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Ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions: how do they differ and why does it matter?

January 17, 2023
Freshwater catchments across the world are increasingly being restored using nature-based solutions. Image: Alexander Cahlenstein | Flickr Creative Commons

Awareness of the need to restore Earth’s ecosystems has become increasingly mainstreamed in recent years. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration began in 2021, marking the start of increased efforts to halt the degradation of global ecosystems, and restore them to mitigate the effects of climate change and stop the collapse of biodiversity.

More recently still, the concept of nature-based solutions has entered the global environmental conversation. Nature-based solutions aim to manage natural processes to bring benefits to both people and ecosystems. For example, planting native forests in watersheds can help naturally filter water supplies, and reintroducing beavers can create the floodplain environments which buffer flooding.

As a result, the terms ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions are often used interchangeably. And, of course, there is significant overlap between them: nature-based solutions are an increasingly central part of many restoration projects globally. But given the rapid growth of both approaches, it is useful to ask: how do they differ, and why does it matter?

Defining ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions

As a starting point, it’s helpful to look at globally-agreed definitions of each approach. According to the International Standard for Ecological Restoration, restoration means, “assisting in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ecosystems that are still intact.”

On the other hand, the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) defines nature-based solutions as, “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature.”

As these definitions suggest, the two concepts are similar and mutually supportive. However, the starting point of restoration is nature itself, whereas the starting point of nature-based solutions is societal needs and goals. Restoration’s focus on healthy ecosystems can, and often does, have benefits for society, but traditionally such benefits have not been the primary aim. This can make it harder to communicate the relevance of restoration actions to individuals and institutions who are not engaged in biodiversity conservation.

As a result, nature-based solutions represents a paradigm shift to a focus on how restoring ecosystems creates benefits for human well-being, economies and societies, particularly in terms of building resilience to environmental and climatic changes. It is often suggested that this focus on the human benefits of restoration projects can motivate more sectors of society, including economic bodies that affect, or are affected by, ecosystem degradation.

Restoration and nature-based solutions in a freshwater catchment

An hypothetical catchment helps imagine the impacts of restoration activities on freshwater ecosystems. Image: MERLIN

The MERLIN project supports the use of nature-based solutions in ambitious freshwater restoration projects across Europe. The diagram above shows a hypothetical freshwater catchment with many of the characteristics of the project’s real-life sites. These include rivers, streams and wetlands impacted by agriculture, hydropower and urban development. The hypothetical catchment helps us outline the subtle differences between ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions approaches to management.

A restoration project in this catchment might aim to improve the extent and quality of wetland habitats by focusing on ecological connectivity through a range of activities to improve water quality, biology, morphology and hydrology. Actions that slow the flow of water through the landscape – such as upland rewetting – may also reduce downstream flood risks and provide some cultural ecosystem services such as increased landscape amenity. However, these are unlikely to be the main aims of the intervention. Restoration work in the catchment would not entirely ignore human activities in the landscape, but would seek to reduce the human impacts and pressures, as a means of restoring healthy, functional ecosystems.

On the other hand, a nature-based solutions approach in this catchment would start with a societally defined problem, such as flood risk management, and tailor its environmental management accordingly. For example, the use of Natural Water Retention Measures to protect communities and settlements would also consider other ecosystem services delivered by the catchment system, such as improving recreational access, or drinking water quality. Regulating extreme flooding events would likely benefit other economic sectors in the catchment, including agriculture, hydropower, navigation and water supply. Improvements to hydrological connectivity would benefit wetland habitats, but there is likely to be less attention paid to conservation issues such as tackling non-native invasive species.

Restoration and nature-based solutions in practice: planning, implementing and monitoring

These differences can often be seen in the way that projects are planned, implemented and monitored. Ecosystem restoration typically aims to restore ecosystem functioning, often through removing or mitigating significant human impacts. Interventions often aim to restore functional ecosystem units: in freshwater projects this can mean entire catchments, but in practice is often confined to smaller rural sub-catchments. Restoration is often planned, funded and carried out through public sector partners, and monitoring often prioritises ecological, biophysical and hydrological parameters.

Nature-based solutions, on the other hand, aim to support sustainable development by responding to societal challenges such as climate change mitigation, food security and flood risk. Each intervention is planned based on the scale of the challenge and the benefits required, and involves the collaboration of groups from across public and provide sectors. In this way, nature-based solutions have the potential to unlock more diverse sources of funding than traditional restoration approaches, such as through corporate investment and crowdfunding. Project monitoring often focuses on how well societal goals have been achieved through the use of nature-based solutions.

Balancing social and environmental needs in times of crisis

Nature-based solutions offer valuable tools to address the urgent need to achieve sustainable development and societal needs in the face of the climate and biodiversity crises. By responding to pressing social and economic needs they can potentially provide stronger arguments for environmental interventions than those based solely on the need for ecosystem restoration.

However, this utilitarian and human-centred framing brings inherent risks. Echoing previous debates over ecosystem services, nature-based solutions may focus attention largely on aspects of nature that are obviously useful, predictable and commodifiable. However, nature is inherently complex and dynamic: there are tradeoffs in what services it generates and for whom, and many of these services are irreplaceable even if they are not understood to be immediately responding to societal challenges. More broadly, nature has significant intrinsic value, and is worthy of conservation and restoration in its own right.

The eight criteria in the IUCN global standard for nature-based solutions. Image: IUCN

The IUCN global standard for nature-based solutions holds the potential to help mitigate these risks. Its eight criteria and associated indicators reflect insights from conservation practice and restoration ecology. Each criteria is equally important for guiding and evaluating action. For example, the standard requires all nature-based solutions to maintain and enhance biodiversity. It also highlights the likelihood of tradeoffs, and specifies the need for adaptive management in response to unpredictable changes in complex socio-ecological systems.

Whilst ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to consider the different goals and scopes of the two approaches. The IUCN global standard for nature-based solutions offers a framework to help navigate the challenges of working with a wide range of societal actors – such as businesses – who may not be traditionally involved in environmental management. What matters is finding ways of living and working with nature that benefits both ecosystems and people.

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Adapted from:

Kerry Waylen, Kirsty Blackstock, Alhassan Ibrahim, Esther Carmen, Keith Marshall, (2022), “Restoration or Nature-based Solutions: What’s the difference and why does it matter?”, Briefing Note, November 2022, MERLIN Project, James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland.

Top Posts of 2022

January 4, 2023
Image: Sonja und Jens | Flickr Creative Commons

In these early days of the new year we continue our annual tradition of looking back on the top posts of the previous year. 2022 was a big year for freshwater ecosystems, with increasing public and political attention focusing on the urgent need for their protection and restoration.

In mid-December, the UN Biodiversity conference COP15 in Montréal, Canada produced the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which outlines a series of global goals and targets for nature conservation and restoration. Crucially, the Framework highlights the need to protect ‘inland waters’ alongside land and sea environments.

Target 2 of the Framework commits governments to ensure that 30% of land, inland waters and sea are restored by 2030, whilst Target 3 states that 30% of land, inland waters and sea should be effectively conserved and managed by 2030. The targets are ambitious, and the timelines are relatively short, but the explicit role of freshwaters in the Framework is a significant moment, and follows years of concerted campaigning and advocacy.

Thank you to everyone who read our articles in 2022, we’re looking forward to another busy year, and are grateful of your support. Here’s our top posts from last year – happy 2023!

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What are nature-based solutions and why do they matter? (January)

Catskill Mountains over Ashokan Reservoir: the watershed provides New York City with the “champagne of drinking water”. Image: John Cudworth | Flickr Creative Commons

Open a tap in New York City and flows what many locals call the “champagne of drinking water”. New York is one of the few cities in the USA with a public drinking water supply that doesn’t rely on expensive filtration plants. And the reason for this “champagne” supply? The network of forests, streams, lakes and reservoirs in Catskill Mountains watershed to the north of the city. Estimates suggest that if it wasn’t for the natural filtration processes occurring in the watershed the city would have to invest more than $10 billion in water filtration facilities.

The natural processes occurring in the Catskill watershed thus provide a range of environmental, social and economic benefits to local communities. Such aspirations are at the heart of a recent turn in environmental management towards so-called “nature-based solutions”, which aim to use natural processes to help tackle socio-environmental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and flooding. (read more)

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What is the European Green Deal and what does it mean for freshwater life? (February)

The European Green Deal has ambitious goals to transform European economies towards a low-carbon future. Image: Symbolique 2006

In December 2019, the European Commission presented its European Green Deal, a new set of policy initiatives aimed at making the EU climate-neutral by 2050. Described by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, as Europe’s “man on the moon moment,” the Green Deal has wide-ranging ambitions to support environmental protection, green economies, sustainable agriculture and technological innovation across the continent. But what exactly does the Green Deal aim to do, and how might it impact Europe’s freshwater ecosystems? (read more)

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IPCC Climate Change 2022: Six Themes for Freshwater Ecosystems (March)

Flooding on the Santa Fe River, Florida. The new IPCC report suggests that extreme flooding and drought events will become increasingly frequent under ongoing climate change. Image: Florida Fish and Wildlife | Flickr Creative Commons

Human-induced climate change is causing significant disruption to global ecosystems and the lives of billions of people who depend on them, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group Report, released this week.

The Working Group Report suggests that assessments of climate change impacts on freshwater systems have been limited in previous reports. As a result, this report devotes significant space to assessing how freshwater systems are responding to ongoing climate change, and the potential opportunities for mitigation and adaptation. These assessments build on reviews of cutting-edge freshwater science and management, from which six key themes are highlighted here. (read more)

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Restoring Wild Haweswater: an interview with Lee Schofield (March)

Wild Haweswater in the English Lake District. Image: Wild Haweswater

Restoration is rarely a straightforward process: its ecological trajectories can be slow and uncertain, and often require the collaboration of numerous different people and organisations across a landscape. As a result, there is real value in finding out about how successful restoration projects have been planned and carried out.

Wild Haweswater is one such project. Located in the Lake District National Park in north-west England, the restoration of the Haweswater valley has been carried out alongside traditional hill farming, as a means of benefiting biodiversity, water and local communities. We spoke to Lee Schofield, RSPB Site Manager at Haweswater, to find out more. (read more)

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‘Risky habitats’: managing disease risk in wetland restoration (May)

Beaver reintroduction site in Sweden: research suggests that environmental managers need to be mindful of the potential disease risks posed by wetland restoration. Image: Frauke Ecke

The emergence of infectious diseases is an inherently environmental process. Evidence shows that the majority of diseases (such as Ebola) and almost all pandemics (such as COVID-19) are zoonoses, caused by microbes of animal origin. These microbes can ‘spill over’ into humans through contact with wildlife and livestock. Moreover, environmental degradation, agricultural expansion and biodiversity loss can all drive the emergence of disease through the disruption of ecological networks, and the creation of new ones.

Could ecological restoration help reduce disease risk, then, by supporting healthy ecosystems with natural checks on zoonosis transmission? Not necessarily, according to Dr Frauke Ecke, speaking in a MERLIN webinar last month. Dr Ecke’s work challenges the view that ecosystem restoration necessarily mitigates disease risk. Instead, she argues for a more nuanced understanding of the potential outcomes of restoration. She asks, can wetland restoration actually cause ‘ecosystem disservices’, which are harmful to human health? (read more)

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Fantastic Freshwater: 50 landmark species for conservation (May)

Starry night harlequin toad. Image: Fundacíon Atelopus

A dappled ‘starry night’ toad, lost to science for decades, but recently documented on indigenous lands in Colombia. An iridescent blue-banded kingfisher native to tropical streams on the island of Java. A West African tree-climbing crab which makes its home in tree holes filled with rainwater. These are some of the wonderful, but highly threatened, freshwater species highlighted in a new report authored by some of the world’s leading conservationists.

Released last week by the Shoal organisation, the Fantastic Freshwater report showcases fifty unique freshwater species threatened with extinction. These include a giant catfish, almost three metres in length, which migrates huge distances through the Mekong Delta, and a microscopic star-shaped fungi known from only two sphagnum bogs in Wisconsin, USA. Other wonders include a nocturnal Japanese firefly which flashes and buzzes through evergreen riverside forests, and a reclusive hairy-nosed otter native to wetland forests across southeast Asia. (read more)

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Major new Nature Restoration Law proposes restoring 20% of European ecosystems by 2030 (June)

Removing barriers such as weirs and dams which fragment European rivers is a key focus of the new Nature Restoration Law proposal. Image: Keith Gallie | Flickr Creative Commons

The European Commission published a proposal for a major new European Nature Restoration Law yesterday. The proposal suggests a series of new binding targets to restore 20% of the EU’s land and sea by 2030, alongside deadlines for the restoration of important natural habitats. Further, it suggests that all European ecosystems in need of restoration should be restored by 2050.

The proposed Nature Restoration Law is an indication of the vital contemporary importance of ecological restoration, both in Europe and worldwide. The proposal is intended to build on existing environmental policy such as the EU Green Deal and Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 to ensure that Europe’s ecosystems are restored, resilient and adequately protected. (read more)

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Creativity and conservation: a Red List of creatures of Scandinavian folklore (July)

‘The fairies’. Image: © Linnéa Jägrud / Tore Hagmans

Linnéa Jägrud is a limnologist based in Gothenburg, Sweden. Her work in MERLIN addresses peatland restoration in Sweden. Over the course of a year, Linnéa travelled with photographer Tore Hagman across Sweden to trace the landscapes of Nordic folkloric creatures called ‘vaesen’. As Linnéa explores in this guest article, their search for vaesen reveals the deeply-rooted cultural and historical connections to nature in Swedish landscapes. These connections can, in turn, deepen our modern-day understandings of ecological conservation and restoration. (read more)

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MERLIN: Bringing Europe’s freshwaters back to life (September)

The MERLIN project held its first all-partner meeting last week in Fulda, Germany. Scientists, restoration managers and industry stakeholders all took part in valuable discussions over how best to mainstream freshwater restoration in Europe.

A new video exploring the key issues around the project was premiered at the meeting. A collaboration between the Schneeaufmoss creative agency and MERLIN partners, the video outlines five key challenges for contemporary freshwater restoration, and how the project is tackling them. Packed with beautiful footage of the continent’s waterways, the video is narrated by Christian Cummins of FM4 Radio.

The new video follows the recent launch of the first MERLIN podcast. A second podcast was recorded at the meeting, exploring ideas around transformation, disruption and inspiration as drivers of freshwater restoration. (read more)

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Restoring Europe’s ecosystems to reverse biodiversity loss and build resilience to climate change (November)

A partnership of four major EU funded projects aims to restore European ecosystems. Image: WaterLANDS

Recent major reports on the state of the world’s climate and biodiversity clearly show the need for urgent, large-scale ecosystem restoration. Across the world, ecosystems are being degraded at rates faster than efforts to protect them, whilst ongoing climate change places increasing pressures on their health and functioning.

An awareness of the need to urgently restore healthy, resilient ecosystems underpins a partnership of major EU funded projects: WaterLANDS, SUPERB, REST-COAST, and MERLIN. Addressing the restoration of wetlands, forests, coastlines and freshwaters respectively, the projects have been funded to support the European Green Deal’s aspirations of a low-carbon, climate resilient future.

Each project aims to demonstrate how best-practice approaches for ecosystem restoration can be applied and upscaled across the continent. They are each developing innovative ways of implementing nature-based solutions in restoration to benefit ecosystems, societies, and even economies. Central to this work is the need to effectively monitor and share the results of ecosystem restoration to help wider global communities plan effective restoration strategies. (read more)

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You can read all of 2022’s posts here. Thank you for reading!

Tracking the ecological, social and economic benefits of freshwater restoration in Europe

December 14, 2022
The MERLIN case study portal helps track the ecological, social and economic benefits of freshwater restoration across Europe. Image: MERLIN

The MERLIN project has recently launched its online case study portal. The portal provides interactive access to the seventeen freshwater restoration sites supported by the project. These sites include small streams and basins, large transboundary rivers, and peatlands and wetlands.

The portal offers in-depth information on each case study, including details of restoration activities and key stakeholders involved in their implementation. It outlines innovative approaches to restoration management, governance and financing across each case study.

The portal will help illustrate how each restoration project progresses over the coming years. In so doing, it will show how restoration helps contribute to European Green Deal goals. Further, it will help track and evaluate how new nature-based solutions are applied across the restoration projects.

The seventeen MERLIN freshwater restoration case studies are located across Europe. Image: MERLIN

In order to monitor progress towards Green Deal goals, the MERLIN team have identified indicators relating to seven key goals. These include biodiversity gains, climate regulation, flood and drought resilience, sustainable food systems, participatory governance, restoration financing, and green growth.

A key theme is that these indicators are broader in scope than traditional ecosystem-focused approaches for evaluating restoration projects. Biodiversity is still a vital part of restoration ambitions: for example, MERLIN researchers monitor trends such as conservation status of threatened species and ecosystems.

However, the focus for restoration goals in MERLIN is much broader. Greenhouse gas emissions are monitored to assess the role of restoration projects in climate regulation, whilst the water storage capacity of rivers and wetlands indicates their role in mitigating floods and droughts.

Each case study page features detailed information on the management, governance and financing of restoration activities. Image: MERLIN

This broader focus also extends into food production and governance. MERLIN researchers monitor how land is used in restoration catchments, as a means of assessing their role in sustainable food systems. They also track the participation of public and stakeholder groups in having a voice in the governance of the restoration projects.

Finally, the relationships between restoration and economics are increasingly at the forefront of environmental management and policy. MERLIN researchers document how innovative – and often private – streams of restoration financing may be mobilised, and their potential role in fostering green growth in the case study areas.

The intention is that case study portal will provide detailed insights into the real-world impacts of freshwater restoration projects across Europe. By highlighting the ecological, social and economic benefits of restoration activities, it is hoped that the portal will provide a beacon of inspiration for others seeking to undertake similar projects across the world.

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

The EU Nature Restoration Law: six recommendations for freshwater ecosystems

December 6, 2022
Scientists have published recommendations for foregrounding freshwater ecosystems in the proposed European Nature Restoration Law. Image: Juan Rubiano | Flickr Creative Commons

Earlier this year, the European Commission published a proposal for a major new European Nature Restoration Law. The proposal outlines a series of binding targets to restore 20% of the EU’s land and sea by 2030, alongside deadlines for the restoration of important natural habitats. The draft suggests that all European ecosystems in need of restoration should be restored by 2050.

Two weeks ago, the draft Nature Restoration Law was analysed by five EU-funded environmental research projects, including the four Horizon 2020 Green Deal restoration partners. Discussions at a science-policy workshop in Brussels – organised by the Research Executive Agency of the European Commission and DG R&I – yielded six key recommendations for foregrounding freshwater ecosystems in the draft law.

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1. Increase the profile of freshwater ecosystem restoration

As we regularly cover on this blog, although freshwaters only cover a small percentage of the Earth’s surface, they are especially rich in biodiversity. However, they are significantly threatened by human pressures in many parts of the world.

The projects recommend that freshwaters should be more prominently recognised in the law. This means that freshwaters should always be mentioned alongside ‘terrestrial and marine’ ecosystems when setting restoration targets for European countries.

2. Urban blue spaces are important

The draft law repeatedly emphasises the importance of urban ‘green spaces’ as a means of bringing nature back to cities, and mitigating the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. Urban green spaces – such as parks, meadows, green roofs and urban gardening schemes – have become an important part of European city planning in recent years.

However, the projects recommend that the Nature Restoration Law also needs to take into account the importance of urban ‘blue spaces’ such as lakes, wetlands and rivers. They highlight the benefits such urban blue spaces bring for biodiversity, climate mitigation and public recreation, and suggest that ‘urban green and blue spaces’ should be referred to when outlining targets for restoration.

London Wetland Centre: the projects recommend such nature-based solutions for restoration in urban green-blue spaces. Image: Matt Brown | Flickr Creative Commons

3. Support the implementation of the Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive is Europe’s long-standing policy mechanism for improving the health and status of freshwater ecosystems. The projects see great potential in the draft Nature Restoration Law in helping improve the implementation of the WFD which, as yet, has not reached many of its ambitious goals. They recommend that the WFD’s River Basin Management Plans are better integrated into the planning of the Nature Restoration Law.

4. Highlight the role of nature-based solutions

Nature-based solutions are becoming an increasingly central part of restoration projects, both in Europe and globally. Nature-based solutions aim to protect, sustainably manage or restore ecosystems in ways that address social challenges such as water security, flood protection and climate change.

The projects suggest that the draft Nature Restoration Law is largely focused on the restoration of habitats, and the population health of individual species. They state that nature-based solutions should be better highlighted in the law, as a means of making obvious the benefits that society will gain from restoration projects.

The projects call for more ambitious targets for river restoration across Europe. Image: Romy Durst | Save the Blue Heart of Europe

5. Improve and specify targets for restoration of rivers, floodplains and deltas

The draft Nature Restoration Law states that European countries should restore 25,000km of free-flowing rivers by 2030. This focus on improving the connectivity of river catchments, including their floodplains and deltas, is a key focus of many freshwater restoration projects, and often involves the removal of barriers such as dams and hydropower projects.

However, the projects suggest that these aims for river restoration (outlined in Article 7 of the draft law) are less ambitious, less stringent and less specific than those for other ecosystems. They state that river connectivity targets should be strengthened with time-bound and binding objectives to remove river barriers. Further, they suggest that this process should be closely monitored to measure the effectiveness of restoration actions.

6. Woody riparian vegetation as a key measure in agricultural landscapes

Riparian areas are the strips of land alongside rivers and streams in agricultural areas. In recent years there has been an increased focus on the value of restoring woodland and vegetation in riparian strips as a means of creating biodiversity habitat, buffering pollution and shading waters warmed by climate change.

The projects recommend that the Nature Restoration Law should include specific targets for the establishment of woody riparian buffer strips alongside streams and rivers. They suggest that the restoration of woody riparian vegetation is the most cost-effective measure for enhancing freshwater and riparian biodiversity and ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes.

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Read the European Nature Restoration Law recommendations in full.

This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

Looking for ‘needles in a haystack’: using eDNA to detect endangered sturgeon populations

November 30, 2022
A sturgeon is sampled by scientists on the Danube. New eDNA techniques can help track the size and location of sturgeon populations along the river. Image: BOKU-IHG

Sturgeons are some of the most iconic fish species in the Danube River. However, their populations are in significant decline as a result of decades of pollution, habitat loss, overfishing and the fragmentation of migratory routes.

Often termed ‘living fossils’ due to their ancient lineages, sturgeons are often large and long-lived. Their migratory lifespans between freshwater and saltwater environments makes sturgeons particularly vulnerable to human pressures. The Danube River supports six native species of sturgeons, all of which are threatened by human activities.

Given the Danube’s vast length – spanning more than 2800km – it is vital that conservationists can monitor the size and location of sturgeon populations along the river in order to protect them. Two recently-published studies suggest that new environmental DNA (or eDNA) techniques offer significant potential for detecting sturgeon populations across large rivers like the Danube.

When an organism moves through an environment it constantly sheds tiny pieces of organic material such as dead skin cells, mucus and faeces. Scientists can test water samples for the DNA in this organic material. Such environmental DNA can point to the recent presence of a species, even if it cannot be otherwise detected or seen. As a result, eDNA approaches are increasingly valuable to scientists seeking to detect a host of elusive and tiny species across different ecosystems.

“Despite the need for a better understanding of the distribution and population status for many fish species in large rivers, the use of traditional sampling methods failed in the past, thereby hampering reliable assessments,” says Dr. Paul Meulenbroek, senior author of both studies, based at BOKU, Vienna. “Water samples can be used to identify those species that have recently been present in a local environment, with genetic material such as skin cells, intestinal cells, scales, or mucus being obtained directly from environmental samples.”

eDNA techniques allow scientists to look for sturgeons in large and murky water bodies. Image: BOKUIHG

One study, published in Biodiversity and Conservation, developed an eDNA reference database for five native Danube sturgeons, and two non-native species. This allowed researchers to use eDNA techniques to search for the “needles in a haystack” sturgeon populations along the entire length of the Danube. This work provided the first large-scale snapshot of threatened sterlet populations along the river, with the species found in around half of all surveyed sites.

The partner study, published in Molecular Ecology Resources, explored the potential of eDNA techniques to estimate the abundance of sturgeon species. Researchers found that total fish eDNA concentrations and total fish abundance were highly correlated.

Together, the two studies suggest that sifting river water for microscopic pieces of organic eDNA material can help scientists determine both the location and abundance of sturgeon species along the vast Danube catchment.

“An in-depth understanding of species distribution and population dynamics is essential for developing adaptive conservation management plans, and in this regard, the benefits of an eDNA approach for conservation efforts, fisheries management, and scientific studies are numerous,” outlines Dr. Meulenbroek.

“eDNA metabarcoding is potentially more sensitive than traditional survey methods, as well as being more cost effective and non-invasive,” Dr. Meulenbroek continues. “It facilitates time-limited coverage of large geographical areas, thereby enabling the implementation of conservation measures within an ecologically and politically-actionable time scale.”

As the new studies suggest, eDNA approaches hold significant promise for conservationists seeking to strengthen their existing attempts to protect sturgeon populations across the Danube basin. “To facilitate sustainable conservation initiatives, it is of the utmost importance to gain a reliable understanding of the present status and development of remnant populations and sound study results providing evidence-based data for making water management decisions,” concludes Dr. Meulenbroek.

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This post is supported by the MEASURES project.

Restoring Europe’s ecosystems to reverse biodiversity loss and build resilience to climate change

November 17, 2022
A partnership of four major EU funded projects aim to restore European ecosystems. Image: WaterLANDS

Recent major reports on the state of the world’s climate and biodiversity clearly show the need for urgent, large-scale ecosystem restoration. Across the world, ecosystems are being degraded at rates faster than efforts to protect them, whilst ongoing climate change places increasing pressures on their health and functioning.

An awareness of the need to urgently restore healthy, resilient ecosystems underpins a partnership of major EU funded projects: WaterLANDS, SUPERB, REST-COAST, and MERLIN. Addressing the restoration of wetlands, forests, coastlines and freshwaters respectively, the projects have been funded to support the European Green Deal’s aspirations of a low-carbon, climate resilient future.

Each project aims to demonstrate how best-practice approaches for ecosystem restoration can be applied and upscaled across the continent. They are each developing innovative ways of implementing nature-based solutions in restoration to benefit ecosystems, societies, and even economies. Central to this work is the need to effectively monitor and share the results of ecosystem restoration to help wider global communities plan effective restoration strategies.

The four projects aim to restore four interlinked ecosystem types: forests, wetlands, coastlines and freshwaters. Image: SUPERB

Together, the four projects address the overarching restoration of Europe’s varied ecosystems. “Rivers, forests and coasts are complementary environments to wetlands through ecosystem services, linked biodiversity and water flow and quality,” explains Craig Bullock, project coordinator of wetland restoration project WaterLANDS. “This means their enhancement and restoration has a direct connection with wetland functioning and restoration potential.”

WaterLANDS focuses on the restoration of six wetland sites across Europe, learning from existing sites where successful restoration has been undertaken. The project encourages community-led practices to design and implement restoration projects.

“Communities should remain part of the landscapes we are trying to protect and restore,” says Shane McGuinness, deputy project coordinator of WaterLANDS. “In many cases they have been using these areas for generations and it is unreasonable of us to presume that this will suddenly cease. We need to support communities to move away from the practices of the past and towards more sustainable practices of the future.”

The partnership of projects focused on interlinked ecosystems holds significant promise. “I see the potential for better landscape level planning of restoration activities,” says Elisabeth Pötzelsberger, project coordinator of SUPERB, which focuses on forest restoration. “For example, focus areas and restoration targets for specific ecosystems could create synergies across different ecosystem types.”

Drawing on projects across twelve countries, SUPERB aims to restore thousands of hectares of forest landscape across Europe. “We want to particularly highlight the importance of considering adaptation requirements in choosing restoration approaches and targets because climate change does already, or will soon, have dramatic impacts on the suitability and resilience of specific forest types,” explains Dr. Pötzelsberger. “We call this prestoration or forward-looking restoration.”

The projects aim to use innovative nature-based solutions in restoration to help tackle biodiversity loss and build resilience to climate change. Image: REST-COAST

The restoration of ecosystems across land and freshwater is inherently linked to those along Europe’s coastlines. “River-delta-coast connectivity is an essential element to enhance the natural resilience of sediment starved coastal systems,” says Agustín Sánchez-Arcilla, project coordinator of REST-COAST, which focuses on the restoration of the continent’s coastal ecosystems.

Europe’s coastlines are some of the continent’s biodiverse environments, but are often subject to numerous human and climatic pressures, whilst poorly protected by environmental policy. REST-COAST focuses on nine case studies, from the eastern Mediterranean to the North Sea. “We hope to increase the scale and the speed of coastal restoration interventions, particularly for vulnerable hot spot locations,” outlines Prof. Sánchez-Arcilla.

The partnership of projects has the potential to develop how restoration projects interact with industry, policy and financiers. “Aside from the physical links between these ecosystems, there are also connections through commercial land uses such as agriculture and forestry and through governance to support restoration,” says WaterLANDS coordinator Craig Bullock. “There are also connections through landscape finance given that these biophysical linkages and ecosystem service outputs provide for a package of financial investment at a landscape level.”

The projects aim to support major European environmental policies through engagements with policy makers, industry and financiers. Image: MERLIN

The governance structures Dr. Bullock mentions are crucial to this project partnership. The four projects were funded to support European Green Deal objectives to foster climate resilience and nature recovery across the continent, alongside the aim of becoming net carbon-neutral by 2050. By promoting the widespread and innovative scaling-up of ecosystem restoration across Europe, the partnership offers a significant opportunity to amplify scientists’ voices in the development of the proposed European Nature Restoration Law.

“The four projects gather substantial expertise on nature restoration in Europe,” says Sebastian Birk, project coordinator at MERLIN. “All projects have a focus on specific ecosystems like forests, freshwaters and the coast. These specific views are now integrated by the clustering activity to find solutions at landscape-scale.

“This is indispensable when moving towards achieving the European Green Deal ambitions,” Dr. Birk continues. “Our activities affect all parts of the environment, and our remedies need to be integrative. This perspective allows the four projects to jointly act on the European Nature Restoration Law.”

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

Major new awards seek innovative solutions to restore Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands

November 4, 2022

As we regularly document on this blog, freshwaters are among the most globally threatened ecosystems. And, as the latest MERLIN podcast explored, while restoration projects are increasingly popular across the continent, there is an urgent need for new approaches which both benefit nature and are financially sustainable.

The new MERLIN Innovation Awards (MIA) 2023 aims to showcase cutting-edge products and services which help protect and restore increasingly threatened freshwater ecosystems. The awards seek submissions of innovative, widely applicable, and market-ready solutions from companies and organisations across the world.

Applications are open for companies across the world in two categories: MIA Product of the Year and MIA Service of the Year.

The MERLIN Innovation Awards offer companies a unique opportunity to pitch their innovative products and services to seventeen European freshwater restoration project managers, as well as other key decision makers and stakeholders. Selected companies will automatically be included in the MERLIN Marketplace, an online portal which features best-practice approaches to freshwater restoration, due for launch in 2023.

“Innovative solutions for inland water restoration are increasingly sought after. The MERLIN Innovation Awards will reach out to the vibrant community of solution providers and allow them to showcase their products and services to restoration practitioners across Europe. Let us grow together with this initiative,” says Dr. Sebastian Birk, co-coordinator of the MERLIN project at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

The MERLIN Innovation Awards aim to connect companies developing state-of-the-art approaches for ecosystem restoration to potential buyer organisations. The Awards provide a unique opportunity for companies to join the rapidly-growing global freshwater ecosystem restoration community, and to offer innovative solutions to help address pressing environmental issues and benefit nature and society.

The MERLIN Innovation Awards 2023 application deadline is 22nd December 2022 (17:00 CET). The independent MIA jury will comprise freshwater restoration managers from the MERLIN project and other related stakeholders with backgrounds in business, NGOs or administration.

For any additional questions, you can consult the Awards webpage and FAQs or contact info@connectology.eu.

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

MERLIN Podcast Episode 2 – Freshwater Restoration in Europe: Transformation, Disruption and Inspiration

October 26, 2022

This week we’re delighted to bring you the second episode of the MERLIN podcast.

The podcast follows the MERLIN project in its journey to mainstream freshwater restoration in Europe. It offers a behind the scenes look at some of the continent’s most ambitious freshwater restoration projects carried out through cutting-edge aquatic science and conservation.

This episode explores the big ideas that are shaping how major freshwater restoration projects are being carried out across Europe. From dam removal to floodplain restoration, the European Union funded MERLIN project is investing millions of euros to disrupt and transform existing ways of carrying out freshwater restoration.

But what do these keywords – transformation and disruption – actually mean in practice? And what are the underlying inspirations that motivate scientists and environmentalists to help bring Europe’s freshwaters back to life?

In September 2022 podcast host Rob St John travelled to Fulda, just outside Frankfurt in Germany, to attend the first MERLIN all-partner meeting. At the meeting Rob spoke to project partners from all over Europe to find out about how they’re working together to research, plan, finance and implement major freshwater restoration projects. The aim of this work is to encourage healthier European rivers, streams, peatlands and wetlands, which aren’t only good for nature, but also bring many social and economic benefits.

You can also listen and subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Amazon, and Apple Podcasts. Stay tuned for the next episode soon!

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

Dambusters: new film documents dam removal across Europe

October 10, 2022

Dam removal has become one of the most important tools in modern river restoration. Removing dams and other barriers such as weirs is a vital step in shifting river systems back towards more natural states, allowing the free flow of water and migratory species such as salmon.

A major new film released this weekend documents dam removal projects across five European countries. Dambusters tells the stories of so-called ‘river heroes’ who are taking action to restore free-flowing rivers in Spain, France, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland. Presented by Pao Fernández Garrido from the World Fish Migration Foundation, Dambusters was supported by a range of environmental organisations including WWF, Wetlands International and The Nature Conservancy, and produced by Francisco Campos-Lopez Benyunes at Magen Entertainment.

In Estonia, the film focuses on the Pärnu River, where seven weir removals have opened up over 3,000km of river after 150 years of fragmentation. The film highlights the importance of public communication and support, stating that over 75% of Finnish citizens support dam removal, compared to around 10% of the public in other European countries.

“When I filmed the explosion, the moment it blew up was incredible,” Robert Epple says in the film. Epple, a pioneer of dam removal, and founder of the European Rivers Network, adds, “I understood in that moment it blew up, that there was not only a dam that disappeared, but that there were thousands of barriers also in people’s mind, so to say, which blew up simultaneously. Because I knew that if people see these images, they’d understand that a dam is not eternal, that we can undo what was done in the past, if it no longer serves its purpose and give it back to nature.”

Dambusters film poster

“The ecosystem is functioning and the ecosystem’s resilience is getting back,” reflects Saija Koljonen, a researcher at SYKE, Finland, following a dam removal project. “The whole ecosystem, it’s a complex system from the catchment area and the riparian forest, and the species in the water. The whole complexity is working naturally afterwards. So, that is the aim of these kind of big restoration projects. I see the river continuity and connectivity is the key to the ecosystem resilience. So the ecosystems function normally or naturally if connectivity is taken care of. So, dam removal is the best option for connectivity.”

“I spoke with the construction guys and they said that there’s been tour buses with people, full of people just coming here to check out this dam removal site,” says Finnish actor and environmentalist Jasper Pääkkönen. “We’re actually reviving this local community, local economy, and everybody benefits. People benefit, nature benefits, the fishery, other animals, they all benefit from it.”

Dambusters was premiered at the recent European Rivers Summit in Brussels. It is released at a time when there is a renewed focus on river restoration. The proposed EU Nature Restoration Law strengthens the ambition to restore 25,000 kilometres of European rivers through the removal of obsolete barriers alongside the restoration of floodplains and wetlands. Recent research suggests that there are more than 1.2 million barriers fragmenting European rivers, and around 150,000 are obsolete.

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Dambusters website.
Watch the film online.

MERLIN: Bringing Europe’s freshwaters back to life

September 23, 2022

The MERLIN project held its first all-partner meeting last week in Fulda, Germany. Scientists, restoration managers and industry stakeholders all took part in valuable discussions over how best to mainstream freshwater restoration in Europe.

A new video exploring the key issues around the project was premiered at the meeting. A collaboration between the Schneeaufmoss creative agency and MERLIN partners, the video outlines five key challenges for contemporary freshwater restoration, and how the project is tackling them. Packed with beautiful footage of the continent’s waterways, the video is narrated by Christian Cummins of FM4 Radio.

The new video follows the recent launch of the first MERLIN podcast. A second podcast was recorded at the meeting, exploring ideas around transformation, disruption and inspiration as drivers of freshwater restoration. This second podcast will be released in the coming weeks.

MERLIN researchers in Fulda, Germany. Image: MERLIN

MERLIN Questionnaire

MERLIN researchers also launched a new questionnaire seeking to better understand shared goals around river restoration.

“We want to identify landscape and policy interventions that can help practitioners across agriculture, hydropower, insurance, navigation, peat extraction and water supply sectors tackle their own challenges, while contributing to achieve EU Green Deal objectives,” says Dr. Alhassan Ibrahim from the James Hutton Institute. “These objectives include climate resilience, improved biodiversity, zero pollution, sustainable food systems, health and wellbeing.”

“The responses to the questionnaire will help us to understand Europe’s environmental and policy needs and opportunities for mainstreaming nature-based solutions in the sectors,” continues Dr. Ibrahim. “We will draw from the results and other data sources – such as policy interviews and roundtables – to develop strategies and a route map to overcome the challenges in the economic sectors and harness the opportunities for win-win solutions.”

You can complete the questionnaire here (updated 17.10.22: questionnaire now closed).

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.