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Maps in Action – the European Fish Index

May 29, 2014

In October 2000 the European Parliament adopted the Water Framework Directive (WFD), a land mark community framework to control pollution, promote sustainable water use, improve aquatic ecosystems and manage the effects of floods and droughts. The WFD requires member states to achieve “good status” for all waters by a set deadline and specifies two elements “good chemical status” and “good ecological status“.

Characterisation of fish sampling sites in Europe using EFI+ source:

Characterisation of fish sampling sites in Europe using EFI+ (click on map to open Atlas)


Annex V of the WFD defines what is meant by “good ecological status” and provides technical guidelines on how it should be interpreted and measured. It states that, for all types of freshwater member states should monitor and report on four biological elements, namely:
• Composition and abundance of aquatic flora (macrophytes and phytobenthos);
• Composition and abundance of benthic invertebrate fauna;
• Composition, abundance and age structure of fish fauna.

The EU comprises a set of institutions that assure European legislation has teeth. A key role of the European Commission (EC – the executive institution) is to monitor member state compliance with directives and to facilitate the development of monitoring tools and EC regulatory oversight.

Member states, particularly those with strong fisheries institutions, responded to the requirements of the WFD by developing their own national indices for assessing water bodies and their progress towards “good ecological status”. Lead developer of the European Fish Index (EFI), Didier Pont, notes that “this was not necessarily a bad thing. It created indices attuned to national conditions and institutions. The problem was that it made an EU-wide overview of progress difficult”. It also compromised the ability of the EC to identify member states that were falling behind and identify the areas where help – or prodding – would be beneficial.

This is where the European Fish Index comes in. It was developed in two steps – first as the Common Fish Index under the FAME project (2002-2005) and later as the EFI+ under a subsequent project.  The map above, included in the Global Freshwater Biodiveristy Atlas, depicts the ecological status of 2,948 sites based on application of the EFI+.

Brown trout by T Knepp. Source Wikimedia Commons

Brown trout by T Knepp. Source Wikimedia Commons

Didier Pont recollects that the main challenge in creating a common assessment and reporting standard was defining and establishing common reference conditions in each river basin and type of water body. To develop the index it was necessary to identify and model ‘reference conditions’ with no or very low human pressure.

The EFI+ was part of a wider, and particularly complex effort, known as the ‘intercalibration exercise’. This sought to integrate member state indices of ecological status into five comparable status categories: high, good, moderate, poor and bad.

Indices, such as the EFI+ are what sociologist Andrew Barry terms ‘technological zones’, specifically zones of qualification (see Barry 2006). A technological zone is a space within which technical practices, procedures, and forms have been reduced. As well as being critical to the development of economy and society (e.g. infrastructural zones association with rail & telecommunication systems, and digital technologies) they are also critical for science to interface with policy at the supra-national scale.

Interestingly technological zones, such as the EFI+, have capacity beyond being simply a ‘connection standard’ for reporting. The EFI+ has been used as a template for the design of national fish indices by the Netherlands, Sweden and Romania and is likely to be picked up by countries outside the European Union. Indeed Didier Pont notes that there is interest in using the EFI+ to assess the success of restoration projects and/or for wetland offset projects.

In short, the EFI+ empowers the EC to assure compliance with the WFD but also acts to enroll a broader constituency of countries and sectors in the goals of improving the ecological status of freshwaters.

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