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Major new book surveys nature and culture along Alpine rivers

December 6, 2019
The Lech River in the Alps. Image: Gregory Egger

The vast Alps mountain range is sometimes described as the ‘water tower’ of Europe. This is because a significant proportion (some estimates say 40%) of the continent’s freshwaters originate from its slopes, supplying drinking water to millions of people.

A newly published book provides a comprehensive survey of the diversity, value and uniqueness of Alpine rivers, and the issues relating to their management and future. ‘Rivers of the Alps: Diversity in Nature and Culture’ is the result of a major collaborative effort involving 150 experts from six Alpine countries, led by editors Susanna Muhar, Andreas Muhar, Dominik Siegrist and Gregory Egger.

Over 34 thematic chapters, richly illustrated with images and maps, the book offers a history of Alpine rivers and their geomorphology, which has shaped a range of unique habitats for wildlife. The book then explores how people have settled and used Alpine river landscape over time, covering wide-ranging topics of flood protection, hydropower and transport alongside mythology, tourism and art. The challenges for environmental management that arise from the dynamic human-nature interactions in Alpine river catchments are then considered. Finally, portraits of the individual characteristics of 54 Alpine rivers are offered. Susanna Muhar says: “we as editors aim to contribute to a greater awareness regarding the unique nature and value of Alpine rivers as well as the ways in which they are endangered.”

The Alpine Isel River. Image: Wolfgang Retter

Alpine rivers: woven threads of nature and culture

The book is timely and important: Alpine landscapes are shaped by their rivers and streams, both physically and culturally, but their complex systems are vulnerable to environmental change. A number of large European rivers – including the Rhine, Rhône, Inn and Po – have headwaters in the Alps, carrying water across the continent to the North, Mediterranean, Adriatic and Black Seas. Alpine river valleys have long been locations of human settlement, with their waters used for drinking, washing and irrigation. In recent centuries, tourists have increasingly explored Alpine valleys, taking advantage of their clear waters for boating, fishing and swimming. Alpine rivers support a unique range of biodiversity. They provide habitat for a number of species, including fish, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds.

Dominik Siegrist says: “The Alps are in many ways connected to their rivers. The alpine spaces are formed by the rivers, and the streams and large rivers characterise the Alpine landscapes. In the mountains and valleys, fluvial landscapes are an element of beauty but also the cause of the destruction of infrastructures and settlements. They are a source of drinking water for entire countries. Rivers also donate energy in different ways – for those seeking relaxation as well as for running the turbines of hydropower plants.”

Andreas Muhar continues: “The rivers of the Alps play an important role for the rest of Europe: they provide water and hydropower way beyond the limits of the Alps. The development of human settlements and infrastructure widely followed the course of the rivers. Their valleys form important corridors for transport on the rivers themselves and on roads alongside them. Today’s multi-functional river landscapes require that we find the right balance between utilisation and conservation, as well as integrate demands from many different fields such as energy production, material extraction, flood protection, agriculture, settlement, industry and recreation.”

The Alps is the source of around 40% of Europe’s freshwater. Image: Book Authors (Hi-res version)

Multiple pressures on Alpine rivers

However, despite their importance, Alpine rivers are increasingly threatened by human activity. The effects of climate change are being strongly felt in the Alps. In the book’s introduction, Klement Tockner states that air temperatures in the Alps have risen by just under 2°C over the past 100 years – almost twice the global average. Climate warming is changing the pattern and extent of glacier melt in the Alps. In 1876, glaciers covered an area of 1,800km² in the Alps. Climate change has caused the glaciated area to shrink by 40% in Austria and 30% in Switzerland since then, Tockner outlines.

This is important because glacial melt is a key element of the Alpine water cycle. Changing melting patterns alter the amount and timing of river flows downstream, and with it the aquatic ecologies and human livelihoods that rely on them. Climate change models project ongoing increases in air temperature through the 21st Century, with a potential complete loss of Alpine glaciers by the end of the century. This could mean more droughts and low river flows in summer, and more winter flooding and landslides in river valleys in the future.

Alpine river flows are also increasingly altered by hydropower projects. Only a small number of Alpine rivers remain in a ‘near-natural’ free-flowing state because of a recent boom in small hydropower plant construction. The seeming ‘eco-friendly’ credentials of such low-carbon energy production schemes are potentially compromised by the negative effects hydropower can have on the health of the wider river ecosystem.

Umballfalls in Alpine East Tyrol, Austria. Image: Andreas Muhar

A collaborative resource to support environmental policy and management

These key issues, and how they might be managed and mitigated through environmental management and policy (such as the Alpine Convention), are central concerns of the book. Editor Gregory Egger explains: “Our book gives the first Alpine-wide overview of all essential topics in the context of rivers and river landscapes. Particular attention is paid to the presentation of the characteristics of Alpine rivers. The book is intended to address both experts and readers interested in nature.”

Susanna Muhar says: “We are facing global changes regarding climate, land use, food and energy production, urban agglomerations and many other challenges. Freshwater ecosystems, and the functions and services they provide, are increasingly affected by these changes. In light of such adversities, it is particularly crucial to preserve those rivers and floodplain corridors that are still dynamic and interconnected. Such systems buffer flood events, provide habitats for reproduction and refugia from disturbances and enable species movements to suitable habitats in other parts of the watershed, particularly in response to transforming environmental conditions such as rising temperatures or changing hydrological regimes.”

‘Rivers of the Alps: Diversity in Nature and Culture’ is the result of extensive interdisciplinary collaboration.

Project manager Kerstin Böck says: “The book is the result of a major geographic project and includes contributions of more than 150 experts from all over the Alpine space. Coordinating this large number of people was sometimes challenging and required patience and a bit of tenacity.

“Over 10,000 mails were exchanged from the start of the project until now, and it took a lot of discussions until the present concept was ready. However, the result speaks for itself and brings together expert knowledge on all the important issues relating to Alpine rivers.”


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Find out more and order the book online.

Catchment geology and human activity influence photosynthesis in aquatic plants

November 22, 2019
The Norfolk Broads. New research suggests that plants in environments such as this, where biocarbonate levels are high, have adapted to use it in photosynthesis. Image: Ian Hayhurst | Flickr Creative Commons

Like all plants, aquatic plants rely on carbon to photosynthesise. However, unlike in the open air, carbon dioxide (CO2 ) is not a reliable source of carbon underwater. CO2 doesn’t diffuse efficiently through the water column, and is rapidly depleted as a result. So, how do aquatic plants get the carbon they need to live and grow? And how does this shape the distribution of where different plants are found?

A major new study shows that many aquatic plants have evolved the ability to use inorganic carbon, largely bicarbonate derived from the weathering of rocks and soils, in photosynthesis. Writing in Science, Lars L. Iversen and colleagues show that around half of the 131 global submerged plant species they studied showed this bicarbonate adaptation.

The research team found that plant species with this trait were generally found in water bodies where bicarbonate concentration is high. In other words, where bicarbonate is widely leached from the weathering of soils and rocks (e.g. from limestone and dolomite), aquatic plants have adapted to use it in their life cycles. This is in contrast to terrestrial environments, where plant communities are largely determined by climate, rather than geology.

However, bicarbonate use is not ubiquitous in aquatic plants, for two reasons. First, using bicarbonate in photosynthesis is an active process, and requires energy to process. Second, photosynthesis rates at limiting concentrations of inorganic carbon are higher in plant species that use CO2. In short, bicarbonate dependence might limit photosynthesis rates in some environments.

Global relationship between bicarbonate concentration and the proportion of bicarbonate users in freshwater plants. See Fig 1 footnote for more detail. Image: Iversen et al (2019)

As a result, the research team found that where CO2 concentrations in a water body are high (and substantially above the air equilibrium) – as is often the case in streams – the benefits of bicarbonate use are reduced. They observed that bicarbonate traits in aquatic plants were rarer in such environments.

The broad trend identified in this groundbreaking new study is that where CO2 is limited in the water column – most often in lakes – aquatic plants have tended to adapt to use bicarbonate as a source of carbon in their life cycles. However, where CO2 is available, plants preferentially use it in photosynthesis, like their terrestrial counterparts do. Thus, bicarbonate use by plants is a response to carbon limitation in aquatic environments, and observed more often in lakes than streams.

The study highlights the extent to which catchment geology and weathering processes can shape the distribution of aquatic plants in lakes and streams. However, human activities such as deforestation and agriculture have the potential to alter biocarbonate concentrations in aquatic environments, with resulting effects on the plant species they support.

Steep gradients in bicarbonate concentrations and spatial separation in species distribution in the British Isles. See Fig 2 footnote for more detail. Image: Iversen et al (2019)

The authors suggest that increases in bicarbonate concentrations – for example, as the result of nitrate fertiliser leaching – will have particularly severe impacts on biocarbonate-poor lakes. In such ecosystems, they suggest that plant species composition will significantly alter, as tall, fast-growing bicarbonate users colonise and suppress smaller species adapted to CO2 use alone.

Elsewhere in the same Science issue, aquatic ecologists Rafael Marce and Biel Obrador highlight three key areas of significance in the new study. They write:

“[The study] paves the way for future studies of the impacts of global change on freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. It highlights the need to develop models for the dynamics of dissolved inorganic carbon in fresh waters that go beyond the mainstream focus on CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. And it constitutes a powerful example of integrative ecology across spatial and temporal scales and knowledge domains.”

The broad-scale, interdisciplinary scope of the new study by Iversen and colleagues reveals new biogeochemical mechanisms that helps us understand the patterns and processes of freshwater biodiversity, and potentially predict global changes that can inform biodiversity conservation planning.

Accordingly, Marce and Obrador suggest that the study strengthens the argument for developing better biogeochemical models of river networks. “Although it is challenging to integrate complex geochemical and biological interactions at large scales, such models paint a more precise picture of the freshwater carbon cycle and better inform multidisciplinary research on biodiversity conservation and Earth-system modelling,” they write.

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Iversen L.L. et al (2019) “Catchment properties and the photosynthetic trait composition of freshwater plant communities”, Science, Vol 366, Issue 6467, 878-881

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Fig 1 detail: (A) Proportion of bicarbonate-using species across 52 plant ecoregions. Gray areas indicate regions where information on bicarbonate use in local plants is not available. (B) Relationship between mean bicarbonate concentration in plant regions and frequency of bicarbonate users. The line represents the mean proportion of bicarbonate users. (C) Density plots of bicarbonate preferences for bicarbonate users (n = 57) and obligate CO2 users (n = 72). The central horizontal black lines represent the means, and the boxes indicate the 95% confidence intervals around the means.

Fig 2 detail: Distribution of two pondweed species with contrasting bicarbonate use in the British Isles. Potamogeton polygonifolius (obligate CO2 user; black triangles) is found in areas with lower bicarbonate concentrations than are present where Potamogeton crispus (bicarbonate user; white circles) is found. The top left inset shows the density distribution of the two species across bicarbonate concentrations. Bicarbonate concentrations are from the global bicarbonate map (fig. S2), and species data were extracted from the geo-referenced plant occurrences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agriculture as a driver of freshwater ecosystem pressures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can add your signature to the statement here.

Climate warming is changing Arctic freshwater ecosystems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read The State of Arctic Freshwater Biodiversity report here.

Global Swimways: conserving migratory fish populations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bending the curve of freshwater biodiversity decline

September 27, 2019

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

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

Horizon scanning research in conservation

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

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

Emerging issues in freshwater conservation

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

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

‘Bending the curve’ of global freshwater biodiversity decline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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