Europe's fresh fish facing 'tragic' future

Posted: 1 November 2007

One hundred years of population growth and development in Europe is threatening the survival of fresh water fish, according to the first ever assessment of the problem. Of special concern is the heavy abstraction of water from rivers, along with the building of big dams and efforts to control flooding.

European eel
European eel
European eel (Anguilla anguilla), Critically Endangered.Eels reproduce in the Atlantic Ocean. The number of juvenile eels reaching European coasts has crashed since 1980 and since 2000 there are only 1-5% of the pre-1980 levels. The species suffers from many threats including overfishing, dams, introduced parasites and pollution. Photo © Janez Gregori
The research, published in a new book The Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes, shows that 200 of the 522 (38 per cent) European freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction and 12 are already extinct, using the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categories and criteria. This is a much higher level of threat than is facing either Europe’s birds or mammals.

William Darwall, Senior Programme Officer, IUCN Species Programme, said: “With 200 fish species in Europe facing a high risk of going extinct we must act now to avoid a tragedy. Many of these species, not considered as “charismatic” or with any apparent “value” to people, rarely attract the funds needed for their conservation - they risk disappearing with only a dedicated few noticing the loss. These species are an important part of our heritage and are critical to the freshwater ecosystems upon which we do depend, such as for water purification and flood control. Many of these species can be saved through relatively simple measures. All we need is the public and political will to make it happen.”

Climate changes

The main threats behind the high level of extinction risk stem from the development and population growth in Europe over the past 100 years. The most serious single threat is water abstraction, particularly in the dry Mediterranean areas, which has led to some rivers drying up in the summer months which is becoming more acute with the impacts of climatic changes.

Large dams built for irrigation, flood control and power generation have had major impacts upon species in large rivers, and have led to local extinction of numerous migratory species. Inappropriate fisheries management has led to overfishing and the introduction of alien species (and their diseases). Areas subject to the highest levels of threat include the lower reaches of the rivers Danube, Dniestr, Dniepr, Volga and Ural, the Balkan Peninsula, and southwestern Spain.

Jarabugo - Endangered
Jarabugo - Endangered
Jarabugo (Anaecypris hispanica, Endangered.The population of Jarabugo (southwestern Spain and Portugal) has declined by more than 50% in the past 10 years, in spite of the establishment of a conservation programme supported by the EU Life Programme. The population is fragmented due to dams and is declining due to water extraction, introduced species and pollution. Photo © Jörg Freyhof
Gordon Reid, Director General of the North of England Zoological Society and Chair of the Freshwater Fish Specialist Group, said: "This comprehensive work allows us to see for the first time the true diversity of Europe’s freshwater fishes. At 546 species (including 522 freshwater and 24 marine species that are found in freshwater), the diversity is about twice the number that is often recognised by popular and scientific literature, this has led to many rare and threatened species being ignored."

Maurice Kottelat, former president of the European Ichthyological Society and Jörg Freyhof, scientist from Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology said: "It is not too late and saving all species is still possible if Europe’s governments and EU would start to act now. Lack of concern is the greatest threat to our European fish fauna."

The Handbook of European Freshwater Fishesi> was written by Maurice Kottelat and Jörg Freyhof. The threat assessment was conducted in collaboration with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Species Programme and Species Survival Commission Freshwater Fish Specialist Group, with financial support from the North of England Zoological Society (Chester Zoo). During the seven years of research for the preparation of the book, 47 new fish species were discovered. Some of the assessments are provisional and are to be reviewed before they are included in the 2008 IUCN Red List.

The Handbook of has information on the habitat, biology and ecology, distribution, methods of identification and conservation status of all 546 European native species (including 522 freshwater and 24 marine species that are found in freshwater) and 33 introduced freshwater fish species. It also contains a key to genera and species, colour photographs of nearly every species and an assessment of their conservation status and distribution.

The Handbook is published by the authors. ISBN 978-2-8399-0298-4, 2007, (87 Euro). It is available from: