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

June 23, 2022
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.

“The window to adapt to the reality of the climate crisis is rapidly closing,” says Laura Hildt, Policy Officer for Biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau. “The Nature Restoration Law proposal is a strong tool to bring back and improve ecosystems that can help us to deal with droughts, floods and heatwaves. The overarching obligation to restore 20% of the EU’s land and sea by 2030 can be game-changing – provided all Member States do their fair share and put in place real restoration measures.” 

EU Member States will be required to develop new national restoration plans to achieve these ambitious goals within national environmental and social contexts. Through supporting the restoration of Europe’s ecosystems, the Nature Restoration Law is intended to help boost biodiversity, limit climate change, build up resilience to natural disasters – such as floods – and reduce food security risks. Moreover, environmental restoration can have significant benefits to our health and wellbeing, and help create new sustainable jobs and ecotourism opportunities.

“We’re not just talking about the survival of nature, we’re talking about the survival of humankind,” says Sofie Ruysschaert, Nature Restoration Policy Officer at Birdlife Europe and Central Asia. “From farming to fishing, our ability to continue feeding humanity hangs on repairing the damage done to ecosystems while we still can. Vested interests argue that nature is a threat to our food provision, but the truth is that it is our most important ally. But the devil is in the details – this law can put nature on the path to recovery only if it makes governments take effective measures to recover species and habitats severely impacted by intensive agriculture, forestry and fisheries practices.”

Rivers, floodplains and peatlands are all addressed in the new proposal. It outlines that the objective of restoring 25,000km of free-flowing EU rivers in the Biodiversity Strategy should be supported by the ongoing removal of barriers such as dams and weirs. The proposal suggests that major new inventories of barriers to water movement – both along river channels and out onto floodplains – should be made, and obsolete barriers should be urgently removed. This is intended to result in the restoration of the natural connectivity of rivers and their floodplains.

The Nature Restoration Law proposal also calls for the restoration and rewetting of degraded European peatlands, emphasising the vital role they play in storing carbon and providing biodiversity habitat. It places peatland restoration as a key aspect of agricultural restoration targets in the new policy.

However, WWF researchers point out that whilst it is positive that river and peatland restoration is given direct attention in the proposal, there are still improvements that could be made. They suggest that Member States should be required to restore 15% of the length of European rivers (or 178,000km) as free-flowing, as well as restoring their floodplains. Further, they suggest that the proposal’s targets for peatland restoration need to be strengthened and specified to ensure they function as effective carbon stores.

The Nature Restoration Law proposal will now be considered by the The European Parliament and Council of the EU ahead of its potential adoption. If adopted, the new Law is expected to come into force in 2024.

“The restoration law is a huge opportunity to bring nature back before the climate and biodiversity crises spiral completely out of control,” says Sabien Leemans, Senior Biodiversity Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office. “Restoration of ecosystems like peatlands, forests and seagrass meadows can help reduce emissions and sequester millions of tonnes of carbon each year. The Commission’s proposal is good, but we need to keep in mind the urgency and make sure the bulk of the restoration action in these ecosystems is not pushed back beyond 2030. This decade must be the turning point to place nature on the path to recovery.”

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

A step closer to Europe’s first Wild River National Park on the Vjosa River

June 15, 2022
The Vjosa River in Albania. Image: Romy Durst | Save the Blue Heart of Europe

Conservation of the Vjosa River took an important step forward this week as the Albanian government signed a commitment to establish Europe’s first Wild River National Park across its catchment.

The Vjosa is often termed one of ‘Europe’s last wild rivers’, flowing largely-unobstructed by dams and hydropower schemes from the Greek mountains through Albania to the Adriatic Sea.

In recent years, scientists and campaigners have sought to highlight the diverse ecosystems and wildlife supported by the Vjosa and its tributaries. A report released last year documented over 1100 plant and animal species across the catchment, including 13 globally threatened animal and two plant species. The report authors argue that Vjosa is thus a vital ‘near-natural’ river system, which has been largely lost elsewhere in Europe.

However, until now the Vjosa catchment as been afforded scant environmental protections, and has been threatened by a number of proposed hydropower developments and oil prospecting. The new agreement, signed in Tirana on Monday, states that the Albanian government will work with the Save the Blue Heart of Europe NGO group and Patagonia organisation to establish a Vjosa Wild River National Park.

It is intended that protections of the Vjosa River and its free-flowing tributaries will be raised to the IUCN Category II Level National Park. Under this designation, large ‘natural or near-natural areas’ are set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes. In other words, this level of protection would severely limit the potential for future hydropower and dam construction in the Vjosa basin, in order to conserve its biodiversity and ecosystems.

Campaigners display their support for the Vjosa National Park on the Tirana roadside. Image: Adrian Guri | Save the Blue Heart of Europe

“Albania’s Vjosa is nature’s unrelenting force, the only survivor of the wild rivers of our continent, the last river vein that bears no trace of contamination from the industrial development that has morphed Europe’s rivers into animals tamed for the energy-generation circus,” says Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

“Vjosa will remain the only wild water body that, just like on the day of its creation, will continue to bear witness to the wonder that once were the European riverbeds,” continues Rama. “Under the protective cloak of the National Park, Vjosa will stay intact for Albania, for Europe, for the planet we want for our children’s children.”

The agreement follows years of campaigning from groups such as Save the Blue Heart of Europe, who term the Vjosa the ‘last wild river in Europe outside of Russia’. The catchment is characterised by a mosaic of habitat types, from fast-flowing gorges to braided floodplains and deltas, many of which have high conservation importance. Moreover, the Vjosa basin is vital in supporting local communities through fishing, farming and – increasingly – eco-tourism.

“Albania’s leaders have shown vision and commitment today, signalling to the world their intention to do something unprecedented in nature protection,” says Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert. “Through our long-standing partnership with the NGOs behind the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, we have learned first-hand just how exceptional the Vjosa is and are therefore humbled to work alongside the government and groups, devoting our skills and expertise to the establishment of Vjosa Wild River National Park.”  

“While there is much work to do before we can guarantee the future of the Vjosa, this is a major milestone for Albania and for river defenders everywhere,” states Besjana Guri from EcoAlbania. “The ambition of creating Europe’s first Wild River National Park is one step closer to becoming a reality.”

MERLIN restoration case studies: peatlands and wetlands

June 8, 2022
The seven peatland and wetland sites in the MERLIN project: (1) Nørreådalen ved Kvorning, Denmark; (3) Beaver reintroduction, Sweden; (5) Kampinos wetlands, Poland; (6) Karstic peatland, Bosnia and Herzegovina; (12) Lima basin, Portugal; (14) Oulujoki-Iijoki catchments, Finland; (17) Forth catchment, Scotland.

The MERLIN project focuses on 17 freshwater restoration case studies located across Europe.

These diverse sites and projects – including large rivers, small streams, peatlands and wetlands – offer researchers the opportunity to explore best-practice approaches for restoration in contemporary landscapes. The project will document how the impact of these projects contributes to the targets of the EU Green Deal.

Moreover, MERLIN is investing more than €10 million in these restoration projects to help upscale their management through the use of nature-based solutions. It is intended that the progress made in bringing freshwaters back to life at these sites will help strengthen arguments for mainstreaming freshwater restoration across the continent.

This is the first of three articles introducing the 17 restoration case studies. This week, we focus on the seven peatland and wetland sites.

Nørreådalen ved Kvorning peatlands. Image: Annette Baattrup-Pedersen

Nørreådalen ved Kvorning, Denmark

Rewetting peatlands for carbon storage, water quality and biodiversity

A 430 ha area of lowland arable fields in Northern Denmark will be ‘rewetted’ through the restoration of natural hydrological processes. Measures to restore the site’s peatlands include closing agricultural drainage ditches and re-meandering streams.

The plan is for the water level of the site to rise, which will reduce the loss of organic carbon stored over millennia and reinstate the conditions for its natural formation. In turn, it is intended that peatland restoration will reduce carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions from the soil, and improve carbon sequestration from the atmosphere. This will improve the site’s capacity to act as a greenhouse gas sink.

State-of-the-art filter technologies will also be used to reduce phosphorous pollution into surrounding streams. Cleaner water and better habitat quality resulting from restoration are intended to boost biodiversity at the site.

“Rewetting in combination with other restoration measures is proposed as a valid strategy to restore the unique biodiversity of peatlands and the recreation of the carbon and nutrient sink function,” say restoration managers from the Danish Nature Agency.

Find out more.

A beaver engineered landscape in Torringen, Sweden. Image: MERLIN

Beaver reintroduction, Sweden

Natural ecosystem engineering to boost biodiversity, reduce flooding and mitigate drought

Beavers are recolonising forest landscapes in river catchments across Sweden following decades of decline. Beavers are natural parts of these ecosystems, but their numbers have been reduced in many areas due to human activities and over-hunting. Reintroductions of beavers from Norway took place in Sweden in the 1920s and 30s, and their populations have gradually spread since.

By building dams, beavers act as ‘ecosystem engineers’ which can benefit the wider landscape. By raising water levels and slowing river flows, their dams can help mitigate drought and reduce flooding. Studies also suggest that their activities can benefit the wider ecosystem by creating nursery areas for spawning fish and new habitats for plants and insects.

Beaver reintroduction work in MERLIN builds on existing projects across Sweden. These projects frame the animals as active participants in the ecological restoration of river catchments degraded by agriculture and forestry: a truly nature-based solution.

“The restoration performed by beavers could catalyse landscape transformation due to the ecosystem engineering scale of their activities,” say case study managers from Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Find out more.

Kampinos wetlands, Poland. Image: M.Szajowski and A.Andrzejewska

Kampinos wetlands, Poland

Restoring wetlands for biodiversity, flood buffering and carbon storage

Two hundred and fifty years of drainage for agriculture have caused the Kampinos wetlands in central Poland to shrink and dry out, leading to the loss of important biodiversity. Restoration at the site seeks to ‘rewet’ over 6000 ha of the wetlands by constructing small dams and dykes which slow the flow of water from the site and raise the groundwater to pre-drainage levels.

The Kampinos wetlands are a unique habitat. Located close to the city of Warsaw, they are protected within a national park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to their habitats for rare plants, birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and insects. Restoration work at the site is intended both to boost biodiversity and improve wetland capacity to buffer floodwaters and store carbon.

“This case study is a diverse, large-scale wetland protection effort which is implemented in the neighbourhood of highly urbanised area and area of large human pressure,” say site managers from the Kampinoski Park Narodowy. “Restoration is expected to enrich the biodiversity of meadows, ditches, rivers and ponds.”

Find out more.

Karstic peatlands, Bosnia. Image: F.Techene

Karstic peatland, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Restoring sustainable water systems in a unique peatland landscape

The karstic peatlands in Bosnia and Herzegovina are a hotspot for biodiversity and a vital landscape for carbon sequestration. Their unique formation of peatland on karstic limestone bedrock is extremely rare, and is increasingly threatened by water demands for irrigation and hydropower. This, coupled with land reclamation for agriculture, significantly threatens the karstic peatland ecosystems of the region.

The complex water flows – through underground rivers, sinkholes and springs – across karstic peatlands makes restoration management challenging. Their restoration requires close collaboration with agriculture and hydropower industries to shift their practices towards sustainable water usage, which will allow more natural water systems to return to the landscape.

“The Dinaric karst fields are biodiversity hotspots – especially for endemic species – as well as the most prominent natural carbon sequestration ecosystems in Europe,” say environmental managers from WWF Adria. “The Dinaric karst fields have played a crucial role for climate regulation and mitigation of climate change. Water allocations and land reclamation have brought the karst field ecosystems to the brink of disappearance.”

Find out more.

Artificial fishing barriers on the Lima River, Portugal. Image: MERLIN

Lima basin, Portugal

Restoring Iberian river corridor wetlands and forests

Restoration of wetland and floodplain forest is planned along the River Lima in north-west Portugal. Floodplains along the Lima valley have been drained, channelised and altered for decades to allow urban and agricultural development. In addition, the river is regulated by two large hydropower dams.

Restoration of the Lima floodplains seeks to re-establish wooded wetland ecosystems, as part of a wider LIFE Fluvial project to improve ‘river corridor’ habitats across the north-west Iberian Peninsula. This work highlights the value of river corridors as unique connections between freshwater and terrestrial habitats. Restoration measures in the catchment will include livestock grazing management, invasive species control (particularly of Eucalyptus plantations and Acacia species) and native tree planting. Fish passes will be installed on the hydropower dams.

“The floodplain forest restoration intends to develop and demonstrate an ecological restoration approach for fluvial floodplains transferable to lowlands across the biogeographic region of the north-west Iberian Peninsula,” say project managers from the University of Lisbon.

Find out more.

Restoration of former peatland extraction site in the Oulujoki-Iijoki catchments, Finland. Image: Mirkka Visuri

Oulujoki-Iijoki catchments, Finland

Participatory watershed visions for restoring abandoned peatlands

The peatlands in the Oulujoki-Iijoki river basin region in Northern Finland have been altered and drained for forestry, agriculture and peat extraction for decades. This has caused the loss of peatland ecosystems, alterations to stream habitats, and deterioration in water quality due to nutrient, carbon and dissolved metal pollution.

Environmental management across the basin seeks to find sustainable land uses for extracted peatlands by restoring their ecosystem functions through ‘rewetting’. The plan is that peatland restoration will boost biodiversity and help naturally purify water in the basin, improving water quality. It is also intended that restoration will help buffer floodwaters, and improve carbon capture and storage in the basin.

Restoration in the Oulujoki-Iijoki basin is being guided by ‘watershed visions’ which involve local communities, experts, NGOs and government in participatory management, and offer funding for local restoration projects.

“These watershed vision projects provide innovative applications for restoration projects and governance at different scales,” say restoration managers from the Finnish Environment Institute, SYKE. “The idea behind these projects is that there is an advisory board, consisting of local people, NGOs and municipalities, which sets up collective targets for the future and determines ways how to reach them.”

Find out more.

Blocked ditch at Flanders Moss in the Forth Catchment, Scotland. Image: Lorne Gill/SNH

Forth catchment, Scotland

Wetland and peatland restoration for ecological, economic and social benefits

Peatland restoration plays a key role in Scotland’s ‘green recovery’. Restoration can help deliver the transition to net-zero by supporting the rural economy through the creation and development of land-based jobs and skills across Scotland.

The restoration effort in the River Forth catchment in eastern Scotland aims to restore several peat bogs and their carbon stores, helping mitigate climate change, reduce carbon emissions and tackle habitat loss. The plan for this case study is to remove conifer plantations, block drainage ditches and rewet degraded peat bogs for improvement of carbon sequestration, water retention capacity and biodiversity.

“This project will also provide us with important lessons to rapidly upscale the most valuable solutions in time to meet our net zero and biodiversity targets,” says the NatureScot lead for the Forth catchment.

Find out more.

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

RUN BLUE: Mina Guli runs 200 marathons in a a year to raise awareness of the world’s water crisis

June 1, 2022
Mina Guli runs along the Murray River in Barmah National Park, Australia. Image: Thirst Foundation

Mina Guli is the founder and CEO of Thirst Foundation, a non-profit organisation which seeks to address the world’s water crisis.

Mina is running 200 marathons over the course of a year in some of the most water-stressed places in the world. Her final marathon will take place on 23rd March 2023 in New York City to coincide with World Water Day, and the United Nations 2023 Water Conference.

We caught up with Mina to find out more about her work, and her RUN BLUE marathon campaign.

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The Freshwater Blog: Tell us about RUN BLUE: why is it important to talk about water right now, and what do you hope to achieve with the campaign?

Mina Guli: The RUN BLUE campaign empowers companies and inspires people around the world to join together to raise awareness, create urgency and drive action on water.

It is important to talk about water right now because water-related challenges are worsening and becoming more urgent. An estimated 2.3 billion people already live with water scarcity. In just 3 years, 40% of the world’s population is projected to live in water-stressed areas. This means more floods and droughts; more biodiversity loss and disease; more hunger and more poverty. Overall, more suffering. 

Globally we need to close the gap on the targets set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 – clean water and sanitation for all. Unfortunately we are way off track to achieve these targets by 2030. With the first United Nations water conference on water in almost 50 years coming up in March 2023, now is the time to ensure urgent action on water happens.

It’s action from companies. Companies use nearly 90% of the world’s fresh water, either directly or indirectly. It’s action from me. I am running 200 marathons to show the urgency of what we are all facing and why we have to act.  Ultimately, it’s action from all of us. We can all become water aware, use water wisely and demand action from the brands we buy from and the government. 

Running across the desert in South Africa: the RUN BLUE marathons take place in some of the world’s most water-stressed landscapes. Image: Thirst Foundation

What is the Six for 6 framework? How can it help encourage sustainable water management?

The Six for 6 is a best practice framework developed by Thirst Foundation in conjunction with senior global water leaders from business, the NGO sector, government and civil society.

The framework helps companies and business leaders in six ways. First, to set and achieve water quantity targets – essentially, using less water to deliver the same outcome. Second, to set and achieve water quality targets – ensuring water used leaves a company or supply chain as clean as it arrived. Third, to ensure the delivery of clean water, sanitation and hygiene (also known as WASH) for employees and their families in their companies and across their global supply chains.

Fourth, to standardise water reporting and publicise place-specific data on progress to provide greater transparency. Fifth, to value water by understanding water risk and water dependency as part of strategic decision-making. Finally, to take collective action by working with others and implementing supporting policies to solve shared water challenges. Companies who join the RUN BLUE movement and commit to using the framework will also be teamed up with NGOs within the Thirst Foundation network.

Mina Guli running across salt flats in Uzbekistan. Image: Thirst Foundation

Why did you choose to run 200 marathons in one year for RUN BLUE?

I am running 200 marathons in some of the most extreme, water affected places on the planet, to show the urgency of what we are all facing and why we have to act now.

Marathon #1 was on World Water Day 2022 in Uluru in central Australia. Marathon #200 will be on World Water Day 2023 in New York City, USA which is at the same time the United Nations 2023 Water Conference will be taking place. 

By aligning the RUN BLUE campaign with the United Nations 2023 Water Conference, it is hoped we can drive urgency and action – particularly among companies. Companies currently account for nearly 90% of the world’s fresh water use so companies which means, companies can become the biggest problem solvers for water.

Mina Guli runs through the favela’s with local school children during the 6 River Run expedition, São Paulo, Brazil. Image: Thirst Foundation

How did you choose the locations of the marathons, and how does running through them influence your experience of water issues in different landscapes?

As part of the RUN BLUE campaign, I will travel from Australia to Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, India, Latin America, South East Asia, Mexico and America.

Primarily I am visiting places facing water problems so I can hear from locals how the global water crisis is affecting them locally and to share their stories. The stories of women and children in places like India and Bangladesh who have to walk in extreme conditions, and often fearing for their own safety, just to fetch water – and kids in places like South Africa who have to stay home from school, waiting for water to be delivered by trucks.

In addition to visiting negatively affected places, I am also traveling to places where there have been positive water advancements. For example, I recently visited a rural cotton region in Australia called Narrabri and was amazed to learn the Australian cotton industry has improved its water use efficiency by 48% over the past 30 years.  

I will also visit key business districts to speak about the global water crisis publicly and with industry and business bodies, NGOs and government officials. I am looking forward to the chance to give a keynote presentation at Dushanbe in Tajikistan (June 2022), COP27 in Egypt (November 2022) and the United Nations 2023 Water Conference (March 2023).

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Mina Guli website.

Fantastic Freshwater: 50 landmark species for conservation

May 25, 2022
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.

Light trails created by the Kumejima Firefly. Image: SatouF

“This is a milestone report for us, as it brings together experts working on freshwater species from across the taxonomic spectrum, and from across the IUCN Species Survival Commission – one of the leading bodies on global species knowledge,” says Monika Böhm, freshwater coordinator at the Global Center for Species Survival, Indianapolis Zoo.

“Because many freshwater species suffer from the same threats, each of these species tells a compelling story of what is happening to our freshwaters, whether they are vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, or tiny fungi. We really would miss a trick by not working together to give a fuller picture of the wonders – and importance – of freshwater diversity,” Böhm says.

Javan blue-banded kingfisher. Image: Leonardus Adi Saktyari

The fifty species were selected through consultation with twenty-one IUCN SSC Specialist Groups and IUCN Red List Authorities, and freshwater fungi experts. The species receive very little conservation attention, despite the fact they often act as ‘umbrella species’ for the conservation of wider ecosystems.

They also include an elephant snail with an evolutionary lineage spanning millions of years found in ancient lakes in Indonesia, an alpine wetland plant with medicinal properties found only between two mountain summits in Lebanon, and a ‘box’ turtle endemic to the clear-water pools of Cuatro Ciénegas in the Chihuahuan desert of northern Mexico.

“Now that we have a better understanding of the conservation status of numerous freshwater species, we urgently need to implement conservation actions to prevent further extinctions and contribute to our goal of being nature positive by 2030,″ explains Topiltzin Contreras-MacBeath, co-chair IUCN SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee.

Bakara Sulawesi elephant snail. Image: SHOAL

The Fantastic Freshwater report acts as a snapshot of the vital, but often overlooked, diversity of global freshwater life. As the report authors state in their introduction, “The plight of the world’s rainforests and coral reefs has been well known for decades, but freshwater is all too often out of sight, out of mind.”

As a result, the report strengthens ongoing conservation efforts to change this public and political perception: to bring an awareness of the wonder and fragility of freshwater life out from beneath the water’s surface.

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

‘Forgotten conservation targets’: the hidden world of aquatic fungi

May 11, 2022
A nematode trapping fungus, Arthrobotrys oligospora. Aquatic fungi play a range of key roles in freshwater ecosystems. Image: H. Masigol

Fungi have increasingly captured our imaginations in recent years. Interest in their roles in forming vast underground mycelial ‘wood wide web’ networks, and as the basis for medicines, energy and eco-materials has exploded in the past decade. However, the hidden fungal worlds beneath the surface of freshwaters have, so far, been largely ignored.

A new study asks conservationists and policy makers to urgently turn their attention to the key roles aquatic fungi play in freshwater ecosystems. Its authors highlight how often-invisible aquatic fungi are vital in supporting freshwater food webs, in cycling nutrients, material and energy, and in helping purify water. However, their microscopic roles in underpinning river, lake and wetland ecosystems are mostly neglected in conservation management.

“So far, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species includes assessments for only a small number of fungi, and all of those assessed also comprise only terrestrial macrofungi,” says co-author Mariyana Vatova from the University of the Algarve. “What complicates such assessments is that many groups of aquatic fungi are poorly studied, and many species are yet to be discovered and described.”

Key issues for aquatic fungi conservation. Image: Vatova et al 2022.

The few existing scientific studies on aquatic fungi focus largely on their response to fungicide pollution from agriculture. “However, many other pollutants can affect fungi and their delicate networks, such as pharmaceuticals, metals, microplastics, and nutrient pollution,” says co-author Hans-Peter Grossart from IGB Berlin. “What is even more worrying is that we know almost nothing about the other threats that they are likely facing. Some of the major threats for aquatic fungi include habitat modification and degradation, biological invasions, and climate change.”

These threats can lead to population declines and extinctions in aquatic fungal communities, with potentially harmful cascade effects across the entire freshwater ecosystem. “Unfortunately, due to large gaps in our current knowledge, many such cases are likely to go undetected and remain hidden”, explains co-author Ivan Jarić from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences. “Such cryptic losses of ecosystem functions can aggravate the situation further, by hindering our ability to implement timely and effective conservation measures.”

Aspergillus aculeatus, a fungus involved in plant decay and nutrient cycling. The authors call for more conservation attention to be paid to the ecological roles of aquatic fungi. Image: H. Masigol

The authors, in collaboration with the Alliance for Freshwater Life, thus argue that aquatic fungi needs to be urgently recognised as a priority for freshwater conservation and policy. “All such management efforts should aim to both protect fungal diversity, and to maintain their key ecosystem functions,” suggests co-author Susana C. Gonçalves from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, who is also a member of the IUCN SSC Fungal Conservation Committee.

Aquatic fungi management initiatives include reducing pollution, controlling the spread of invasive species, restoring biodiversity habitat and maintaining natural water levels and flows. These are all umbrella measures which can benefit entire freshwater ecosystems, however, the authors argue that they can be tailored to consider the particularities of aquatic fungi populations.

One key task in this process is to develop new bioassay techniques which can help us better understand the role of ecological pressures such as pollution on aquatic fungi. Such measures are critical for the better addressing the overlooked importance of these ‘forgotten conservation targets’.

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Vatova, M., Rubin, C., Grossart, H.P., Gonçalves, S.C., Schmidt, S.I. and Jarić, I. (2022). Aquatic fungi: largely neglected targets for conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 20 (4), 207-209.

‘Risky habitats’: managing disease risk in wetland restoration

May 6, 2022
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?

A 2020 IPBES report on the interactions between biodiversity and pandemics highlights the importance of the topic, stating, “Ecological restoration, which is critical for conservation, climate adaptation and provision of ecosystem services, should integrate health considerations to avoid potential increased disease risk resulting from increased human-livestock-wildlife contact.”

This is a key topic for contemporary society: both ecological restoration and disease pandemics are high on political agendas and public debates, and understanding their interactions – the ecological emergence of diseases in contemporary environments – is important.

Wetlands are often prime habitats for mosquitos and ticks, both of which are common vectors for disease transmission. Dr Ecke highlights how climate change is allowing some mosquito species to colonise new wetland areas in Europe, bringing diseases such as chikungunya with them.

Likewise, tick populations have spread across Europe in recent decades, often to riparian grasslands around wetlands. Ticks can act as vectors for diseases including Lyme Disease and Tick-borne encephalitis, which are transmitted through a bite.

Diseases can also build up in the landscapes shaped by beaver reintroductions. Tularemia is a bacterial disease, often fatally affecting rabbits, hares, and rodents. It can also spread to humans through arthropod bites or contact with an infected animal.

Dr Ecke presented a study of tularemia found in hares at sites across Sweden. Her work shows that tularemia infections increase with the wetness of a landscape. Dr Ecke suggests that wetlands engineering by the activities of beavers could create a “perfect storm” for the emergence of tularemia in Swedish landscapes by creating conditions conducive for its build-up and transmission.

In other words, Dr Ecke argues, “when we restore wetlands, we might actually create risky habitats.” This risk is often highest in the first years of restoration, as animals such as rodents, ticks and mosquitos quickly recolonise a site. Dr Ecke highlights how, “these generalist species are often hyper-reservoirs which host a lot of different pathogens, and can act as vectors for rather nasty diseases.”

A beaver dam at Torringen, Sweden. Image: MERLIN

However, nature-based solutions could help mitigate disease risks in wetland restoration. “Predators are actually good for our health,” says Dr Ecke. She highlights the example of the Tengmalm’s (or Boreal) owl, which preys on rodents which are infected with pathogens such as the bacteria causing tularemia.

“This is really good news: predators are selectively removing animals which could make us as humans sick,” says Dr Ecke. Likewise birds such as swallows and swifts are excellent hunters of mosquitos. By encouraging bird populations which predate on rodents and mosquitos – for example through building nest boxes – rates of disease transmission could be reduced.

Dr Ecke argues that environmental managers must acknowledge the disease risks caused by wetland restoration, particularly in the initial years of implementation. However, she highlights the toolbox of approaches, such as predator reintroductions, which can help mitigate their public health risks.

In short, it is not enough to only focus on the ecosystem services fostered by ecological restoration, but also on managing the risky ‘disservices’ that may also emerge from a restored landscape.

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

Quality over quantity: do protected areas benefit waterbird populations?

April 22, 2022
A new study shows that waterbirds such as the ruff benefit from active protected area conservation management. Image: Matti Saranpää

Protected areas have a ‘mixed impact’ on global waterbird populations, according to the largest ever global study of their effects.

The study, published this week in Nature, suggests that protected areas such as national parks are likely to be ineffective without appropriate species and habitat management. As a result, the quality of protected areas matters as much as their quantity for biodiversity conservation.

“We know that protected areas can prevent habitat loss, especially in terms of stopping deforestation,” said lead author Dr Hannah Wauchope, from the University of Exeter. “However, we have much less understanding of how protected areas help wildlife.

“Our study shows that, while many protected areas are working well, many others are failing to have a positive effect,” Dr Wauchope continued. “Rather than focussing solely on the total global area protected, we need more focus on ensuring areas are well-managed to benefit biodiversity.”

A ruddy shelduck: waterbirds are ideal indicators of habitat quality because of their ability to quickly colonise and abandon sites. Image: Khalid Sharif

The study team examined the impact of 1,500 protected areas in 68 countries on more than 27,000 waterbird populations. They compared waterbird populations before protected areas were established with trends afterwards, alongside those of similar populations outside protected areas.

“We were interested in understanding the impact of protected areas, as there has been increasing concern that many are ‘paper parks’ – i.e. protected on paper and in legislation, but without then translating into tangible benefits for biodiversity,” said Dr Wauchope.

“We were disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to find that protected areas have had a mixed impact on waterbird populations, as obviously we would hope that, overall, impacts were positive. However, we found that areas actively managed for waterbirds were more likely to have a positive impact.”

Waterbird populations are vital parts of most freshwater ecosystems. They are also valuable to study because they can quickly colonise or abandon a site depending on habitat quality. As a result, the authors suggest that their study has important wider lessons for biodiversity conservation.

“These results are highly relevant for upcoming discussions about international conservation targets, soon to be agreed at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity,” stated Dr Wauchope.

“Currently, it’s looking like there will be agreement to set even more ambitious targets for the amount of land protected – such as 30×30 where 30% of the Earth is protected by 2030 – we are concerned that this will simply exacerbate the problem, creating more areas designated to meet a target that aren’t actually having an impact.”

A pied avocet: the study findings have wider messages for global biodiversity conservation. Image: Robert Blanken

The research team included Wetlands International and the universities of Bangor, Queensland, Copenhagen, and Cornell. Their wetland bird data was collected by thousands of volunteers across the world, through the Aubudon Christmas Bird Count and Wetlands International’s International Waterbird Census.

“We argue there need to be measurable targets for protected area impact, and more investment in the management and quality of protected areas; area based targets like 30×30 can’t be a distraction from this,” Dr Wauchope stated.

“We are not saying protected areas don’t work. The key point is that their impacts vary hugely, and the biggest thing this depends on is whether they are managed with species in mind – we can’t just expect protected areas to work without appropriate management,” Dr Wauchope said. “It also appears that larger protected areas tend to be better than smaller ones.”

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Wauchope, H.S., Jones, J.P.G., Geldmann, J. et al. (2022) Protected areas have a mixed impact on waterbirds, but management helps. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04617-0

MERLIN all-partner meeting: bringing Europe’s freshwaters back to life

April 6, 2022
Front cover of the new MERLIN leaflet.

Last week, the MERLIN project held an all-partner meeting to discuss the progress made in the first six months of collaborative work.

MERLIN is a major environmental project which aims to mainstream freshwater restoration in Europe. Funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 scheme, MERLIN will invest €10 million into restoring freshwater ecosystems across Europe in coming years.

Over 100 participants attended the virtual meeting over two days last week to hear talks from MERLIN Work Package leaders on project progress, and to take part in discussions on future plans.

In his introduction to the meeting, project leader Prof. Daniel Hering outlined some of the important steps already made in MERLIN. Prof. Hering described how discussions over monitoring the impact of freshwater restoration case studies have resulted in a MERLIN Monitoring Handbook. This document provides indicators for monitoring the outcomes of freshwater restoration, and how it can contribute towards EU Green Deal goals. The Handbook will be made available later this year to help support restoration practitioners.

Participants at the MERLIN all-partner meeting in March 2022.

“Six months into the project, the meeting provided clarity on our approaches to achieving MERLIN’s ambitious objectives”, says MERLIN co-ordinator Dr. Sebastian Birk. “One key focus of the meeting was to exchange ideas on the monitoring plans that will be implemented in the 17 restoration cases.

“Here, it became increasingly clear how the different targets of the Green Deal are addressed: How can we best measure the re-wetting of peatlands? How do we guarantee the inclusion of interested citizens? Over the coming months, the MERLIN case studies will set up their monitoring of restoration impacts”, Dr. Birk explains.

Communication and dissemination of the project’s goals was another key theme of the first six months. Prof. Hering highlighted the success of the MERLIN webinars, which offer free monthly discussions of important topics around restoration science, management and policy.

Project partners have also produced a leaflet outlining how MERLIN aims to support freshwater restoration as a means of mainstreaming nature-based solutions for more sustainable European societies. You can read it here in English, Spanish, Basque, Finnish, Hungarian, Polish and Portuguese.

Inside cover of the new MERLIN leaflet.

Highlighting the many benefits fostered by freshwater restoration is an important step in encouraging collaborations with multiple water users and stakeholders. Accordingly, MERLIN partners have held sector-specific round table meetings around issues such as drinking water supply and navigation.

“MERLIN has started dialogues with the insurance business and the navigation sector”, says Dr. Birk. “The first insights about co-benefits for nature and economy were shared during the project meeting.”

Work within MERLIN continues apace: you can keep up to date on the project website and social media.

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

Managing multiple stressors in Iberian freshwater restoration

March 29, 2022
Río Eresma, La Granja de San Ildefonso, an Iberian river largely unimpacted by multiple stressors. Image: Cayetano Gutiérrez-Cánovas

In recent years, scientists have increasingly shown how freshwater ecosystems are impacted by a range of human-caused stresses, which can significantly affect their health and biodiversity.

As a result, research into the interactions and impacts of so-called ‘multiple stressors’ has blossomed, both in Europe and globally. Now, a newly-published paper shows that the ecological degradation of Iberian freshwaters is largely caused by the impacts of two or more combined stressors.

The study authors reviewed 61 scientific articles exploring the effects of different stressor combinations on freshwater ecosystems and organisms from the Iberian Peninsula. The research team, led by Dr. Cayetano Gutiérrez-Cánovas (Doñana Biological Station-CSIC, Spain) and Dr. Susana Pallarés (University of Seville, Spain), collaborated with scientists from 11 Iberian and international institutions.

Writing in Limnetica, the authors found that the key stressors in Iberian Peninsula freshwaters are nutrient enrichment, toxic substances such as pesticides, salinity, ultraviolet radiation, flow reduction and warming.

The team also observed a high variability of stressor effects across different types of organisms, freshwater ecosystems and experimental approaches. For example, manipulative studies tended to find a higher prevalence of interactive effects for some organism groups, compared with observational studies. Such interactions arise from complex situations where the combined effect of different stressors is not equal to the sum of their individual effects.

Arroyo de la Tejera, El Espinar, a degraded Iberian river impacted by multiple stressors. Image: Cayetano Gutiérrez-Cánovas

“Our work highlights the need to consider the multiple impacts driving freshwater degradation in management and restoration actions,” says Cayetano Gutiérrez-Cánovas. “This work in the Iberian Peninsula demonstrates that the traditional single stressor perspective would be effective only in a minority of cases. And, more importantly, this situation could be applicable to other European areas, where 39% of EU water bodies are affected by two or more anthropogenic pressures,” continues Susana Pallarés.

The Iberian Peninsula is one of the most important global biodiversity hotspots, and supports a rich variety of climates and freshwater habitats. However, the ongoing climatic aridification in the area, combined with growing water demands for food production and urban areas, exerts increasing pressure on Iberian aquatic ecosystems.

To tackle this multiple stressor scenario, the study authors suggest the need to implement mitigation actions that consider climate change along with other impacts, including nutrient enrichment, hydromorphological alteration and invasive species.

The scientific team also identified research gaps to be addressed in future investigations. Among them, the authors suggest increasing research efforts on some aquatic ecosystems – such as lakes, lagoons and wetlands – and organisms that have not been studied in sufficient detail, such as algae and aquatic vegetation. They also propose more observational studies to address multiple stressor effects on natural freshwaters.

In addition, the authors suggest that the ongoing multiple stressor research agenda should include a more detailed investigation on the consequences of biodiversity loss for the ecosystem functioning and services provided by aquatic environments in a global change context, where several impacts often act simultaneously.

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Gutiérrez-Cánovas, C., Arias-Real, R., Bruno, D., Cabrerizo, M.J., González-Olalla, J.M., Picazo, F., Romero, F., Sánchez-Fernández, D. and Pallarés, S. (2022). Multiple-stressors effects on Iberian freshwaters: A review of current knowledge and future research priorities. Limnetica. DOI: 10.23818/limn.41.15 (open-access)