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Europe must put environmental concerns at the heart of Common Agricultural Policy reform, scientists say

November 8, 2019
Arable fields in Southern England. Intensive farming supported by the Common Agricultural Policy is a key driver of biodiversity loss, according to recent statements by scientists. Image: Richard H Williams | Flickr Creative Commons

Environmental scientists across Europe are campaigning for the European Parliament to take action in response to ‘catastrophic declines’ of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects as a result of intensive agricultural practices across the continent.

Earlier this week a letter signed by 2,500 scientists was sent to the European Parliament arguing that the intensive agricultural practices encouraged by EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) significantly threaten the continent’s biodiversity. There is now “unequivocal scientific consensus” that intensive farming is a key cause of the decline of bird and insect populations documented across the continent in recent decades, the authors state.

The future of the post-2020 CAP – what space for the environment?

Their letter is timed to coincide with ongoing EU debates over the updates made to the next iteration of the CAP, post-2020. The CAP was designed to encourage maximum food production across the EU, which despite attempts to promote agri-environment schemes, has led to “green deserts of uninhabitable maximum-yield monocultures” across the continent, the authors state.

The letter is authored by members of six European biodiversity organisations: European Ornithologists Union; European Mammal Foundation; Societas Europaea Herpetologica; Societas Europaea Lepidopterologica; Butterfly Conservation Europe; and the European Bird Census Council.

They argue for significant policy change, stating that: “A reform of the CAP must deliver sustainable and diversified agriculture through spatially-targeted measures supporting smaller farms which carry out sustainable farming and maintain high nature value farmland.” The post-2020 CAP reform should include significant policy measures which promote biodiversity conservation and restoration in agricultural practices, such as extensive grazing of livestock, they argue.

Such CAP reforms could align the policy with global agreements such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, the authors suggest. They state that: “The EU must be a pioneer in responding to these challenges and the CAP must be part of that response rather than continuing being the cause of greater environmental degradation.”

Agriculture as a driver of freshwater ecosystem pressures

Intensive agriculture is a significant driver of freshwater biodiversity loss and habitat degradation in Europe. It causes a wide range of pressures on freshwater environments, including water abstraction, pollution, water course fragmentation and alteration and soil erosion.

The European Environmental Agency’s 2018 state of European waters report states that agricultural production is the major source of diffuse pollution (of fertilisers and pesticides), which affects around 38% of EU surface waters. As a result, freshwater conservation is a key consideration of any ‘environmental’ CAP reform, particularly in better aligning its implementation with the Water Framework Directive.

Honney bee (Apis mellifera) on oilseed rape flowers. Image: Gilles San Martin | Flickr Creative Commons

European scientists call for support for statement on environmental failings of CAP

Meanwhile, a group of environmental scientists based at European universities have released a statement outlining that CAP “continues to fail biodiversity, climate, soil, land degradation as well as socio-economic challenges especially in rural areas.” The statement, led by Dr. Guy Pe’er from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, Germany, frames agriculture as a key driver of environmental degradation across Europe. Submitted for publication in the British Ecological Society’s People and Nature journal, the statement builds on a series of research projects, reports and workshops on the environmental impact of CAP.

The authors call for more scientists to become signatories to their statement, which offers ten action points to move CAP towards delivering sustainable food production, biodiversity conservation, and climate mitigation. A key action point is to use ecosystem services – such as climate change mitigation, and water conservation – as guiding principles for reformed CAP design. In so doing, harmful subsidies (such as Coupled Double Payments for intensive agricultural systems) should be phased out in favour of those which promote environmental health, such as High Nature Value farming systems.

Other action points outline the need for Member States set clear, adequate, measurable and time-bound targets in their strategic plans when fulfilling CAP objectives, and to support innovative methods of agri-environmental support. The authors suggest that a landscape-scale perspective should be adopted in CAP reform, to coordinate agri-environmental schemes between farming practices across larger areas and longer timescales than is currently common. The need for better indicators of success, alongside stronger and more regular environmental monitoring and enforcement is outlined.

Overall, the statement emphasises that there is a wealth of scientific knowledge, best-practice case studies and management decision support tools to guide an effective ‘environmental’ reform of the post-2020 CAP. However, it is important that the CAP update doesn’t allow Member States to choose ‘low-ambition’ implementation which marginalises environmental concerns. Like the letter from the six European biodiversity organisations, the scientists’ statement is clear that the present CAP is failing in its environmental obligations, and that significant reform is necessary to promote more sustainable futures.

You can add your signature to the statement here.

Climate warming is changing Arctic freshwater ecosystems

October 25, 2019
The Delta River in Alaska. Much of the river’s watershed consists of arctic tundra, which is at risk from climate warming. Image: Bureau of Land Management | Flickr Creative Commons

Biodiversity in arctic lakes, rivers and wetlands is increasingly threatened by climate warming, according to a report published earlier this year. It is suggested that warming is shrinking the extent of what can be considered ‘Arctic’ environments, and with it the range and diversity of aquatic species that they support.

The State of the Arctic Freshwater Biodiversity report was produced by the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program Freshwater Group of the Arctic Council Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Working Group. The report – the first of is kind – provides a synthesis of the state of knowledge about biodiversity in Arctic freshwater ecosystems, and its trends and trajectories.

Patterns of biodiversity vary across the Arctic, with temperature and connection to the mainland two key drivers of biodiversity. In other words, it is generally the coldest and most isolated Arctic islands that support the lowest freshwater biodiversity, and the warmest and most connected (often at lower latitudes) that support the highest biodiversity.

However, warming temperatures across the Arctic are shifting where cold-adapted species can survive. Long-term observations show increasing water temperatures and decreasing ice cover in freshwater ecosystems across many parts of the Arctic. A shift to warmer, wetter climates has the potential to significantly impact aquatic systems: altering the seasonality of water flows; increasing concentrations of dissolved organic matter, sediments, minerals and nutrients in water bodies; and opening up new regions to human settlement and development.

The Arctic Council has eight nation state members: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States (Alaska). The report considers ecosystems in the Arctic Circle, largely at the northern range of these states.

The report suggests that with continued climatic warming, the boundaries of the Arctic climatic zones are expected to shift northwards. In other words, the area of ‘Arctic’ environment in the polar region is expected to shrink.

Warmer water temperatures in Arctic rivers and lakes may increase overall biodiversity, as southern species expand their population range northward. However, specialist cold-adapted and tolerant species which currently occupy Arctic freshwaters are likely to be put at risk, both by their shrinking habitat, and by competition from non-native species.

Cold-adapted species such as the Arctic char are likely to be put at risk by climate warming in Arctic regions. Image: Christa Rohrbach | Flickr Creative Commons

The report suggests that cold-water endemic species unique to the Arctic, such as the Arctic char, are likely to suffer regional losses, or even local extinctions as a result.

For example, long-term monitoring records from Iceland indicate a declining abundance of Arctic char and increasing dominance of Atlantic salmon and brown trout since the 1980s. This shift has coincided with an increase in spring and autumn water temperatures, which are likely to affect that spawning and hatching cycles of the Arctic char.

Temperature increases are also predicted to cause more cyanobacteria blooms across Arctic freshwaters. Long-term data in the report shows that cyanobacteria blooms – some of which were toxic – were most abundant in Arctic lakes during the warmest years on record. As climate warming continues, such blooms are likely to become more abundant, potentially causing ecological and human health issues.

The research by the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program Freshwater Group which underpins the report is designed to help establish a long-term monitoring environmental framework for Arctic freshwaters. This framework is intended to facilitate rapid detection of, and responses to, changes in Arctic water quality and aquatic biodiversity.

Monitoring of Arctic freshwaters is carried out through the identification of Focal Ecosystem Components. These are ‘indicator’ species – such as fish, invertebrates and plants – whose population dynamics can indicate shifts in the wider ecosystem.

The report suggests, however, that existing scientific monitoring is not sufficient to describe freshwater biodiversity in all Arctic ecoregions. This is often due to challenge and cost of monitoring vast and remote areas. The authors argue for the need for increased and better harmonised monitoring efforts across the Arctic to better understand and manage the changes to freshwater ecosystems in this unique region.

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Read The State of Arctic Freshwater Biodiversity report here.

Global Swimways: conserving migratory fish populations

October 9, 2019
A salmon leaps Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska. The Global Swimways project aims to map and protect migratory routes of such fish. Image: Christoph Strässler | Flickr Creative Commons

Migratory bird populations have long been supported through conservation schemes protecting their flight paths (which often span across continents and oceans). The mapping of such ‘flyways’ – used by millions of birds – allows for habitats at key stop-off points to be conserved and restored through protected area designations such as Ramsar wetland sites. Migratory bird flyways circle the world, and so protecting such key sites – variously used for feeding, breeding and over-wintering by different species – are crucial is crucial for the conservation of migratory bird populations on a global scale.

The term ‘flyway’ was coined by the American biologist Frederick Lincoln 1935 in an effort to describe migratory birds’ ‘ancestral routes’ of movement across seasons. The concept has been since been widely taken up in bird conservation – it’s a key idea in BirdLife International’s protected area planning, for example. Advances in tracking technologies are increasingly allowing scientists to understand not only to map and protect bird ‘flyways’, but also to observe how they are changing in response to pressures such as climate change, urbanisation and deforestation.

In comparison, the conservation of global migratory freshwater fish populations is lacking. Migratory fish species may travel thousands of miles between their spawning and feeding grounds, often moving between marine and freshwater habitats. The health of migratory fish populations therefore requires healthy, connected ecosystems which span both biogeographical and political boundaries. Many migratory fish species are important in sustaining human livelihoods, whilst others – such as the Atlantic salmon and Beluga sturgeon – are cultural icons which may act as ‘flagships’ for the conservation of wider ecosystems.

However, migratory fish species are in decline across the world as a result of multiple human pressures. Dam and weir construction can block migratory routes up river systems, water abstraction and pollution can destroy spawning grounds, whilst changing water temperatures as a result of climate change can alter food availability for migratory species. At present, though, too little is known about the status of many global migratory fish species and their conservation needs.

Swimways of the World map produced by the World Fish Migration Foundation (explore in more detail here).

In response, a new ‘Global Swimways’ project has been launched this month, aiming to apply the insights of the ‘flyway’ concept to global migratory fish conservation. As part of this project, scientists will create the first global map of fish migration routes, identifying migration hotspots or ‘swimways’ and develop a new tool that highlights presence of migration routes near existing or planned infrastructure.

“Since the 1930s, people have developed and utilised the concept of flyways for the conservation of birds. They realised that in a world of changing habitats and building threats, you need global cooperation. It has led to successful agreements such as the Ramsar convention and international policies for conservation of ecological hotspots,” says Dr. William Darwall, project lead of the Global Swimways project, and Head of the Freshwater Biodiversity Unit of IUCNs Global Species Programme.

“We believe we can similarly use this developing concept of swimways for migratory fish and aim, through this project, to gain the momentum for taking this forwards as a tool to inform global policy and raise awareness leading to action. As soon as we have increased our knowledge and understanding of individual species migration routes, we will set criteria to identify swimways as globally important migration corridors.”

The project is a partnership between IUCN, the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the University of Cambridge and the World Fish Migration Foundation. It is intended that the ‘swimways’ concept will help strengthen arguments for the conservation of migratory fish with policy makers. The project aims to raise awareness of the economic and cultural value of migratory fish, alongside their vulnerabilities to development along migration routes.

It is intended that the project will help inform the cost-benefit analyses made in planning large-scale dams and hydropower constructions (which are booming across the world). In other words, the Global Swimways project intends to highlight the value of global migratory fish and their remarkable life-cycles in an effort to strengthen their conservation and restoration.

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Find out more about the ‘Global Swimways’ project here.

Explore the ‘Swimways of the World’ map produced for World Fish Migration Day.

Bending the curve of freshwater biodiversity decline

September 27, 2019

What are the most significant and pressing freshwater biodiversity research questions that, if answered, would improve our ability to understand the state of freshwater biodiversity and improve its management and restoration, now and in the future?

This is the question asked by researchers affiliated with the Alliance for Freshwater Life as part of a new ‘horizon scanning’ research project seeking to identify the big questions in freshwater science, policy and conservation.

Horizon scanning research in conservation

Such horizon scanning projects have increased in popularity in recent years in environmental conservation, often creating valuable resources for students, academics, policy makers and environmental managers. For the last ten years, Prof. William Sutherland from the Conservation Science Group at the University of Cambridge, UK has been leading horizon scanning research for global conservation issues in collaboration with colleagues from across the world. This work is carried out using literature reviews and surveys with experts and stakeholders.

Sutherland and colleagues highlight that horizon scanning research is particularly good at ‘closing the gap’ between academia and policy-making by identifying key research questions of common interest. Their 2019 review of emerging issues for conservation includes a number of freshwater topics, including meltwater from Antarctic ice sheets and the environmental impacts of a planned 6188 km canal in Northern China.

Emerging issues in freshwater conservation

A classic review paper of emerging issues for freshwater conservation was published by Prof. David Dudgeon and colleagues in 2007. One of their opening statements – “Fresh water makes up only 0.01% of the World’s water and approximately 0.8 % of the Earth’s surface, yet this tiny fraction of global water supports at least 100 000 species out of approximately 1.8 million ‐ almost 6% of all described species” – is routinely cited across academia, policy and management circles.

Similarly, their identification of five key issues – over-exploitation; water pollution; flow modification; destruction or degradation of habitat; and invasion by exotic species (with climate change added in a 2010 follow up paper) – remain central to freshwater conservation debates and practice.

‘Bending the curve’ of global freshwater biodiversity decline

Whilst there are a growing number of horizon scanning research projects focusing on freshwaters (for example), the new call by Alliance for Freshwater Life researchers aims to provide a comprehensive of the key research topics, both now and in the future. In this way, they hope to generate and synthesise global knowledge and expertise to help ‘bend the curve’ of global freshwater biodiversity declines – in other words, to address the downward trajectory of many freshwater species and ecosystems across the world.

The ‘bend the curve’ phrase was used last year in a paper by Prof Georgina Mace and colleagues, who argued that the development of the post-2020 strategic plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity provides a vital window of opportunity to set out an ambitious plan of action to restore global biodiversity.

Meagan Harper, a graduate student at Carleton University, Canada who is co-ordinating Alliance for Freshwater Life survey says: “Freshwater biodiversity has been experiencing population declines at as much as twice that experienced in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. While we have known about the problems facing freshwater biodiversity for a while, coordination among groups trying to improve freshwater biodiversity has been slow.

“We think this call for questions, and the research agenda that will be produced, will help increase this coordination among researchers and policy makers, and will help increase our understanding of where gaps in our current knowledge are impeding progress in freshwater biodiversity conservation.”

“We are hoping to accomplish several things with this project,” Harper continues. “First, to produce a research agenda or guide that would provide ideas for early career researchers or fundamentally-oriented researchers on how to engage in applied freshwater biodiversity science. Second, to signal to funders and managers/policy makers where additional research is needed. And third, to identify common projects for groups like Alliance for Freshwater Life, Shoal, and InFish, among others, as well as areas where we as a community can invest our efforts.”

“Ultimately, our purpose in creating this list is to help in the effort to stop, or even reverse, the current trajectory of freshwater biodiversity loss, to ‘bend the curve’ for freshwater biodiversity,” Harper concludes.

You can take part in their Alliance for Freshwater Life horizon scanning survey here.

Vivid and lively aquatic worlds: the art of Jacek Matysiak

September 10, 2019
Salmon. Image: © Jacek Matysiak

We recently came across the work of illustrator and designer Jacek Matysiak, and were so impressed that we knew we wanted to share it with you. Jacek is based in Dublin, Ireland, and his work provides a unique window onto the natural world. We caught with him recently to find out more.

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Freshwater Blog: Your illustration and design work is focused on images of the natural world — what inspired you to take this direction? And how did you get started?

Jacek Matysiak: I grew up in a town that was surrounded by beautiful lakes, rivers and conifer forests; the proximity to nature and ease of access have eventually given me some ideas to capture the mood of wilderness in a more creative and artistic way. I was initially more drawn to photography but eventually discovered the medium of illustration and started to enjoy it much more, as it gave me broader opportunities.

Arowana. Image: © Jacek Matysiak

FB: There are some iconic freshwater animals in your portfolio — arowana, pike and osprey to name three. What draws you to aquatic environments, and what are some of the challenges and opportunities of depicting them?

JM: I have spent most of my life near freshwater environments, and heading to a fishing weekend trip, kayaking on a lake or spending a day out in a forest is a common activity throughout most of the year. Naturally you would be observing creatures like freshwater fish, majestic birds of prey and mammals that came up close to the water.

The biggest challenge is to avoid creating very generic images in your art. I see a lot of good work that is depicted in a very realistic and nearly scientific way. Even though I want to achieve a certain degree of accuracy, I also strive to give my characters more cartoon-like features and stylize them in a particular way.

Osprey hunting. Image: © Jacek Matysiak

FB: What is your process? Do you undertake fieldwork, or work largely in the studio? What are your tools and materials?

JM: It is a combination of both really. Whenever I can afford it, I do spend a lot of time in the wild and try to capture the look and feel of the environment, observing the landscape, taking various photographs and doing quick sketches but sometimes I inevitably have to rely on other resources.

I work at home or sometimes in a cafe. For sketching I use mainly pencils, color pencils and lately posca pens. For finished work I complete my artwork largely in Illustrator and often do some additional coloring and add textures in Photoshop.

Page spread from ‘Obscure Cycle’, a book about the eel life cycle. Image: © Jacek Matysiak

FB: Tell us about Obscure Cycle — your book about the eel life cycle. What drew you to this fascinating creature, and how did you go about depicting it?

JM: As you say, an eel is such a phenomenal creature that it simply creates a great story on its own. Last year I was very eager to do a small picture book about a fish, and initially had a pike in mind, but eventually went for an eel, as there is so much more to write about it.

The book is constructed in a form of a loop, with the beginning and end in the Sargasso Sea, depicting eel’s treacherous journey. I wanted people to find out more about eels and stop dismissing them as ugly and creepy cadaver eaters. It is also important that people understand how endangered eels are and how serious the problem of glass eel trafficking is.

Frog. Image: © Jacek Matysiak

You write on your website that you put a ‘strong emphasis on vivid and lively colors, highlighting the beauty and diversity of our planet.’ What role can the creative arts play in highlighting (and even helping address) environmental problems?

Art is a brilliant form of expression and I think it can help bridge the gap between the scientific and common perception of natural environment. Through the use of appealing and powerful images we can reach a much broader audience that we normally would and engage people of different ages in understanding the key environmental issues.

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Jacek Matysiak website.

Climate change increases flooding in some European regions and decreases it in others

August 31, 2019
The flooded River Test in Wherwell, Hampshire. The UK is one of the European regions with significant increases in flooding since 1960. Image: Neil Howard | Flickr Creative Commons

Human-driven climate change is causing significant changes to the pattern and extent of river floods in Europe, according to a major new study.

A large, multi-national team of researchers analysed river flow data from 3,738 of catchments taken over a 50 year period between 1960 and 2010. Writing in the journal Nature, the team – led by Prof Günter Blöschl and Dr Julia Hall – outline clear regional patterns in the data.

Regional flood discharge trends in Europe range from an increase of around 11% per decade to a decrease of 23%. The study authors identify three European regions where flooding has either increased or decreased over the study period.

Regional patterns of flooding change

Increasing autumn and winter rainfall – and the resulting wetter soils – over the last 50 years in northwestern Europe has caused an increase in flooding. Around 69% of river flow stations in this region show an increasing flood trend, with an average local increase of flow of 2.3% per decade.

In medium and large catchments in southern Europe, floods are decreasing because of lower rainfall and increasing evaporation from the soil. However, in some Mediterranean areas, small rivers can experience more floods due to frequent thunderstorms and alterations to their catchments, such as deforestation. In this region, around 74% of stations show a decreasing flood trend, with a regional average decrease in flow of 5% per decade.

In Eastern Europe, flood levels are decreasing due to less extensive spring snow cover, a shift to rainfall (rather than snow), and earlier snowmelt as a result of higher air temperatures. However, extreme precipitation in the summer has increased in the summer in this region. Here, around 78% of stations show a decreasing flood trend, with an average decrease in flow of 6% per decade.

Joint lead author of the study, Professor Günter Blöschl of the Vienna University of Technology, says: “We already knew that climate change is shifting the timing of floods in a year, but the key question had been, ‘Does climate change also control the magnitude of flood events?’. Our study did in fact find there are consistent patterns of flood change across Europe and these are in line with predicted climate change impacts, such as a contrast between increasing severity of flooding in the north and decreases in the south.”

Jamie Hannaford of the UK‘s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, one of the scientists who was involved in the research, says: “This timely study adds to a growing body of evidence that shows that flood magnitude has increased in the UK over the last five decades, particularly in parts of northern and western Britain.

“We show this is part of a continent-wide pattern of changes in flooding which is in line with what we may expect in a warming world. This highlights the importance of long-term hydrological monitoring and the benefits of data sharing and collaboration at a European scale in order to better understand the mechanisms behind observed changes in flooding.”

Flood risk management

The research team’s results have implications for flood risk management in European river catchments. River managers often use the ‘return period’ concept to model how often floods of a certain size (and impact) will recur in their catchments.

The study authors highlight that in regions with increasing flood discharges, the 100-year flood discharge of 50 years ago now has a return period shorter than 100 years. In other words, large floods now be expected more regularly. As a result, the flood defences built to mitigate the risk of extreme flooding may no longer be sufficient.

In contrast, in regions where flooding is decreasing (such as Eastern Europe), the return period of large floods is increasing. The authors estimate that large floods which happened only once every 100 years, will now have a 125 to 250 year return period.

The study authors suggest that changing patterns of flood risk driven by climate change across Europe must be taken seriously by policy makers in order to mitigate the potential devastating impact on affected communities.

Dr Neil Macdonald of the University of Liverpool, a co-author of the study, says: “Flood management must adapt to the realities of our changing climate and associated flood risk over the coming decades.”

Dr Thomas Kjeldsen of the University of Bath, another co-author, adds: “Incorporating the evidence of increasing flood risk into engineering design and general flood management would ensure we are better prepared for future changes – a point also raised in the UK Government’s National Flood Resilience Review.”

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Günter Blöschl et al. 2019. Changing climate both increases and decreases European river floods. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1495-6

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