The MARS project has now been running for a little over six months, and many of the planned experiments and models are beginning to take shape. Over the coming weeks we’ll write about many of the freshwater research projects being carried out by MARS researchers across Europe to investigate the impact of multiple stresses – such as pollution and flooding – on freshwaters.
This week we profile the Vansjø-Hobøl catchment in Southern Norway, known in MARS as ‘The Northern Basins’. Computer modelling work in the catchment by MARS teams in Wales, Finland, Estonia and Norway is being co-ordinated by researcher Raoul-Marie Couture at NIVA, and is intended to help understand and predict the impact of multiple stressors on freshwaters in Northern Europe. In this post we outline the environmental issues in the catchment, and next week we’ll describe the models used by Raoul and his team to help find potential solutions to them.
The Vansjø-Hobøl catchment
The Northern Basins modelling work will be carried out in the Vansjø-Hobøl catchment in Southern Norway. The catchment – which has been heavily studied by EU projects such as REFRESH and EUROHARP and as a pilot project for the Water Framework Directive in Norway – extends across 690 km2 with a large lake in the south – Lake Vansjø – providing drinking water for over 60,000 people. The catchment is largely covered by forest, and around 15% of the land area is used for (largely arable) agriculture – around five times higher than the average for the rest of Norway.
The catchment – with major rivers such as the Hobølelva and the Mosseelva – has particular problems with water quality caused by pollution from agricultural runoff and sewage treatment plants. Similarly, regular floods (predicted to increase in size and frequency under future climate change) on the rivers in the catchment erode away at banks largely made of marine clay which is rich in the phosphorus-rich mineral apatite.
When combined with runoff of fertilisers from agricultural land, this means that freshwaters in the Vansjø-Hobøl catchment frequently experience high levels of phosphorous and suspendedsediment, which can cause eutrophication and algal blooms that threaten biodiversity, drinking water availability and the safety of freshwaters for swimming.
Current initiatives to improve water quality
Numerous initiatives have been put in place in recent years to improve water quality in the Vansjø-Hobøl catchment. These include: avoiding ploughing fields during autumn so that vegetation naturally reduces soil erosion during stormy winter months; the creation of sediment and pollution buffer zones using by planting riverside vegetation and creating new wetlands and ponds; the reduction of agricultural fertiliser use; and improving sewage treatment plants.
Citizen science projects are flourishing across the world, with ordinary people collecting and contributing scientific data about Earth’s natural environments, particularly aided by advances in technology which allows for easy identification and recording of plants and animals. For example, the multidisciplinary Citizen Science Alliance run online citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo – where galaxies in space are classified by their shape, Old Weather – where archives of historical weather observations made by ocean-going US ships are explored and digitised to contribute to climate model predictions, and Whale FM – where recordings of whale calls are grouped together.
The iSpot project uses smartphone apps and forums to help citizen scientists collaborate to identify and digitise ecological data, and the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum in London taps into a historical tradition of UK amateur naturalists by inviting the public to bring in unusual plant, animal and fossil finds for identification. Citizen science is booming across most fields of science, and can potentially provide real-time data across study areas that might be unfeasible for scientists to cover alone. Indeed, the Galaxy Zoo project has published a number of scientific journal articles where citizen scientists have contributed to research.
Helen Roy is the Head of Zoology at the Biological Records Centre at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a UK public sector research centre. Through her work with the BRC, and particularly with the UK Ladybird Survey, Helen is known a leading advocate and practitioner of citizen science in the UK. We spoke to Helen about her work, to ask about the current state of citizen science, and what potential the field has to study freshwater ecosystems.
Freshwater Blog: Could you tell us a little about your work, and what you see as the value and potential of citizen science projects?
Helen Roy: I am an ecologist with a passion for communication and public engagement with science. My research encompasses community ecology and the influence of environmental change on complex interactions between species. As Head of Zoology within the Biological Records Centre I work closely with over 80-volunteer recording societies (small to medium-sized NGOs) supporting their activities to ensure the collation of wildlife data to national databases for subsequent analysis and interpretation.
Indeed, these datasets are instrumental in providing an overview of the ways in which the distributions of plants and animals are responding to environmental change, such as the arrival of invasive alien species (IAS) and climate change. As such biological records are a critical component of the evidence-base for biodiversity surveillance for the UK and currently inform 7 of the 24 Biodiversity Indicators published by Defra. I thoroughly enjoy working with the volunteer recording community to maximise the use of the data gathered for science, public understanding and policy. Biological recording is perhaps one of the oldest examples of citizen science.
Citizen science is a diverse approach to science and involves people with varying degrees of expertise – from the amateur experts (as recognised by the schemes and societies) to members of the public. The development of citizen science has been integral to my research and provides a method for testing research hypotheses while engaging people with complex scientific concepts. Citizen science has the potential to be a primary tool, linking to public engagement, for involving people in science.
As a volunteer I have the pleasure of co-leading the UK Ladybird Survey The UK Ladybird Survey receives approximately 25,000 observations a year and has contributed to the understanding of ecology of ladybirds and alien species in Britain. The 60,000 harlequin ladybird observations accrued through public engagement and the contributions from tens of thousands of people across the country have resulted in one of the most comprehensive datasets on the spread of an alien species globally. The harlequin ladybird survey inspired the development of an on-line surveillance system for other IAS in Britain, which I lead for Defra. Citizen science has considerable potential to inform scientific research and policy while engaging the public actively in the scientific process.
In your opinion, what are the most interesting, innovative and useful citizen science projects going on in the world right now?
The volunteers who lead national schemes and societies inspire me. Their enthusiasm and willingness to share their expertise results in really exciting citizen science. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland not only involve volunteers in field surveys but also through exciting initiatives such as Herbaria@home, which involves people in digitising the information linked to Herbarium specimens.
The apps developed by NatureLocator are excellent and provide people with the opportunity involvement in citizen science in a straightforward way while giving assurance of data quality by involving experts behind the scenes. I am extremely excited by hypothesis-led citizen science and would be delighted to see more collaborative approaches to developing such initiatives than has been the case so far.
What is the potential of citizen science for monitoring freshwater environments? How much of a barrier does water provide to volunteers looking to survey what goes on beneath the surfaces of rivers and lakes? How might this be overcome?
The Riverfly partnership is a fantastic example of citizen science in a freshwater environment. There are many people who use freshwater environments for recreation who could be interested in citizen science. There are always potential barriers to participation in citizen science whatever the environment but there are also ways to overcome them. Training and mentoring are effective methods for increasing participation and enhancing the quality of data gathered.
What counts as citizen science? Does it require people to go out into the field and record data, or can it be things like archive research or oral histories?
Citizen science combines excellent engagement and “real” science. There are many diverse and inspiring ways of going about the scientific process (the systematic study of the natural world) – indeed data can be gathered and analysed in a variety of ways. The exact approach will depend on the question being tackled. Additionally citizen science usually involves teams of people – some may be involved in every step of the process (from establishing the question and gathering data to interpreting and publishing findings) and others may use their expertise for one particular part of the process. It is the diversity, flexibility and adaptability of citizen science that is so exciting and amenable to all.
How reliable is citizen science data? What does it offer to researchers working in academia and policy?
Citizen science data is reliable. Of course it is essential that participants have the tools and support to ensure the data gathered is of known quality. It offers everyone so much – the opportunity to share ideas and make discoveries in a collaborative way is simply amazing. Science is so creative and citizen science enables people to work together in new and exciting ways.
What role does technology have in the recent citizen science boom? Where do you think developing technologies could (and perhaps should) take citizen science in the future?
Technology has played a huge part. The use of smartphone apps has increased participation in wildlife recording. Twitter and social media enables rapid feedback and dialogue amongst the citizen science community. On-line databases allow many people to explore and interact with datasets, while complex rules and filters assist in enhancing data quality. Analysis of this so-called “big data” places demands on technology and it is tremendously exciting to see the novel and eloquent ways in which technology is used to ensure the best use of the data.
The citizen science community will embrace emerging technologies in innovative ways. Linking analysis to real-time data capture will provide people with the opportunity to get involved with every step of the scientific process. There is a real need to effectively communicate concepts of “uncertainty” and getting involved in the scientific process will actively encourage discussions on this important topic. I hope that the focus will be on ensuring data quality and maximising sharing of data for the benefit of everyone.
Bioassessment programs monitor the different plants and animals in ecological communities as a means of understanding the health of an ecosystem and how it might respond to changing environmental conditions over time. A journal article “Is DNA Barcoding Actually Cheaper and Faster than Traditional Morphological Methods?” published in PLOS ONE by researchers in California and Canada examines whether DNA ‘barcoding’ technology – where a species is identified by DNA in tissue samples – is more effective, affordable and quicker than traditional visual, morphological techniques. As also shown in last week’s post about the potential of drone sensing of freshwaters, ecologists around the world are currently assessing the promise of new technology for monitoring, understanding and protecting freshwater ecosystems.
The article, published in April by Eric Stein and colleagues, found that bioassessments using DNA barcoding technology currently cost between 1.7 and 3.4 times as much as traditional, morphological (i.e. visual assessments of a species’ structure and form) methods. However, DNA barcoding approaches can process samples much quicker and at a higher resolution than traditional morphological techniques, potentially helping rapid, adaptive management of environmental issues. After identifying a large global market for bioassessment technologies – particularly in governmental monitoring schemes in the USA and Europe – Stein and colleagues suggest that further research and development of DNA barcoding technologies is necessary and warranted, in order to bring costs down and encourage widespread adoption.
Aquatic bioassessments generally focus on particular ‘indicator’ species – often fish and insects – whose presence (or otherwise) gives an indication of the health of the wider ecosystem. Bioassessments are often repeated over time using groups (or ‘assemblages’) of indicator species which are particularly sensitive to changes in water quality – e.g. invertebrates – to study how an ecosystem responds to stressors such as pollution or overfishing. In the USA, bioassessments are used to assess how far different States comply with environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act.
Stein and colleagues assessed whether bioassessments can be carried out more cheaply and efficiently by using DNA barcoding technology. Currently, bioassessments using morphological techniques require a significant amount of time and resources to allow trained taxonomists to study different ecosystems. As a result, the quality and level of taxonomic resolution (i.e. the detail in which different organisms are studied and categorised) may vary across different regions, depending on the experience and training of available taxonomists. Another drawback of current bioassessment practice is that it may take six months or more for field data to be translated into the biological indices required for environmental management and policy making – a lag which may prevent quick responses to environmental problems.
DNA barcoding identifies animal species by analysing a short strip of their DNA (see, for more information, the Barcode of Life website, this Wikipedia article and this journal article by Hebert et al (2003). Unknown specimens collected in fieldwork can be referenced to a DNA database such as Barcode of Life Data Systems or GenBank. As is often the case with new technologies, it has been suggested that DNA barcoding has the potential to make bioassessment programs more efficient and affordable, by reducing the amount time spent by taxonomists in identifying specimens, and providing quicker results.
Stein and colleagues first compared the time and cost of traditional bioassessment methods with those of DNA barcoding: from initial sampling through to an identification endpoint which could be used for assessing the health of the sampled ecosystem. Twelve field sites were sampled for macroinvertebrates (which are common freshwater indicator species) along the San Gabriel watershed in California, ranging from mountain streams to urban flood control channels. Traditional bioassessment methods were carried out in a labroratory on one sample, whilst the a second set were shipped in two batches to the Canadian Center for DNA Barcoding (CCDB) for DNA barcoding. DNA analyses were carried out both with current Sanger approach for single species, and the ‘next generation’ IonTorrent approach for bulk samples of organisms.
This first strand to the research found that despite the promise of new technologies streamlining monitoring work, bioassessments using DNA barcoding technology currently cost between 1.7 and 3.4 times as much as traditional, morphological methods. However, DNA barcoding approaches can process much quicker than morphological approaches – the paper suggests that DNA approaches can analyse samples 3-4 times faster than traditional techniques. Similarly, DNA barcoding has the potential to analyse samples at a much higher resolution and taxonomic accuracy than traditional morphological techniques – see Stein’s paper in Freshwater Science for more on this – potentially aiding rapid, adaptive management of environmental issues identified by bioassessment.
The second strand to this research was an analysis on the market and demand for bioassessment technologies. In the USA alone, the research found that more than 13 million samples from 19,500 sites are analysed in bioassessments annually, most notably through country-wide federal monitoring programs. Similarly, bioassessments are regularly used by monitoring programs for the Water Framework Directive in Europe and the Assessment of River Health in Australia.
The authors suggest that as DNA barcoding technology continues to advance, the costs involved will drop. They suggest that bulk sampling technology like IonTorrent – where individual organisms don’t have to be picked and sorted from large samples, and instead DNA can be extracted in bulk to produce a list of all species present – has the potential to significantly reduce time and money requirements in the future, given appropriate investment. They conclude that the potential market demand for new, more efficient and streamlined DNA barcoding technologies is large enough – particularly in the USA and Europe – to justify continued research and development with the intention that costs will be reduced enough to encourage widespread adoption.
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. Widely known for their (often debated) use in remote warfare, there is increasing consensus that drones – as UAVs are often known – have the potential to be used for more positive goals, giving new high-tech means of understanding and potentially protecting global environments.
Lian Pin Koh outlined the potential of drones for conservation in a 2013 TED talk, arguing that they provide an affordable means of mapping biodiversity at higher resolution than current satellite remote sensing technologies; and that they are useful for monitoring protected areas for threats such as poaching and deforestation. Three journal articles – by Koh and Serge Wich in 2012, Karen Anderson and Kevin J Gaston in 2013 and Richard Schiffman in 2014 – suggest similar potential.
In 2012, Koh and Wich founded an organisation called Conservation Drones to help bring together available information on the use of drones for remote sensing. As this UNEP article describes, whilst the technology is still developing, there is a huge amount of ongoing public and private investment in UAVs, which is likely to address current limitations such as limited flight time, and to continue to bring production costs down.
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 which are heavily coloured by dissolved carbon. Birk and Ecke found that it is possible to assess the ecological health of coloured lake ecosystems by monitoring plant vegetation which is detectable by drones. Their findings have the potential to significantly alter how ecological monitoring in lakes is carried out, particularly in remote and inaccessible areas.
The growth and diversity of aquatic plants is an important indicator for understanding the health and functioning of freshwater lakes. However, it’s very expensive and time-consuming for scientists to sample and map aquatic plants manually, particularly given that there are thousands of lakes in remote areas of Sweden. Birk and Ecke’s article outlines how developments in drone technology allow the mapping of aquatic plants at a 5cm scale, which means that plants can potentially be identified to species level at a quarter of the cost of manual surveys. This high image resolution – higher than previously possible using satellite remote sensing – potentially allows for more detailed remote monitoring of lakes.
Sebastian Birk describes the forward-thinking focus of this study:
“Drones give an opportunity to economically monitor the effects of anthropogenic stress to the myriad of lakes in the boreal zone. Field sampling is a costly exercise involving at least two surveyors snorkeling or sitting in a boat. And even then, you have to reduce your efforts to selected transects, not covering the entire lake. Using the drone is much easier, provided that the pictures taken by the drone are processed automatically, which is not yet possible.”
A large proportion of global lakes – especially those in boreal and tropical environments – are ‘coloured’ due to dissolved solutes in the water (especially organic carbon). Aquatic plants in coloured lakes mostly have floating or emergent (i.e. partially above the surface) leaves, which allow their photosynthetic tissues (those that create energy for the plant from sunlight) are exposed to the sun above the murky water.
Birk and Ecke studied 72 cloudy Swedish lakes to assess the potential of using emergent and floating plant species which can be detected by drones as proxies for predicting the ecological status of the lake in which they live. This process found strong correlations between the potential of drone-detectable species and those which are undetected, suggesting that remote sensing by drones could provide accurate assessments of the overall vegetation and health of coloured lakes.
Sebastian Birk outlines the potentially wide-ranging impacts of drones on freshwater monitoring:
“In an era of global austerity economic solutions tackling environmental issues are in demand. Our study demonstrates that drones offer useful services in ecosystem monitoring and assessment. Water management, in particular, requires extensive data that drones acquire most cost-effective. This could bring this technique from specialist application (e.g. real-time ecological research missions) into regular field survey: instead of boat and rubberboots, the surveyor now packs airplane and remote control.”
The next stage, of course, will be to put these ideas into practice by flying experimental drones over freshwater ecosystems. How long before every University research department has its own fleet of ‘eco-drones’? What legal and ethical issues will scientific researchers encounter with drone monitoring? Will the technology usher in a new era of ‘fortress’ conservation where drones are used to remotely monitor wildlife – and potentially people – in national parks and other protected areas? Or are drones simply more accurate, more affordable versions of existing satellite remote sensing technology, which is widely – and largely uncontroversially – used already?
Continuing our series of video interviews with project members, this week we feature Damià Barceló, Director of the Catalan Institute for Water Research in Girona, Spain. Damià leads the Globaqua project which – like MARS – studies the impacts – and interrelationships – of multiple stressors on our rivers and lakes. Unlike MARS, Globaqua is particularly concerned with understanding the effects of water scarcity and chemical contaminants such as pesticides on freshwater ecosystems.
Water scarcity is particularly important in Europe, partly because historically it has not been recognised by the Water Framework Directive, and partly because many rivers are temporary and do not flow year round from source tosea, especially in southern regions of the continent (see our blog on the topic). It is still only partially understand how freshwater ecosystems respond when exposed to water scarcity.
Similarly, chemical contaminants can have adverse effects on freshwater ecosystems. For example, in previous studies, Barceló’s research has documented how high levels of beta blocker pharmaceutical drugs in freshwaters caused daphnia to grow quickly to sizes much larger than on other parts of the river.
Globaqua will study the impact of global change on six river basins in Europe and North Africa: Ebro (Spain), Evrotas (Greece), Sava (a tributary of the Danube that flows through eastern Europe), Adige (in the northeast of Italy), Anglian (in the UK), and the Souss Massa (in Morocco). The different environmental and socioeconomic characteristics of each basin will be assessed, and different climate change scenarios will be modelled to forecast ecosystem service provision and the impact and interaction of multiple stressors for each basin in the future (e.g. under flood vs under drought).
In conjunction with MARS, Globaqua will help model scenarios of stress on freshwaters to help understand how ecosystems might react to different stressor levels and interactions. This work will go towards revising and strengthening EU water policies, particularly River Basin Management plans as part of the Water Framework Directive. In this interview, Damià emphasises the diversity of river ecosystems across Europe, and argues that a revision of the Water Framework Directive (due by 2019), should embrace this complexity to produce different management plans for each river.
We’ll continue to follow the Globaqua project as it develops, and report back on its findings.
The effects of climate change are already beginning to be seen on European lakes, according to new research. As profiled in a recent National Geographic feature, which references the MARS and REFRESH projects, Erik Jeppesen of Aarhus University, Denmark suggests that a warming and increasingly volatile climate is causing increasing algal blooms in European lakes, and fundamentally altering aquatic food webs, including the size and distribution of fish populations.
Jeppesen suggests that the ecological resilience of lake ecosystems can be increased through reducing the amount of nutrient pollution that is released into them, “The benefits are clear because of the synergistic effects between temperature and nutrient loading. Reducing the amount of nutrients available also increases the resilience of a lake to climate change.”
“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.
“Freshwater anglers have to buy a rod licence to fish legally, and the licence fees provide £23 million to the Environment Agency to look after rivers and lakes. Angling is often the reason why new ponds and community facilities are built, often in conjunction with local authorities and environmental NGOs. Often this role has helped ‘reclaim’ former industrial landscapes, and contributed to urban regeneration. The Trust’s non-profit legal arm – Fish Legal – takes legal action through the civil courts against polluters and others who damage the water environment on behalf of its member angling clubs and riparian owners who are directly affected.”
Do anglers make good conservationists, and does angling benefit conservation? We’ve written on this subject before here, and many of the arguments in favour are strong. Freshwater angling is a phenomenally popular pastime – in the U.K. alone over 1 million licences are sold by the Environment Agency each year. This large, varied supporter base has the potential to create a large, vocal movement championing freshwater conservation issues, many of which are initiated through the Angling Trust. As Lloyd explains: “In the 5 years since The Angling Trust has formed we have mounted major campaigns on diffuse agricultural pollution, sewage discharges, water abstraction, fracking, barriers to fish migration, invasive non-native species, challenging flawed initiatives to dredge rivers to stop them flooding and a host of other issues.”
More widely, a 2012 report “Fishing for Answers” described a range of social and community benefits of angling observed over a three-year study carried out by British academics, describing the way that angling can encourage a deeper understanding and potential stewardship of the environment. Another high-profile example is that of Icelandic businessman and angler Orri Vigfusson, who won a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2007 for his work in buying out commercial salmon nets through his North Atlantic Salmon Fund coalition, as a means of reducing barriers to salmon migration.
On a European scale, the European Angler’s Alliance brings together organisations like the Angling Trust with a mission to: “safeguard the fish stocks and fisheries of Europe and to protect the interests of all those who fish with rod and line for recreational purposes”. A stated aim of the EAA is to promote sustainable recreational fishing which actively helps conserve or restore the health of the freshwater environment. The size and structure of the EAA means that it has the leverage to effectively lobby European policy decisions on key freshwater conservation issues like the Water Framework Directive.
Although there is much to be said for angler-led conservation, there are times when the conservation priorities of anglers don’t align with those of other environmental groups. Here, we might ask: does the conservation approach championed by anglers support only the species and habitats that they value for their sport? What about species that potentially challenge this, like the otter? The widespread reintroduction of otters to British freshwaters has not been met with universal support, with some anglers calling for culls to protect fish stocks in their (often artificially stocked) waters. It’s interesting to note how in examples like this Daily Telegraph article from 2009 fish stocks are not valued for their intrinsic worth as animals, but instead as financial investments, with the editor of Angling Times bemoaning that “£20,000 of [fish] stock can disappear in a few days” due to otter predation.
For the Predation Action Group, patronised by a number of well-known anglers, the line is even stronger, with otters described as “a giant predatory, aquatic rats with Doberman-like teeth” which can “decimate well stocked carp waters where the investment could well top several hundred thousand ponds“. It’s clear here that despite the fact that in many cases conservation and angling interests align, some issues – such as otter reintroductions – are potentially complicated by financial, commercial and sporting priorities.
I ask Lloyd how the Angling Trust might define their broad approach to conservation, a question which – after a long pause – was met with pragmatism, “Idealistically it would be about restoring functionality and allowing natural processes to work, perhaps even bringing back top predators like bears and lynx. But pragmatically, we live on an overcrowded island, with a managed environment where we need to make interventions.”
Do the conservation priorities of anglers always tally with the priorities of other environmental groups? “On the vast majority of issues, the interests of anglers are precisely aligned with conservation groups. There are a very few cases where they are not. For example, the Angling Trust believes that – in the context of drastically degraded fish stocks – there is a good case to be made for more lethal control of cormorant numbers (many of which are from a non-native sub-species that was previously only found in Eastern Europe). On this point we have held a different position to the RSPB, but have continued to work very closely with them on a wide range of other initiatives to protect, restore and improve the water environment.”
The discussion turns to a topic that has made headlines recently: what to do with the beaver populations found at the start of the year on the River Otter in Devon? In a statement made in July, Lloyd and the Angling Trust strongly supported the UK Government’s decision to remove the beaver populations, stating that the animals are non-native to Britain and can carry disease, a decision which has met with criticism from both the public and the press, perhaps most notably from George Monbiot in The Guardian.
Lloyd unequivocally outlines the Angling Trust’s position, “Although beavers were native to some parts of the British Isles more than 500 years ago, our rivers have changed dramatically in the past five centuries and suffer from endemic pollution, over-abstraction of water and the presence of tens of thousands of man-made barriers to fish migration. Nearly all fish species need to migrate up and down rivers in order to complete their life cycle and the addition of beaver dams would only increase the number of obstacles that fish have to overcome.”
Lloyd continues, “In a healthy natural ecosystem, beavers can actually be beneficial because they introduce woody debris to rivers and their dams can trap silt and create new habitats. However, less than 25% of England and Wales’ rivers are in good ecological condition and the Angling Trust’s view is that it would be irresponsible even to consider re-introducing this species into the wild without first restoring our rivers to good health by tackling low flows, pollution and removing the vast majority of man-made barriers to fish migration.”
Is there an argument that beavers don’t necessarily have to be the final piece in the river restoration ‘jigsaw’, instead central ‘ecosystem engineers‘ that might help create diverse, healthy ecosystems themselves? Lloyd’s response is less firm than before, “I take and understand that point. The Angling Trust has come out with a strong position on the release of captive beavers in Devon because their presence is unintended, and hasn’t been decided by public and political debate. If there was a widespread democratic vote in favour of their return then so be it, if we had the ability to break down dams and control numbers without much paperwork. What we can’t have is enthusiasts releasing caged animals.”
I ask a broader question: how do we decide the form and function that our freshwaters should take? Is there a historical baseline we can look back to for ecological inspiration? Again, a pragmatic and policy-aligned answer, “For Natural England the baseline for conservation seems to be a hypothetical post-glacial environment, but realistically you can’t turn back the clock. The agricultural and industrial revolutions have had such widespread impacts on our environments. Instead, we would look to the Water Framework Directive’s aim for ‘good ecological status’, which obviously isn’t going to happen everywhere by 2015. It’s about making compromises moving forward.”
I’m interested in this broader definition of what we might term ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ species in our freshwater environments. If we’re talking about removing beavers from UK freshwaters because they were hunted to extinction 500 years ago – and are thus defined as ‘non-native’ and unwelcome – does this same argument apply to fish like the sturgeon and burbot which once lived in UK freshwaters? Would The Angling Trust welcome their reintroductions?
“If habitats can be restored then we would support the carefully planned reintroduction of fish species such as sturgeon, burbot and indeed blue fin tuna which are now absent from UK waters. However, we believe that reintroducing species without first restoring the environment is the wrong way round; we should rebuild ecosystems from the bottom up, not the top down. We believe that there are very urgent priorities for the UK water environment that make such projects nice ideas for the future, but only once we have got the fundamental issues addressed: principally water quality, quantity, removal of barriers to migration, restoration of physical habitat (marine and freshwater). There are numerous strands to each of these elements and it will require substantial investment.”
Returning to the theme of anglers’ conservation priorities, I ask whether there is a contradiction in that some of the species widely targeted by British anglers occupy a grey area in terms of their ‘nativity’ to the UK. Take the wels catfish, for example, a species native to eastern, southern and central Europe, which was introduced to Britain around the turn of the 20th century, and can grow to huge sizes. Would the Angling Trust support anglers fishing for them?
Lloyd’s answer skirts any concrete definition of nativity, instead focusing on the Angling Trust’s role in representing their members’ interests, “We don’t support the presence of wels catfish in British waters. On balance, I think there’s more anglers who don’t want to fish for catfish than do, and those who don’t would prefer not to see them in British waters. We’re representing the view of the majority. Sometimes we need to show strong leadership on issues such as this, for example in recommending the stocking of only infertile trout, in order to protect the genetic integrity of wild populations.”
Talking about what might be native and what is not, we return to the topic of beavers. Lloyd thinks that the beaver’s attractive appearance is likely to complicate any management, “My concern with beavers is that their fluffiness and big eyes. If they were to be reintroduced, their presence would require management, for example to break down dams where their presence was undesirable. The Great British public is too sentimental about some wildlife, and management could prove difficult as a result if for example their presence proves undesirable, if dams mean that thousands of migratory fish can’t return to sea. There’s an irrationality to public opinion on fluffy animals like the beaver. How will riverside residents feel when the only tree in their garden is gnawed down overnight? Or a beaver dam floods a housing estate that has never before flooded? The problem with beavers is that they are very secretive and mainly nocturnal, and they don’t stay put, so they will spread from rural areas to villages and the edges of towns and cities.”
Lloyd is a persuasive interviewee whose answers show a clear desire to restore Britain’s freshwaters to a healthy state, yet also that any conservation or restoration management he advocates is likely to be shaped by the views of his constituents: Britain’s anglers. Broadly, anglers probably do make good conservationists – being immersed (hopefully not literally) in your environment can only help foster a positive environmental ethic. The work of organisations like the Angling Trust, European Angler’s Alliance and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund in giving support to conservation initiatives is also to be acknowledged.
But, as ever with conservation, there are no simple solutions to complicated issues. The support anglers give to conservation is always likely to be influenced by their own priorities, whether sporting (worries over whether beavers will block fish migrations of salmon and sea trout; introductions of non-native fish) or financial (the way in which the effect of otter predation is so often expressed in monetary terms for commercial, stocked fisheries).
Effective conservation is perhaps about trying to mediate these differences in opinion and aspiration for what form our natural environments should take, and how we can best manage them. Whilst we may aspire for our freshwater environments to become healthier and more diverse, what is not often noted is that the return of previously endangered species such as the otter (and potentially the beaver) in recovering freshwater ecosystems has the potential to create a host of new conservation issues to be solved.