Europe must uphold key EU law protecting freshwater fishes

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

1 in 3 fish in Europe are currently threatened with extinction; numbers of amphibians in Europe have been steadily declining with several also facing extinction; and freshwater insects are also suffering important losses in numbers. [Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington / Flickr]

Europe is no exception to the decline in freshwater biodiversity, due to many threats such as agricultural pollution, or the overwhelming development of hydropower, writes Dr Steven Weiss.

Dr Steven Weiss is an associate professor at the Institute of Biology, University of Graz, Austria. He specialises in the study of freshwater fishes.

I, along with a community of 5,500+ scientists, have signed onto an open letter asking Executive Vice-President Timmermans and Commissioner Sinkevičius to preserve and implement the EU’s Water Framework Directive in its current form.

We, scientists, are very concerned about any efforts to weaken this crucial Directive and are looking to see whether this new Commission is indeed serious about preserving Europe’s biodiversity.

Life should be seething under water, unseen by us but present and vivacious, rivers flowing through forests and meadows, connecting one ecosystem to another.

Last year’s WWF Living Planet Report has indicated that freshwater species are those though that have suffered the greatest decline in numbers. Freshwater ecosystems and the life underneath the surface are too often taken for granted, despite the fact that they provide mass ecosystem services.

Europe is no exception to the decline in freshwater biodiversity, due to many threats such as agricultural pollution, or the overwhelming development of hydropower.

Right now, 1 in 3 fish in Europe are threatened with extinction; the numbers of amphibians in Europe have been steadily declining with several also facing extinction; and freshwater insects are also suffering important losses in numbers.

Historically, Europe’s rivers were integrally related to industrial and agricultural development, and through the centuries have been regulated, dammed, and polluted to such a degree that they were in a state of emergency.

Whereby specific river restoration projects are common, large-scale degradation is happening again throughout Europe, from agricultural pollution to the over-development of hydropower.

The Water Framework Directive, passed in 2000, is the cornerstone legislation to regulate and protect freshwater bodies in the EU.

The Directive takes a holistic view of freshwater resources and understands that their protection and sensible management serves a wide range of direct and indirect human as well as non-human interests, whose maintenance collectively forms the foundation of a healthy and ecologically intact planetary ecosystem.

But progress and implementation of the Directive have been much too slow.

The Directive has been under evaluation by the European Commission, with conclusions to be published in the next couple of weeks.

As someone who has been passionate about fish and life under the water’s surface since my childhood, it was heartwarming to see the mass support of citizens, 375,000 of them, towards the public consultation to preserve and implement the law.

This massive citizen support shows the Commission that people want their environmental regulations enforced—not weakened. These numbers should also show national governments that their constituents want implementation of environmental protection, rather than listening to industry lobbies who will always want business as usual.

The EU Water Framework Directive is fit for purpose. But without the political will of Member States to implement it, how can it fully achieve its objectives?

I strongly argue that the WFD in its current form remains a viable and cornerstone piece of legislation, together with the European Habitats Directive in supporting, promoting and ultimately enforcing the protection and improvement of European freshwaters and the diversity of life and processes that they support. This is also what a massive number of citizens want our legislative bodies to do.

History has taught us that unregulated short-term monetary interests can be merciless when it comes to degrading natural resources and undermining local communities that depend on them.

We need to move forward and embrace a modern, reflective and science-based vision of protecting and managing our water resources, and the WFD provides a sensible and landmark piece of legislation that can help us achieve exactly these goals.

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The full letter is accessible here.

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