Photo credit: Victor Gallego, ICTA, Universitat Politencia de Valencia

Endangered Waters: saving Europe’s most iconic fish species

Young researchers at the forefront of innovative fisheries research work at the interface between fishing communities and conservationists

Fishing for food, income and cultural traditions is part of Europe’s tradition. Three species in particular, the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) and sturgeon family (Acipenseridae), have etched their way into the consciousness of millions of people who recognise them as icons of European fisheries and life. However, this long heritage is now threatened due to many challenges that have pushed two out of these three species onto the red list of critically endangered fish, published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

To save these species from extinction, those involved need to find a compromise between scientifically sound and locally acceptable solutions. This is where young researchers from various disciplines, ranging from molecular biologists to environmental anthropology, can play a crucial role. They can help mend the gap between those whose livelihood depend on these endangered fish species, like fishing communities, and policymakers concerned with shaping conservation policies.

Migratory fish-friendly dams

Salmon, eel and sturgeon species are endangered species. As migratory fish, the presence of river dams is particularly damaging. This is because dams can disrupt, delay or completely block migration routes. In Europe, for instance, many dam operators are encouraged to modify existing dams to allow easier passage for migrating fish. Once renovations have been completed, however, little attention is given to their effectiveness. Even though many dams are equipped with fish ladders, they still cause significant delays to fish migratory routes.

Aware of this issue, researchers are now examining the environmental conditions that initiate migration. The work was performed by PhD students, who are members of the EU-funded IMPRESS training network focusing on better production strategies for endangered freshwater species. And the intervention of these scientists is changing the fate of these fish species.

For instance, based on scientific evidence, researchers have requested that the dam operators open spill ways or remodel dams to allow for easier passage during the brief–yet extremely important time of the year–when endangered fish species migrate. This results from a collaboration between fisheries and water resource managers, resource users and researchers. It will help develop more fish-friendly dams in the future. In turn, it will help reduce dam-related mortality in migrating fish species.

Fishermen conservation compromise

In a similar effort, other members of the IMPRESS network are developing methods that may aid in resolving fisheries conflicts, including over and illegal fishing practices. In the case of sturgeons, scientists, policy makers and fishing communities, struggle to write and implement strong conservation strategies. This failure is, in part, due to the high market value of caviar. This difficulty is combined with the lack of sufficient means for local communities to generate income from traditional sturgeon fishing. Meanwhile, low awareness among consumers of the fragility of sturgeon populations does not help conservation.

The solution, researchers believe, lies in providing better and more relevant information to local fishing communities through empirical scientific evidence. This, in turn, could help reach compromise, between the sometimes opposing views of fishermen and conservationists. Local fishing groups, for example, could thus become better integrated into the policy-to-conservation process. In turn, fishing communities are more likely to accept and abide by the implementation of conservation policies.

Countering fish stock depletion

Under the impulse of the IMPRESS network, leading European researchers are improving endangered wild fish restocking practices through innovative aquaculture methods. This matters particularly for fish species that migrate between freshwater and saltwater,which suffer from commercial exploitation. For example, wild immature glass eels are continuously harvested to stock commercial eel farms. As a result, there is a decreasing stock of juvenile glass eels throughout European waters, according to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

Another example, where innovative solutions stemming from research can make a difference is with Atlantic salmon populations. Species restocking efforts are supported by extensive hatchery operations. However, these use rearing conditions inherited from aquaculture. These differ so dramatically from the wild environment that the produced salmon lack many essential life-skills to survive successfully in the wild, such as avoiding predators and finding food.

New research therefore aims to improve hatchery environments to produce fish with better survival skills. But these techniques are challenging to develop and test. And what works in the lab may not always work under hatchery conditions or contribute to survival in the wild. Research from the IMPRESS project will therefore test enriched hatchery environments to help produce fish more adapted to survival in the wild.

These tri-partite partnerships both strengthen the knowledge that PhD students have of the needs of fishing communities and the governance requirements of policy makers. This experience stimulate them to effectively share the results of their research, leading to innovative conservationist strategies that display sensitivity and understanding toward the challenges of fisheries conservation.

Hannah L. HarrisonDaan Mes and Mitchell S. Fleming

Hannah is PhD Candidate at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Ås, Norway.

Daan is PhD Candidate at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Oslo, Norway.

Mitchell is PhD Candidate at the Natural History Museum in Paris, France and at the National Wild Salmon Conservatoire in Chanteuges, France.

This article was written as a collaboration between all IMPRESS students.

Featured image credit: Victor Gallego, ICTA, Universitat Politencia de Valencia

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