time there is a heavy storm. In fact, most river systems have areas where at least some of the river bed will dry up, usually for days, sometimes for months or years. A new journal article in Science by Vicenç Acuña and colleagues including BioFresh leader Klement Tockner argues whilst temporary rivers and streams are extremely important, both ecologically and culturally, they are not adequately managed and protected by current environmental policy.” (link)
“Deculverting or ‘daylighting’ is the process of uncovering buried urban rivers and streams, and restoring them to more natural conditions. Daylighting can create new habitat for plants and animals, potentially reduce flood risks, and create new ‘green corridors’ through urban areas, a good example being the highly successful restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul, South Korea. Adam Broadhead’s Daylighting website maps deculverting projects around the world as a means of sharing information on their outcomes and effectiveness. We spoke to Adam to find out more about this fascinating and innovative project.” (link)
“Anglers are the eyes and ears of the waterside. They spot pollution and other problems before anyone else, and their knowledge of the water environment means that they can tell when something is wrong.” Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust is putting the case to me in favour of anglers as good conservationists of Britain’s freshwaters. Do anglers make good conservationists, and does angling benefit conservation?” (link)
“Developments in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology are providing new, potentially cost-effective opportunities for ecologists and conservationists to monitor and protect ecosystems, particularly in remote areas. As yet, there has been little research on the potential of drone technology for monitoring freshwater ecosystems. However, a new journal article “The potential of remote sensing in ecological status assessment of coloured lakes using aquatic plants“ by MARS scientist Sebastian Birk and Frauke Ecke addresses this shortfall. Their paper explores the potential of drones for monitoring the health of remote Swedish lakes.” (link)
“Underwater filmmaking has a rich – but largely oceanic – history, from Austrian biologist Hans Hass’s pioneering work in the 1940s and Folco Quilici’s 1954 first full-length full-colour film Sesto Continente through to stunning modern footage such as in the BBC’s Blue Planet series and in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. Jack Perks, an English natural history photographer and filmmaker, is attempting to bring freshwater environments into focus through his Beneath the Waterline project, which aims to document all of the UK’s freshwater fish on film. Keen to find out more, we spoke to Jack about his work and the challenges of filming freshwater life.” (link)
“Freshwater ecosystems around the world are subject to multiple stresses on their health and diversity – for example, pollution, water abstraction and river fragmentation through dam building. Researchers from the MARS project are interested in understanding the causes and impacts of these multiple stresses, and – crucially – how they make interact and multiply any potential negative impacts on the environment. Similarly, there is a need for research to simulate how multiple stresses might affect freshwaters under future climate change – how will changes to rainfall, temperature and storm frequency (amongst other factors) affect multiple stresses on freshwater ecosystems? In order to explore some of these questions, MARS researchers have set up seven experimental sites across Europe.” (link)
Claudia Gray is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow in Ecology and Conservation at the University of Sussex. Working in collaboration with PREDICTS, her work uses the project’s global biodiversity database to investigate how landscape management can help biodiversity conservation.
In the past, Claudia’s research has explored approaches to sustainable management of oil palm plantations in Sabah, Malaysia. One of the things she’s found is that riparian buffer zones – the strips of ‘natural’ vegetation left intact along river banks – are not only important for conserving freshwater ecosystems, but that they can help provide habitat for land-based animals, too.
Claudia made this excellent stop-motion animation to explain her research on biodiversity in oil palm plantations.
Claudia is now looking to collate information on riparian zone management and legislation across the world. We spoke to her to find out more.
Freshwater Blog: Why are riparian buffer zones important?
Riparian buffer zones are legally protected in many different countries because of their beneficial impacts on freshwater ecosystems. In particular, the root system and ground cover they create prevents the run-off of sediment and reduces the loss of soil. This also helps stop agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides or fertilisers, washing into the water. The plants can also take up and use some of the excess fertiliser that may have been applied to the surrounding landscape, further reducing the quantity that ends up the river or lake. Keeping the levels of sediment and pollution in the water low benefits a whole host of freshwater species, including fish and macroinvertebrates like dragonflies or snails. There are also massive benefits for people living downstream, as they have cleaner water.
Riparian buffers also prevent some of the destructive influence that rivers can have. Keeping vegetation alongside water bodies increases the stability of the river bank, reducing erosion and changes in the shape of the river channel. The riparian vegetation also helps to slow down the speed at which water flows into rivers; regulating the water level prevents extreme floods and droughts downstream. Again, these impacts benefit both the species living in and alongside the water channel, and the people that are using the water.
As well as preventing negative impacts, riparian buffer zones can provide valuable resources. The leaves and other organic material that falls from the vegetation into a water body provides food for the herbivorous species at the bottom of the food chain. Long-standing vegetation can also sequester and store carbon, helping to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The riparian habitat can also provide a home for vulnerable species that would not otherwise survive in productive landscapes. If an area of forest is cleared for agriculture, the riparian buffer will be one of the few remaining fragments where forest-dependent animals can live. If the riparian buffers also link up larger remaining fragments of forest or other habitat, they can act as corridors for movement and connect up populations that would otherwise be isolated.
At the moment these benefits for terrestrial species are much less well understood and the management of riparian areas does not normally take them into account. In my PhD I wanted to document what riparian buffers are doing for the species that don’t live in the rivers, and how current policy might be changed to improve the conservation value of the riparian buffers for these species.
What’s the current situation with riparian zone management in Malaysia?
In Malaysia, riparian buffer zones are protected by law, and the width of the buffer has to be between 5 and 50m (on each side of the river), depending on the size of the river. However, the legislation varies between states – for example, in the state of Sabah (Northern Borneo) where I was working, only 20m of vegetation must be retained on each side of the river.
Luckily, many land managers and conservation organisations have recognised that this small amount of forest doesn’t really achieve that much. Along some of the larger rivers more forest is protected than is required. For example, along the Kinabatagan river (a major river in Sabah) several groups are working to protect and restore at least 100m of forest on each river bank along the whole river (e.g. WWF Corridor of Life). The restoration is hard work as the seedlings can be easily strangled by vines or trampled by elephants, but some really great progress is being made. The World Land Trust recently raised a million pounds to help protect existing forest along the Kinabatangan, in collaboration with local NGOs, and they continue to support this project.
Unfortunately, riparian vegetation has not been successfully protected along all rivers in Malaysia. In some cases this is because deforestation happened before the legislation came into place, in other cases the land managers have failed to meet the requirements. As the oil palm industry has expanded across Southeast Asia, oil palms have been planted along the river bank in lots of plantations. However, there is hope that this can change.
Any plantation that wants to be certified as a sustainable producer by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), must have riparian buffers, or be in the process of restoring them. Where restoration is needed, the application of chemicals is halted, the existing palms are left in place after they would normally be replaced, and native trees are planted in the shade beneath them. At the moment, the buffer width required by the Malaysian implementation of the RSPO criteria is the same as the national requirement (5 – 50m), but little ecological information is available to inform this guideline. At the moment, the majority of research on buffer zones is from North America. That research is not very helpful for rainforest and oil palm landscapes in the humid tropics where the ecosystems are completely different. Fopefully, we will be able to obtain much more information on tropical riparian buffers in the next few years, to better inform the management guidelines. Ongoing work at the SAFE project (where my PhD was based) will be contributing some valuable insights into the ecological impacts of riparian buffers.
Tell us about your current research into riparian buffers across the world: how, where and why are you undertaking this?
So, my interest in riparian policy across the world really came out of trying to put my PhD research in context. My results indicate that small increases to the required riparian reserve width in Sabah could provide large gains for biodiversity, and so we were interested in what the buffer width requirements were in other, similar countries. Lots of people have asked “So if thats whats going on in Borneo, whats happening in other tropical countries?“. This is especially important to know for areas where oil palm cultivation is still expanding.
When I started looking into existing riparian zone legislation, it quickly became clear that guidelines and legal requirements for managing riparian zones vary substantially. Some countries require a particular buffer width depending on the river size, others consider whether the river is home to fish species, whether it a seasonal or permanent river, or the topography of the surrounding landscape. There are many different criteria being used in different parts of the world. In some cases a particular management approach is a legal requirement, in others it is only a guideline adhered to on a voluntary basis. Requirements can also differ between privately and publicly owned land.
The task of trying to get to know whats going on is made more difficult by language barriers, so I started asking friends working in different countries if they know what the legislation is there. I’m still very much at the beginning to trying to find out what is going on in a range of different countries, and I’m trying to focus on the tropical regions where oil palm is likely to be grown. In the end, I would like to be able to put together a summary of what riparian legislation is in place in a range of different locations, and then compare this to the ecological information that is available there.
Tell us about the information you’re looking to collate on riparian zones. What are you looking for, and how can people contact you? What will you use the data for?
At the moment, I’m hoping to gather as much information as I can on riparian legislation and management, in as many parts of the world as possible. I’m particularly keen to hear about what is going on in tropical countries. So the information I’m looking for is any description of what is required for riparian zones, and if what is actually happening there matches up to it.
For example, if someone comes from, or works in a particular country, and they happen to know that native vegetation is protected by rivers, even that much information would be great. If they know how much is protected, and what factors determine the level of protection, that would be amazing. Even if only the really rough details are known, that would be really interesting. Also, if someone knows that native vegetation should be protected, but isnt really maintained in practice, or is only maintained in certain areas (e.g national parks), I’d also like to hear about that. I’ve heard about some really great riparian restoration projects too, and would be very happy to get links to or descriptions of those. They can be really inspiring and lovely to hear about.
The point of the ongoing work is to try and combine information on the legal reality and stories of riverside habitats with what ecological information suggests we should be doing. With more information on what is happening on the ground, it will be possible to work out where the ecological research matches up to what is going on in real life, and where there are really big differences. This should help show where riparian habitats and the species that require them need a lot more support.
If anyone would like to get in touch to know more or send some information, that would be excellent. I’d also really like to get in touch with anyone doing similar work. The best way to contact me is via email: claudia.gray(at)gmail.com.
This week we feature two guest posts by scientists from MARS’ sister project SOLUTIONS. On Monday, we heard about the first SOLUTIONS General Assembly. Today, Werner Brack (UFZ Leipzig) and Ivana Teodorovic (University of Novi Sad) describe their research on chemical pollution on the River Danube in Serbia.
The River Danube is a truly international river which flows through ten countries across Central and Eastern Europe and has historically supported a wide range of freshwater species, yet is increasingly under pressure from pollution along its course. New research by the SOLUTIONS project on the Danube around Novi Sad in Serbia aims to find out how untreated wastewater pollution affects both the river ecosystem and drinking water supply from nearby underground aquifers.
Researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research UFZ and the Faculty of Sciences from the University of Novi Sad sampled three large volumes of river water from the Danube upstream and downstream of Novi Sad. The sampling team, led by Jörg Ahlheim from UFZ applied a new Large-Volume Solid-Phase-Extraction device to take samples of about 1000 litres of water 200m upstream and 7 km downstream of the biggest wastewater effluent outflows. Each of the sampling sites were fishing areas, where contamination is likely to affect the safe consumption of fish and thus human health. Local fishermen kindly supported the sampling campaign with their infrastructure and helped in words and deeds. Thanks a lot for that support.
The new water sampling device has been developed by the UFZ together with the small enterprise MAXX in Rangendingen, Germany and successfully tested and applied on the Joint Danube Survey 3 in September 2013. The device allows for on-site extraction of large volumes of river water for subsequent chemical and toxicological analysis. This technology avoids the transport and storage of large water volumes, which reduces logistic efforts and the risk of contamination. Only the smaller sample cartridges – the scientists call them ‘Sputniks’ – are transported to the lab for freeze-drying and subsequent extraction of chemical materials using solvents.
The extracts are awaited by a number of SOLUTIONS partners, who are tasked with developing a suite of effect-based tools – those which focus on the effects of mixed chemical ‘cocktails in freshwaters – which should help water agencies in Europe improve their monitoring of contamination and avoid unknown toxicants being overlooked. The samples from Novi Sad represent an interesting gradient of chemicals that will help to validate the tools.
To this end, the laboratories involved will investigate these samples for a large range of toxicological endpoints relevant for human and ecosystem health, such as toxicity to algae and fish embryos, mutagenicity (i.e. the process of mutation), adaptive stress responses and multiple hormone-like effects. At the same time the samples will be chemically screened for several hundred water contaminants to complete the picture on contamination.
Arslan Kamal, a PhD student at the UFZ, and Sven Seidensticker from the RWTH Aachen plan to go one decisive step further, supported by experts on effect-based tools from SOLUTIONS. Combining biological and chemical tools, Kamal and Seidensticker want to stepwise reduce (i.e. through a gradual progression) the chemical complexity of the samples and identify those chemicals causing effects in bioassays (lab-based experiments to study the effect of chemicals on cells or tissues).
This approach is called effect-directed analysis and is designed to establish cause-effect relationships between chemical pollution and ecosystem response. Identification of particularly problematic compounds in aquatic environments is one of the key tasks for SOLUTIONS. All the information collected in this first campaign of sampling and analysis will provide the basis for in-depth ecological studies in 2015, when it is planned to also investigate fish and invertebrates in the river for adverse effects.
In order to inform the local population on SOLUTIONS and the goals of the project sampling campaign, Serbian TV filmed the sampling and interviewed Prof. Ivana Teodorovic from Faculty of Sciences and Dr. Werner Brack (UFZ), the coordinator of SOLUTIONS (video above). In a meeting with Serbian stakeholders both scientists explained the concepts of the project to representatives of national, provincial and city authorities for science and environment as well as water management companies.
For them the approach is of twofold interest. They appreciate the participation and active scientific role of a Serbian group in the leading European project on emerging pollutants. But they are also interested in the results on the water resources they want to protect particularly against the background of a planned wastewater treatment plant, which still needs funding to be realised. The SOLUTIONS investigations before the realisation of this plan will be a helpful basis to evaluate its success.
This week, we feature two guest posts from scientists at MARS’ sister project SOLUTIONS. In this piece, Thomas-Benjamin Seiler (RWTH Aachen), David Lopez-Herraez and Werner Brack (UFZ Leipzig) reflect on the first SOLUTIONS General Assembly, which took place in October 2014.
“Are the fish from European rivers safe to eat?” It’s a simple but crucial question that Sibylle Ermler, environmental researcher at Brunel University in the UK, seeks to answer as a member of the SOLUTIONS ‘family’. The first SOLUTIONS general assembly brought together questions like this from researchers across Europe, and created a space to collaborate and share ideas and potential solutions.
SOLUTIONS (project factsheet pdf) is the project name of the collaborative endeavour entitled “Solutions for present and future emerging pollutants in land and water resources management” for the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development of the European Commission under the coordination of Werner Brack, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, UFZ, Germany. With funding budget of nearly 12 million Euro and the involvement of organisations from 17 European countries, SOLUTIONS is a major effort in European environmental research to ensure future ecological quality of our freshwater bodies as required by the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD).
Solutions General Assembly
From 13th to 16th October 2014, the SOLUTIONS consortium – consisting of a total of 39 partner institutions from academia, official authorities and business, and more than 100 scientists and professionals at all different levels of education – held their first annual general assembly. This gathering event was hosted by Jos van Gils and his group from the Dutch partner Deltares at their headquarters in the city of Delft, and had many unusual and productive features.
Attendees were challenged by a wealth of diverse communication and discussion formats including: conventional meetings focusing on sub-project and work-package tasks and oral presentations on SOLUTIONS’ progress; thematic workshops on risk assessment and on innovative regulation of chemicals promoting the dialog among participants using a fishbowl approach; and self-organised conversations on the project’s overarching issues using an open space methodology to address the most urgent questions. The SOLUTIONS general assembly even had its own Science Slam contest.
One highlight for sure was the mini-conference reporting on SOLUTIONS progress, featuring 30 5-minute presentations on all kind of different work conducted within the first year. Outcomes clearly showed that the project’s start has been very proficient. Positive feedback from our stakeholders promises that SOLUTIONS is likely to have major impacts on the way freshwater management will be done in the future in Europe and maybe even worldwide.
Solutions-orientated and effects-based approaches
The general assembly addressed all major elements of a solutions-oriented approach – i.e. one that investigates the ‘cocktail’ of dissolved chemicals present in water – in prioritising and assessing emerging pollutants in the water cycle through monitoring, modelling and abatement. Monitoring-based approaches in SOLUTIONS have a strong focus on effect-based tools and multi- and non-target chemical analysis. Both are applied for screening and in-depth site-specific evaluation of freshwater contaminants.
Chemical monitoring for freshwaters is often focused on regulated substances which are known to pose a threat to aquatic ecosystems. However, because there are so many new and novel chemicals entering freshwaters, the effect-based approach seeks to understand the ecological effects of the mixed chemical ‘cocktail’ present in water, and then to potentially link these effects to suitable management solutions (for more, see this European Commission report pdf).
Sonja Kaišarević of University of Novi Sad in Serbia wants to use such tools “to identify the culprits that are impacting environmental health.” She feels proud to be part of SOLUTIONS. The same holds true for Fangxing Yang, who is a postdoc at the UFZ in Leipzig, Germany. His task is to work on the “effect-directed analysis (EDA) in fish.” This approach aims to use biomarkers (i.e. indicators of biological state) and other effect-based tools together with in-depth chemical analysis for an effect-directed analysis of emerging freshwater pollutants in fish. Fangxing hopes to develop this effect-directed analysis approach as a tool to better protect the environment and human health. “I am feeling very comfortable within SOLUTIONS“, he says.
Joining up the pathways of chemical pollution
Small breakout groups worked on issues raised during plenary discussions or suggested by participants. One group on so-called Adverse Outcome Pathways (AOPs) tried to better outline how this approach can, and will, be implemented into the SOLUTIONS framework. The AOP approach aims to link effects on all different biological levels – from (sub)cellular mechanisms such as enzyme inhibition or DNA damage to impact on organs – with the eventually observed adverse effect of a contamination. The transfer from the effect on the individual – e.g. a single fish – to the population and the ecosystem was of special interest for the group. A key challenge arising from the discussion was that scientists have to define and agree on what an adverse effect of pollution actually is.
Predicting and managing chemical pollution
While monitoring is a key approach for the assessment of contamination today, it requires support from predictive approaches to identify chemicals that may become a problem in future. Emission, transport and fate modelling tries to draw insights out of the wealth of data from chemical regulation. Claudia Lindim from Stockholm University provided an impressive example of simulating PFOS (a man-made chemical used as a fabric stain repellent) concentrations in the Danube river basin.
However, SOLUTIONS does cover more than monitoring and modelling of contamination and risks only. For Annemarie van Wezel from the Dutch KWR Watercycle Research Institute, a key question is: “Where and how to spend limited resources for pollution abatement in a way to improve valuable natural areas and drinking water resources?” For Annemarie, combined chemical monitoring and modelling helped to identify the highest priority locations for an upgrade of wastewater treatment in the Netherlands.
Bringing all these different aspects together and establishing integrated and consistent roadmaps towards the anticipated products of SOLUTIONS was a big task during this general assembly. The enormous enthusiasm and involvement of all partners and numerous discussions from bilateral to workshop format helped to bring the project a big step forward.
The importance of young and early-career scientists
Numerous young and early-career scientists played an important role in the general assembly. They took the opportunity to present in different formats, to understand the concepts and to meet many of those scientists they knew from academic literature. For PhD students Ying Shao and Björn Deutschmann from RWTH Aachen University in Germany, the general assembly was especially useful to better understand the high complexity of the project, and to find their role within the consortium.
“I am overwhelmed”, Ying says, “but desperate to learn.” Her task in SOLUTIONS is to identify pollution hot spots and elucidate modes-of-action of freshwater pollutants using small-scale in vitro bioassays (i.e. using tissues or cells in the lab to study the effect of pollutants). Her work is supported by a four-year PhD fellowship from the China Science Council (CSC). After finishing her thesis Ying wants to return to China and contribute to environmental quality at home. Björn feels quite “challenged.” He works on a larger scale than Ying, investigating certain biomarkers in feral and lab-exposed fish. Both students want to help to make a step forward in Adverse Outcome Pathway definition and bring the concept to the organismal level.
The Delft meeting helped both young researchers to better shape their theses. They used the fantastic networking opportunities to establish valuable contacts with other members of the SOLUTIONS family. With a consortium spreading all over Europe, and reaching to China, Brazil and Australia, proper communication is a real challenge, even nowadays with all different kind of digital conversation channels. Meeting up face-to-face is still the most efficient way to exchange ideas, discuss problems, and make decisions. In these terms the general assembly was a huge success.
Science slam and a singing professor: a diverse and supportive project
The SOLUTIONS science slam on Wednesday evening proved that internal project communication does not have to be a dry, rather serious activity. Five slammers brought on stage high creativity in presenting their science to colleagues. The science slam was carried out without slideshow presentations and involved such diverse media as movie clips, live imaging and custom-made cardboard chemical analysis equipment. The winning contribution, however, borrowed from hard rock pioneers Deep Purple. Dirk Bunke of Öko-Institut e.V., Freiburg, Germany, got the whole audience to sing along “Smoke on the water – pollutants of tomorrow.”
A singing professor, highly enthusiastic PhD students, experts on AOPs, bioassays, chemical analysis, statistics and modelling; laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art scientific devices; and an unlimited amount of creativity to find the best solutions: the Delft general assembly showed that the real strength of the project lies in a consortium so broad and diverse that virtually any research problem of any colleague can be solved by someone from the project. This unique capability of the SOLUTIONS family is good news for environmental quality of European freshwater bodies and promises very valuable results and developments.
Bringing together projects and collaborators from across the world
Armelle Herbert could be one of the people to benefit from the project outcomes. She is a representative of Veolia Environnement Recherche & Innovation France, and a member of the SOLUTIONS stakeholder board, a panel of decision-makers and end-users involved throughout the life of the project. She liked the innovative approach of the general assembly, its interactivity, and the ease with which she could start conversations with the participants. She enjoyed that it was no ‘classical’ scientific conference, and the mini-conference was a particularly refreshing experience for her. For the first time, our Stakeholder Board members from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Rob Burgess, and Environment Canada, Mark Hewitt, joined a SOLUTIONS meeting. They identified plenty of common interests, problems to solve and approaches to take and presented the North American perspective on emerging pollutants in the Stakeholder Board meeting.
The general assembly was also very happy to host Sebastian Birk representing the partner project MARS and Damià Barceló as the coordinator of GlobAqua. Close collaboration between the projects has been identified as a key step to increase the scientific impact towards better understanding and protecting aquatic ecosystems against multiple stressors including emerging pollutants. In outstanding presentations, SOLUTIONS participants learnt about the concepts and approaches of both partner projects.
SOLUTIONS: a great opportunity
“In the beginning I was overwhelmed by the complexity”, Knut Erik Tollefsen of NIVA, Norway, suggests. Knut Erik is the leader of the whole working package on effect-based methods, and had a significant share in writing the entire SOLUTIONS proposal. But still for him the project is a challenge, showing the large effort the scientists put into their work. “Then I was very positively surprised by the assembly of competence within the project consortium”, he continues, which makes him “confident that we will achieve what we aim for.” Andreas Focks of ALTERRA in The Netherlands adds, “this project is a great opportunity to achieve things that were not achievable before.” Certainly for most participants the general assembly in Delft brought the very same feeling.