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Troubled Waters: pollution threatens the health and status of UK freshwaters

September 21, 2021
The River Teifi in Wales, one of the case studies in the new Troubled Waters report. Nutrient pollution and sediment run-off in the Teifi catchment threatens its biodiversity. Image: Robert Haandrikman | Flickr Creative Commons

Poor water quality as a result of widespread pollution is threatening UK freshwater habitats and biodiversity, according to a newly published report. This is despite a significant proportion of the UK population stating that freshwater habitats are a ‘national treasure’ in need of improved protections.

The Troubled Waters report, released last week, was commissioned by a partnership of environmental charities including the RSPB, the Rivers Trust and the National Trust. It outlines how rivers, lakes, ponds, wetlands and streams across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are being significantly affected by agricultural waste, raw sewage, chemical pollution from mines, plastic and pharmaceutical waste.

The report states that the majority of water bodies across the UK fail to reach EU standards for good ecological status. In England and Wales, only 14% and 46% of rivers respectively are rated as having good ecological status, whilst only 31% of Northern Irish waterbodies are classified as good or high quality.

The good ecological status standards are set through the EU Water Framework Directive, which aims to focus environmental policy and management on improving the health and diversity of freshwater ecosystems. However, the new report states that despite concerted efforts many UK freshwaters remain in poor and declining ecological states.

“It is no surprise so many people think of our waterways as a national treasure and revel in the magical sight of otters playing in our streams, dragonflies hovering like jewels above our lakes and the vibrant flash of kingfishers in flight,” says Jenna Hegarty, RSPB Deputy Director of Policy.

“But  nature is in crisis and  the incredible freshwater wildlife people marvelled  at  as they explored our countryside this summer  is a fraction of what should be there,” Hegarty continues. “It is disturbing how it has become so normal for our waterways to be polluted and contaminated, and that  many people do not realise there is something wrong.”

Poor water quality in UK freshwaters has numerous negative effects for both wildlife and human communities. Through a series of case studies, the report highlights issues including biodiversity losses as a result of eutrophic algae blooms and pollution incidents, reductions in the structure and stability of freshwater food chains, and the dangers to human health, particularly in waters which are used for bathing and wild swimming.

“Freshwater biodiversity is declining at an accelerated rate when compared with marine and terrestrial organisms,” says Gail Davies-Walsh, CEO of Afonydd Cymru. “This decline in freshwater life is accompanied by  the  widespread  eutrophication of many of our rivers. 

“Eutrophication gives rise to algal blooms which  occur when too many nutrients enter the water column,” continues Davies-Walsh. “These blooms deplete the oxygen in the water to a degree that aquatic life are suffocated. Algal blooms are only one of the many pressures on our precious water resources that need addressing.  Immediate action is required to protect and enhance our blue spaces for current and future generations.” 

Birds in flight over Leighton Moss, a case study in the report where diffuse pollution is causing water quality issues. Image: Ian Livesey | Flickr Creative Commons

The report authors commissioned a YouGov survey to understand UK public perception of freshwater habitats and the issues they face. The majority of respondents (88%) agreed that UK freshwaters are a ‘national treasure’, and similarly (87%) that there is a need to better protect them.

“This report helps to quantify what those of us working closely with rivers have suspected for a while: the public’s appreciation of rivers as natural heritage has grown in recent years, especially as they have become an important refuge and recreational space during Covid, and our shared concern about the pressures rivers are facing is growing even faster,” says Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust. “This should send a  clear signal to government and businesses to start prioritising nature based solutions to improve the state of our rivers.”

The report concludes with six recommendations to help improve the health and status of UK freshwaters. First, it advocates for a systemic change to the UK planning approval system, in order to promote catchment-based approaches to freshwater management. Second, it highlights the need to shift towards ‘nature-friendly’ farming practices which generate significantly less pesticide and fertiliser pollution run-off.

Third, the report states that an improved set of long-term, legally-binding targets is needed for UK governments to drive improvements in freshwater quality and biodiversity. Fourth, it highlights the need for water companies to stop untreated sewage from reaching rivers, particularly through the use of combined sewer overflow systems.

Fifth, the report outlines that environmental agencies should be supported to carry out water quality monitoring and policy enforcement to better hold polluters to account. Finally, it highlights the need to better monitor protected sites across the UK to effectively implement environmental management schemes.

“Our rivers are facing a range of pressures, some of which are new and some of which have been causing pollution for decades, says Karen Whitfield, Joint Director of Wales Environment Link. “Impacts that local people might not have been aware of previously are now so bad that they are visible to communities, who can see and smell the pollution and have noticed the loss of wildlife.

“We need serious leadership from our regulators in tackling this pollution urgently, so that wildlife and local communities can benefit from clean rivers and lakes,” Whitfield states. 

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Read the Troubled Waters report.

Rights of Rivers at the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2021

September 10, 2021
The Whanganui River in New Zealand, the first river to be granted ‘legal personhood’ rights in 2017. Image: Tim Proffitt-White | Flickr Creative Commons

Today is the final day of the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2021, held in Marseille. The Congress has brought together over a thousand participants from government, academia, public and indigenous peoples’ organisations to set priorities for global conservation and sustainable development.

Freshwater ecosystems are one of the seven key themes addressed by sessions at this year’s Congress. Alongside numerous freshwater events, two plenary sessions (here and here) and a forum outlined the key pressures facing global freshwaters, and discussed how they could be managed under policy frameworks such as the Convention on Biological Diversity 2021, held next month in Kunming, China.

The Congress programme states that environmental rights and equitable governance are crucial in protecting freshwater ecosystems, and supporting the human communities that depend on them. It asks, “How can existing laws, policies, and institutions be strengthened and adapted to ensure the more effective and sustainable management of water resources at the local, national and transboundary levels? How can we effectively strengthen governance and stewardship to maintain healthy watersheds, and address pollution and contamination?”

One response to these questions comes in the form of the Rights of Rivers movement, highlighted at the Congress. The movement states that all rivers should be regarded as living entities that possess legal standing in a court of law. This means that ‘fundamental rights’ of rivers – such as free flows, protection from pollution, biodiversity habitat and ecological functioning – are given strong legal protections.

A Rights of Rivers session at the Congress marked the one year anniversary of the launch of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers, which sets out the basic rights to which rivers should be entitled. This outlook contrasts with established environmental legal frameworks, which recognise ‘nature’ as human property to be managed. Instead, the Rights of Rivers movement states that rivers and their watersheds are living entities with inherent rights to be conserved and restored.

“It is obvious that effective river management works best at the basin scale, and ‘river rights’, as described in the Declaration, is a very important way of achieving this and ensuring protection of ecosystem integrity,” says Angela Andrade, Chair of IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Five years ago we covered the landmark ‘legal personhood’ designation of the Whanganui River in New Zealand. The legislation gives the right for the indigenous Whanganui tribe to speak for the river in the country’s courts, and to file lawsuits on its behalf when environmental protections are not upheld. This approach can be seen as a type of co-management, through which the rights of the river, and its health and diversity, are upheld through decision-making involving local Maori tribes.

Passed in 2017 by the New Zealand parliament, the legislation named the Whanganui as the first river in the world to be recognised as an indivisible and living being. In essence, this outlook shifts the management frame from seeing freshwaters as a resource to be exploited towards understanding them as living entities which should be sustainably guided towards ecologically healthy futures, for both humans and non-humans alike.

Communities on the banks of the Atrato River, Colombia, which was awarded legal rights in 2017. Image: Agencia Prensa Rural | Flickr Creative Commons

“Western law and culture often treat rivers as a human resource instead of recognising the reality that they are living systems,” says Jessica Sweidan, Co-founder and Trustee of Synchronicity Earth and IUCN Patron of Nature. “An important step towards correcting this falsehood is for rivers and other natural entities to be recognised in law as legal entities with intrinsic rights.” 

“The playbook for protecting rivers and watersheds must evolve beyond the traditional environmental law approaches we’ve been using since the 1960s, as such laws are helpful but grossly inadequate,” says Grant Wilson, Executive Director of Earth Law Center. “The Declaration is a useful legislative starting point for those wishing to promote new, Earth-centred legal protections for fresh waters.”

Since the Whanganui legislation was passed, a number of other global rivers have been granted similar declarations of rights. In 2017, broadly similar legislation was passed for the Atrato River in Colombia and the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers in India. In the last year alone, examples include Boulder Creek and the Boulder Creek Watershed ( USA), the Magpie River (Canada), waterways in Orange County, Florida (USA), the Alpayacu River (Ecuador), and the Paraná River and Wetlands (Rosario, Argentina).

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers has been gaining global support since its release last year. Last week, 16 IUCN members co-sponsored a motion calling on the IUCN to endorse the Declaration, although it did not pass. However, advocates for the Rights of Rivers approach suggest that the Declaration offers a powerful and customisable legal model for global governments to strengthen their freshwater conservation and restoration policies.

Can such a model be embraced by policy makers attempting to manage rivers in complex and dynamic contemporary environments? How can it fit with, and even enhance, existing freshwater conservation and restoration schemes? It will be fascinating to trace the development of these debates over the coming years.

“Globally, rivers have enormous social, cultural, environmental, and economic value, but are becoming progressively more threatened,” says Kristen Walker, Chair of IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy. “The Rights of Rivers approach is becoming increasingly important for ensuring that they can continue to provide these essentials to benefit nature and the people who rely on them.” 

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Find out more about Rights of Rivers

Read the Rights of Rivers: A global survey of the rapidly developing Rights of Nature jurisprudence pertaining to rivers report.

Shout Trout Workout: creative methods for communicating fish migration

August 23, 2021
Frame from the Shout Trout Workout cartoon. Image: FIRE Lab

The threats to freshwater ecosystems can sometimes be difficult to recognise. Aquatic life going on beneath the water’s surface is often hard to see, and pressures such as pollution can often be tricky to observe through opaque and murky waters.

The impacts of other key issues, such as habitat fragmentation, may not even register in public awareness of freshwater ecosystems. And, given the ongoing series of calls from conservationists for urgent action to halt the loss of global freshwater biodiversity, being able to engage people with the multiple threats faced by freshwaters is a key contemporary issue.

In this context, an international team has developed creative ways of engaging young people with issues around fish migration. The Shout Trout Workout is a lyric poem, comic and music video designed for 8–14 year olds. It uses artistic methods to communicate complex issues around declining migratory fish populations.

“We’re very passionate about fresh waters here at FIRE Lab.” says project lead Dr. Merryn Thomas, part of Swansea University’s Freshwater Interdisciplinary Research and Engagement Laboratory (FIRE Lab) which explores young peoples’ relationships with freshwater environments.

“We wanted to explain about fish migration in an educational and informative way, and think we achieved this through our interdisciplinary collaboration with passionate creatives and academics,” Dr. Thomas continues.

Frame from the Shout Trout Workout cartoon. Image: FIRE Lab

The project was developed in 2020 through a collaboration involving an environmental scientist, social scientist and artist from the FIRE Lab, alongside a fish scientist, illustrator and media production company.

The Shout Trout comic, designed by American illustrator Ethan Kocak, tells the story of a migratory sea trout’s lifecycle, through birth, migration and spawning. It highlights the habitats the sea trout passes through in its lifecycle, and the threats it faces at each stage. The lyric poem and video sets the comic themes to music.

“We learned a lot about co-creation along the way, which we hope will be useful for others who are interested in collaborating across boundaries to design inspiring engagement materials for young people about our natural environments,” says Dr. Thomas.

The research team have recently published an open-access journal article reflecting on the production of the project in the British Ecological Society’s People and Nature journal. The article discusses how their interdisciplinary collaborations required an openness to co-creation in shaping how key themes were communicated.

Significantly, they highlight the role of scientists in project contributing creative input to the production process to shape how scientific research is translated into artistic outputs. Here, as in other creative freshwater communication projects such as Water Lives…, the team highlight the need to balance scientific accuracy with artistic licence.

The team suggest that it is vital to engage young people with issues such as threats to fish migration in order to develop their environmental literacy for the future. They highlight how such projects have the potential to travel widely through online channels, through educational use in schools, and through workshops and events such as World Fish Migration Day.

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 Swansea University Freshwater Interdisciplinary Research and Engagement Laboratory (FIRE Lab)

IPCC Climate Change Report: Three Key Themes for Freshwaters

August 9, 2021
Extreme events including floods and droughts are predicted to increase due to climate changes over coming decades. Image: IPCC

Humans are altering Earth’s climate in unprecedented and potentially irreversible ways, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, released today.

The report is the sixth assessment of global climate science published by the IPCC since 1988, and is based on the collaborative review of peer-reviewed science by hundreds of experts across the world. It states that global climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying, and that many ongoing observed climate changes are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years.

“This report reflects extraordinary efforts under exceptional circumstances,” says Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC. “The innovations in this report, and advances in climate science that it reflects, provide an invaluable input into climate negotiations and decision-making.”

“This report is a reality check,” says IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.”

The report states that climate change will increase globally in coming decades, bringing multiple potential impacts such as heat waves, droughts and flooding to different regions. “It has been clear for decades that the Earth’s climate is changing, and the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed,” says Masson-Delmotte.


The complex impacts of multiple climate change pressures on aquatic systems are increasingly well-documented. In this context, the IPCC report highlights three overarching impacts on freshwater ecosystems arising from its assessment.

Intensification of the water cycle

The report states that ongoing climate change will cause the global water cycle to continue to intensify as global temperatures rise over coming decades. This means that some regions will experience more intense rainfall, and associated flooding, whilst others will experience intensified droughts. Overall, the impacts of such extreme events on freshwater systems are likely to increase in the future.

Increased variation in rainfall patterns

Precipitation patterns are also expected to alter globally over coming decades. The report suggests that precipitation will increase over high latitudes, the equatorial Pacific and parts of the monsoon regions, but decrease over large parts of the subtropics. Average annual global land precipitation is projected to increase under each scenario of future greenhouse gas emissions by 2100. Additionally, regional changes to monsoon rainfall patterns are predicted.

Impacts of warming on snow and ice melt

The report suggests that ongoing increases in air temperatures will amplify permafrost thawing, the loss of seasonal snow cover and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. This has the potential to significantly affect water flows and habitat quality in freshwater ecosystem at high latitudes and altitudes, and potentially cause flooding issues downstream.

The message from the report is clear: act now to restrict global carbon emissions to minimise the harmful effects of future climate change. “Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience will increase with additional warming,” says IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Panmao Zhai. “Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions. Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate,” Zhai states.

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Read the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis

IUCN survey suggests that almost half of Caribbean freshwater fish are threatened with extinction

July 31, 2021
The Zapata swamp in Cuba, home to the critically endangered ‘living fossil’ Cuban gar, which is increasingly threatened by the spread of non-native catfish. Image: Marjon Melissen | Flickr Creative Commons

The Caribbean islands are home to a rich diversity of freshwater life, including 79 species of fish which are unique to the region’s shallow streams, lakes and wetlands. However, a new IUCN survey suggests that 41% of Caribbean freshwater fish are threatened with extinction.

The survey represents the first comprehensive assessment of freshwater fish populations in the Caribbean. It shows that fifty-four of the region’s fish species are endemic to the two largest islands, Cuba and Hispaniola, with fewer other endemics found on smaller islands.

“Freshwater fishes are one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates on the planet,” says Tim Lyons, Species Survival Officer at the ABQ BioPark and project coordinator for the assessment. “When you think of the Caribbean, the first thing that comes to mind are visions of beaches and coral reefs, but freshwater fishes are just as important. We depend on them and the watersheds they live in for everything from food to energy.”

The survey suggests that freshwater fish populations in the Caribbean are subject to multiple pressures, including habitat loss, pollution and the spread of invasive non-native species. Whilst its findings are stark, it is hoped that the survey will provide a basis for conservationists and local communities to develop plans to conserve and restore freshwater ecosystems across the region.

“This new assessment sheds light on the critical need for directing more resources to conserving the unique freshwater fishes of the Caribbean, given they face a risk of extinction higher than the global average and include many species found nowhere else on Earth,” says Dr. Harmony Patricio, Conservation Programme Manager for Shoal.

A Jumbie Teta (Ancistrus trinitatis) on a shallow streambed in Trinidad. The species was assessed as Near Threatened due to its limited range and continuing habitat decline associated with human pressures. Image: Amy Deacon.

“Beyond the species known so far, the insular Caribbean holds an incredibly valuable diversity of freshwater fishes still to be discovered, described and understood,” adds Dr. Jose Ponce de Leon from the IUCN freshwater fish working group. “This IUCN report shows the overwhelming need of protecting Caribbean freshwater habitats and educating ourselves and others about their values and threats. This project is an important step in identifying conservation priorities in the Caribbean and highlights the value of collaborative research and inclusive strategic alliances for conservation biology.”

The spread of invasive non-native species was highlighted by the survey as a significant threat to freshwater fish populations in the Caribbean. Native to the Zapata swamp in Cuba, the Cuban gar can reach over two metres in length. Known as a ‘living fossil’, barely changed since the late Jurassic period, the Cuban gar plays an important apex predator role in wetland food webs. 

However, the spread of the African walking catfish (or ‘claria’) to the island following aquaculture introductions has significantly impacted populations of Cuban gar and other fish species. The catfish are large, mobile and predatory, and can outcompete gar and other species. As a result, the Cuban gar is now listed by the IUCN as critically endangered.

A juvenile Cuban gar. Image: Erik Garcia-Machado

Another key pressure highlighted by the survey is ongoing habitat loss and pollution. For example, Lake Miragoane is a coastal freshwater lake on the Tiburon Peninsula of southwestern Haiti. The lake supports 10 critically endangered fish species from the genus Limia – tiny livebearing fish – which are found nowhere else in the world. However, their populations are increasingly threatened by water pollution and deforestation around the lake.

“The primary threats to freshwaters in the Caribbean are consistent with the threats that are driving extinction in other parts of the world, and the extinction risk that these species face is a clear indicator of an ecosystem in distress,” suggests Tim Lyons. “The IUCN has declared 80 species of freshwater fishes extinct, with hundreds more likely to have gone extinct before their formal description or assessment on the IUCN Red List. We must act now to prevent unique Caribbean species from joining them.”

“These assessments are a critical step towards the conservation of freshwater fishes in the Caribbean,” says Dr. Yolanda León, President of Grupo Jaragua, an organisation based in the Dominican Republic which works on biodiversity conservation on Hispaniola.

Grupo Jaragua led the recent submission of an IUCN Resolution which recognises the Caribbean as a significant biodiversity hotspot, and calls for increased regional and international action to halt biodiversity loss. “The results of these Red List assessments will help identify freshwater conservation priorities that can address the objectives of that IUCN Resolution,” Dr. León suggests.

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IUCN Freshwater Fish Specialist Group

Rivercide: live-streamed documentary investigates river pollution in England and Wales

July 16, 2021

Earlier this week a new live-streamed documentary, Rivercide, was broadcast. The documentary, presented by environmentalist George Monbiot, investigates the impacts of pollution on British rivers.

“Our rivers should be beautiful, complex ecosystems,” says Monbiot. “But on our watch, they’ve become open sewers, poisoned by sewage and farm slurry. They’re dying before our eyes.”

Broadcast live from the banks of the River Wye, which runs between England and Wales, Rivercide features interviews with conservation scientists, wild swimmers, anglers, politicians, local residents and citizen scientists to document the ecological impacts of rising agricultural and urban pollution in the river catchment.

“Last year raw sewage was released into English rivers over 400,000 times, for over 3 million hours,” says Monbiot. “The Mogden Sewage Treatment Works in Twickenham spewed 3.5 billion litres of raw sewage into the Thames last year. On one day in October, they spilled over a billion litres, which is the equivalent of over 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools of raw sewage.

“As well as releasing faecal bacteria and other nasty chemicals into our water, untreated sewage includes pollution in the form of wet wipes and sanitary towels, leading to build-up of microplastics. And yet, nationally, sewage isn’t even the biggest polluter of our rivers. Agriculture is the sector responsible for most river pollution,” says Monbiot.

The documentary highlights how the regulatory bodies responsible for environmental regulation in rivers in England and Wales – the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales, respectively – have been subject to significant budget cuts in the last decade.

“Rivercide shows how the agencies charged with protecting our rivers have been progressively under-funded and under-resourced and are failing to adequately monitor water quality and enforce action against polluters,” says Monbiot. “For example, at current rates, the average farm can expect to be inspected by the Environment Agency once every 263 years.

“Rivercide investigates who’s polluting our rivers and why we’re allowing them to get away with it. We examine acute pollution incidents too – for example the tragic pollution of the Afon Llynfi in Wales which occurred last July, killing over 10,000 fish,” says Monbiot.

The Rivercide Emergency Rescue Plan. Image: Rivercide.

The documentary, produced on a limited Kickstarter-supported budget using mobile phone and drone streaming techniques, also features contributions from singer Charlotte Church and poets Owen Sheers and Benjamin Zephaniah.

“Rivercide is the antithesis of those deathly Zoom calls we’ve all had to endure this last year,” says award-winning director Franny Armstrong. “Yes, it’s using the same technology, but in spirit it’s the anarchic offspring of Springwatch and Challenge Anneka.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a single person in this country who actively wants dirty rivers. And yet every single one of the rivers, lakes and streams that’s monitored in England is now polluted. How can that be? That’s the mystery which Rivercide is setting out to solve – live, in real time.”

The documentary is produced in support of the River Action organisation’s ‘Give Us Back Our Rivers’ campaign, which calls for a doubling of funding for the Environment Agency in England and Natural Resources Wales in Wales.

“It’s madness that we live in a time of cars that drive themselves and fitbits for dogs and yet we put raw sewage into our rivers and allow 20 million chickens to poo into a single river catchment,” says Armstrong. “After a year of lockdown, we’re now a nation of wild swimmers and nature lovers – just imagine how much more fun we’d all be having if our rivers were safe and healthy again, both for wildlife and for people?”

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Rivercide website

Give us Back our Rivers campaign

An eBioAtlas of global freshwater biodiversity

July 1, 2021
Water sampling for eDNA using the eBioAtlas test kits. Image: eBioAtlas

Freshwater habitats are vital for biodiversity and human communities around the world. Covering only 1% of Earth’s surface, freshwaters support 10% of all known animals, 30% of vertebrates and over 50% of fish. However, as a series of recent reports have documented, freshwaters are amongst the world’s most threatened habitats.

At present, freshwater conservation and restoration projects are limited in many parts of the world by limited scientific knowledge about the status and distribution of species. Such incomplete mapping of freshwater biodiversity – and the threats it faces – makes effective conservation funding, management and policy difficult.

A major new project seeks to address this issue through the use of environmental DNA (or eDNA) techniques. Together, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and DNA-based monitoring organisation NatureMetrics announced the eBioAtlas project earlier this month.

The project will supply easy-to-use water pump sampling kits to conservationists and citizen scientists in areas of critical freshwater conservation importance, including the Amazon, Ganges, Mekong Delta, and the Niger Delta. Their aim is to collect 30,000 water samples over the first three years, which can then be analysed for eDNA – the traces of DNA left in water by species of fish, birds, amphibians and land animals.

The eDNA technique thus allows conservationists to detect the presence of freshwater biodiversity which might otherwise be difficult or expensive to monitor. As a result, it is intended that the eBioAtlas monitoring will allow local communities to participate in freshwater monitoring over wider areas than ever before.

“eDNA is a game changer because it allows surveys to be done much faster and it has the potential to pick up much more information than through conventional sampling,” says Dr. Will Darwall, Head of IUCN’s Freshwater Biodiversity Unit.

“A third of the world’s freshwater fish are threatened. If nothing changes in the way we manage freshwater environments these species are headed for extinction. We need a full-scale bio-blitz using eDNA to rapidly get new and updated information about where freshwater fish live all over the world so we can bring it into the mainstream of conservation and environmental management and policy efforts,” Dr. Darwall states.

The eBioAtlas monitoring work will result in a freshwater biodiversity database freely available for research and conservation. It is intended that the results will inform species assessments on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and identify sites in need of protection as Key Biodiversity Areas.

“eDNA’s usefulness will only grow over time, as more and more data become available to allow comparisons and cross-referencing between scientists around the world,” says Angelique Todd, Senior Programme Manager, West and Central Africa at eBioAtlas partner Flora & Fauna International.

“We face a biodiversity crisis and we’ve been running blind,” says Dr. Kat Bruce, NatureMetrics founder and Chief Technology Officer. “We know we have to act to protect threatened species and their habitats, but the lack of data makes it hard to set tangible targets and monitor progress, or to incentivise businesses and governments to take meaningful action. We end up spinning in circles and going nowhere, while the loss of nature continues to accelerate.

“eDNA is totally transformative. It’s a tool we can put in the hands of ordinary people all over the world to capture biodiversity data at a previously unthinkable scale – and from those simple water samples, we will generate the knowledge base that can underpin effective action for the protection and restoration of nature. Nothing is more important.”

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eBioAtlas website

High levels of pesticide pollution found in streams in German agricultural landscapes

June 17, 2021
Pesticides from intensive agriculture are present at high concentrations in streams across Germany. Image: amberandclint | Flickr Creative Commons

The use of pesticides to control insects, fungi and plants which threaten agricultural production has soared globally in recent decades. One recent study suggests that that around one-third of the planet’s agricultural land is at ‘high risk’ of pesticide pollution, and that aquatic ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticide run-off.

The 2019 UN Global Environment Outlook states that food production is a major driver of global biodiversity loss, and a significant pollution source for aquatic environments. This is particularly the case where intensified agricultural practices are heavily reliant on chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

A newly-published study suggests that small streams in agricultural landscapes across Germany are heavily polluted with pesticides, causing significant effects on aquatic biodiversity. Over two years, a team of scientists led by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) studied pesticide contamination at more than 100 monitoring sites on streams flowing through agricultural lowland regions across Germany.

The research team found that government ‘safe’ thresholds for pesticides were exceeded in over 80% of the streams. In 18% of the streams, these thresholds were exceeded by more than ten different pesticides, showing the ‘cocktail’ of chemical stressors the small stream ecosystems are subject to.

“We have detected a significantly higher pesticide load in small water bodies than we originally expected,” says Professor Matthias Liess, ecotoxicologist at the UFZ and coordinator of the small water monitoring project.

In some streams the pesticide loads were significantly higher than government thresholds. In three water bodies, the insecticide thiacloprid was detected at concentrations over one hundred times the threshold. In twenty-seven streams, the insecticides clothianidin, methiocarb, and fipronil, as well as herbicides such as terbuthylazine, nicosulfuron, and lenacil, exceeded the threshold 10 to 100-fold.

Researchers studied pesticide contamination in streams in German agricultural landscapes for two years.
Image: André Künzelmann / UFZ

The researchers’ detailed datasets revealed that pesticides negatively impact stream insect communities at much lower concentrations than previously assumed in government risk assessments. “For sensitive insect species, the pesticide concentration in the small lowland streams is the most relevant factor that determines their survival,” says Professor Liess. “In contrast, other environmental problems such as watercourse expansion, oxygen deficiency, and excessive nutrient content are less important. For the first time this study allows a ranking of environmental problems.”

The study suggests that German government thresholds for the management of aquatic pesticide pollution are insufficient for protecting invertebrate communities. The researchers suggest that this is because, until now, the ecological risk posed by pesticides has been predicted using laboratory studies, artificial ecosystems and computer simulations.

“In addition to pesticides, many other stressors act on organisms in the ecosystem,” states Professor Liess. “These make them much more sensitive to pesticides. Natural stressors such as predation pressure or competition between species are not sufficiently taken into account in the risk assessment. But these obvious problems often go unnoticed because the degree of pesticide contamination and the effect of this have not been validated in the field – neither in Germany nor in other countries.”

The scientists found that the type of sampling method use significantly influenced their measurements of pesticide concentrations. Scoop samples of water are standard for water quality monitoring under the EU Water Framework Directive. However, the scientists found that ‘event samples’, which automatically collect water samples after rainfall, provide much higher concentrations of pesticides entering the stream ecosystems.

“The event sample provides much more realistic results because the pesticides enter the water bodies as a result of the increased surface run-off from the field, especially during rain,” says Professor Liess. “In order to realistically depict the water pollution, samples must therefore be taken after rainfall events. That’s why we need an official regular environmental monitoring to be able to assess the amount and the effects of pesticides.”

The study has significant implications for the management of aquatic ecosystems within agricultural landscapes in Germany. ”We are still using pesticides that were approved many years ago based on an outdated risk assessment,” argues Professor Liess. “This must therefore change as soon as possible. Only in this way can we preserve the biodiversity in our waters and with it the services that these biotic communities provide for our ecosystems.”

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Liess, M., Liebmann, L., Vormeier, P., Weisner, O., Altenburger, R., Borchardt, D., Brack, W., Chatzinotas, A., Escher, B., Foit, K. and Gunold, R., (2021). “Pesticides are the dominant stressors for vulnerable insects in lowland streams.” Water Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2021.117262 (open-access until 29 July 2021)

PONDERFUL is launched: pond ecosystems for resilient landscapes in a changing climate

June 4, 2021
The new PONDERFUL project aims to champion and support the value of pond ecosystems. Image: PONDERFUL

Next week marks the launch of the new PONDERFUL project. The EU Horizon 2020 funded project will explore the role of ponds in protecting freshwater biodiversity, delivering ecosystem services, and helping mitigate climate change impacts.

Ponds are increasingly recognised as vital habitats for freshwater biodiversity, and important biogeochemical hotspots. As a result, they are responsible for providing a range of vital ecosystem services. However, ponds and other small freshwaters have long been overlooked in aquatic research.

This means that they are largely under-valued in environmental management and policy. In Europe, for example, the Water Framework Directive almost completely ignores ponds in its freshwater policy guidance.

“PONDERFUL is the largest EU-funded project to date on the role of ponds in protecting biodiversity and delivering ecosystem services, specifically to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” says Professor Sandra Brucet, who leads the PONDERFUL project.

”We expect to create unique new datasets linking freshwater biodiversity to the delivery of ecosystem services, to help us give better advice to land and water managers working to protect freshwater biodiversity and deliver vital ecosystem services,” continues Professor Brucet. “This fundamental new data will particularly help us better define the relationship between aquatic biodiversity and the production of greenhouse gases, a major concern in the management of aquatic habitats.”

Ponds have long been overlooked in scientific research and undervalued in environmental policy. Image: PONDERFUL

The PONDERFUL project involves 18 partners from 11 states – including Uruguay in South America – forming what is likely to be the largest-ever pond research project. The project is designed to support IPBES and other biodiversity strategies and conventions to better protect freshwater biodiversity, which, as this blog has documented, is a severely threatened component of global biodiversity.

“We’ve brought together a strong international team of aquatic ecologists, geochemists, modellers, landscape conservationists and social scientists, and will collaborate closely with relevant stakeholders,” says Professor Brucet. “This will help provide new guidance to policy makers and practitioners to help them maximise the enormous practical benefits to be gained from working with ponds.”

Ponds are known to be freshwater hotspots, but new research shows they can help landscape-wide recovery too. Many of the existing pond ecosystem studies have taken place in Europe, and there is a significant need for additional research, both across the continent and globally.

“We think PONDERFUL could create a step change in interest amongst both researchers and practitioners in the role of these small, but critical, habitats,” says Dr Jeremy Biggs, from the UK Freshwater Habitats Trust, which has championed the importance of ponds for 30 years. “There may be as many as 3 billion ponds on the planet, and their importance is out of all proportion to their size. Although often regarded as ‘the humble pond’, we regard them as frankly miraculous, hence our adoption of the neat acronym ‘PONDERFUL!’”

PONDERFUL will bring together researchers both from across Europe, and globally. Image: PONDERFUL

The PONDERFUL online launch will mark the start of collaborations between over 500 researchers and practitioners from 39 countries in Europe. The launch, which will introduce the value and importance of pond ecosystems, will also promote the Ramsar Convention’s 2018 Resolution XIII.21 on the ‘conservation and management of small wetlands’.

“In the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, with the protection, creation and management of ponds we have perhaps the most achievable, deliverable and impactful single water management programme we find to protect freshwater biodiversity,” says Dr Biggs. “We just need to make people aware of the enormous benefits to be associated with these ancient, natural and rich freshwater ecosystems.”

The PONDERFUL online launch takes place from 1500hrs (CEST) on Thursday 10th June 2021. Attendance is free, sign up here.

Developing MEASURES for reconnecting migratory fish habitats in the Danube basin

May 28, 2021
The Danube at Mitterhaufen, Austria. The MEASURES project aimed to restore ecological river corridors across the Danube basin. Image: MEASURES

In 2019 we featured a major new freshwater project, MEASURES, founded to manage and restore ecological riverine corridors in the Danube River basins. Funded by the EU as part of the Danube Transnational Programme, MEASURES aimed to improve habitat quality and connectivity along the Danube in order to support populations of six threatened sturgeon species, as well as other migratory fish and wider aquatic biodiversity in the basin.

Earlier this month, the project held its final conference, bringing together participants from diverse fields interested in the conservation and restoration of the Danube basin.

“The MEASURES final conference was held to disseminate the key results of the project, and to present linkages with other initiatives dealing with revitalisation and ecological continuity of the Danube and its tributaries,” says project manager Silke Drexler. “Although the conference took place virtually, it was of high interest to a broad group of stakeholders. The participants included scientists, experts from NGOs, practitioners from private companies, and from governmental agencies. The vibrant discussions addressed topics such as eDNA, broodstock collection, science-policy implementation and future projects for a vital eco-corridor along the Danube.”

The MEASURES project had four key areas of activity, each accompanied by a fact-sheet. First, the project created a series of ‘Infosystem Eco-Corridors’, based on the establishment of a network of Danube stakeholders across 8 partner countries. A new MEASURES Information System (MIS) was developed, hosting online information on migratory fish and habitats in the Danube basin, linked to the Freshwater Information Platform and the Danube Future Knowledge Base. (fact-sheet)

Second, project researchers undertook fieldwork and data collection to map potential sturgeon habitats along the Danube and its tributaries. This resulted in a publication, the Danube Migratory Fish Habitat Manual, which detailed key sturgeon habitats in the basin, and the methods used to map them. The habitat mapping activities in MEASURES have already contributed to the latest draft of the Danube River Basin Management Plan (fact-sheet)

Third, the project undertook a series of activities to strengthen populations of migratory fish populations in the Danube basin. These included restocking programmes for Russian sturgeon and sterlet, alongside the development of an eDNA sampling method to monitor their populations (activities featured in a recent issue of the World Wildlife Magazine). Project researchers collected gene stocks of sturgeon populations from broodstock and ex-situ samples for future stocking, which is hoped to be undertaken through a follow-up project, LIFE–Boat 4 Sturgeons. (fact-sheet)

Fourth, MEASURES published a new Strategy for the Danube Ecological Corridor, which built on project findings to outline how migratory fish habitats can be restored and reconnected through the Danube basin. The MEASURES Strategy is designed to help support and improve environmental management plans and legislation at different scales throughout the basin, providing suggestions for specific conservation and restoration activities. Details of the Strategy, and the MEASURES eDNA monitoring methods, will be explored in further blog posts over the coming months. (fact-sheet)

Attendees at the virtual MEASURES final conference.

A policy brief entitled Solutions and Barriers – Conservation of Migratory Fish Species and Their Habitats synthesises these activities, and calls for the establishment of a Regional Water Council on the Mura and Sava rivers in order to better support local, national and international cooperation. The MEASURES website features a wealth of information about the Danube basin and its migratory fish species, including an archive of newsletters, images and a 2021 calendar.

“The MEASURES project involved 24 partners from 13 countries cooperating to secure threatened riverine fish species,” says project co-ordinator Thomas Hein. “Our three year cooperation allowed major steps in gaining new knowledge on migratory fish in the Danube River Basin and transferring these insights into practice. MEASURES is an excellent example of cross-sectoral international collaboration to address an important aspect of freshwater biodiversity.”

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MEASURES website
MEASURES Information System (MIS)