Water is widely regarded as the most essential natural resource, yet freshwater systems are directly threatened by human activities and stand to be further affected by anthropogenic climate change. As a result of this, habitats associated with 65% of continental discharge are currently classified as moderately to highly endangered and are subjected to significant biodiversity loss, which costs the EU a 3% toll on GDP every year. The main stressors that affect freshwater species are linked with anthropogenic alterations of inland aquatic habitats. Among these, the fragmentation of rivers by means of man-made structures (e.g. weirs, water intakes, dams) represents a critical issue as it prevents the movement and migration of aquatic organisms and, hence, their chance of survival through foraging and reproduction. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, unlike in terrestrial and marine ecosystems, where multiple pathways for movement exist, the linear nature of rivers severely constrains dispersal and facilitates strong and far-reaching effects of barriers. In 2011 EU set the ambitious Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 for halting the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services inherently correlated to the degradation of aquatic habitats. Since remediation policies undertaken by Member States have not yet halted these severe negative trends, in February 2016 the European Parliament adopted a new resolution to enforce ecosystem restoration and development of green infrastructures that are urgently needed. On the other hand, the December 2018 recast of the 2009 EU Directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources raised to 32% the binding overall Union target share for 2030, bringing further input to the hydropower development which could place further pressures upon river ecosystems.
Under this challenging scenario, the focus of this Action is to train 15 ESRs to research innovative solutions for the protection of freshwater fauna in anthropogenically altered rivers, as currently adopted strategies for freshwater exploitation incorporate key factors that negatively impact biodiversity. The proposed research and training programme integrate well within the interdisciplinary field of Ecohydraulics, which merges expertise in physical sciences, (i.e. fluid mechanics, acoustics and bio-mechanics), with behavioural ecology and fish biology.
The main scientific challenge that needs to be met in this area is disentangling the intricate nexus that links fish locomotion, behavioural response to anthropogenic disturbances and associated stress, as this is essential to the understanding and the preservation of nearly all aspects of fish life-cycle. Accompanying technology development is also needed to magnify the potential of experimental observations into the actual range of conditions that fish can experience in rivers. This ETN Network will therefore increase the current knowledge of the key factors and stressors governing the interaction between fish and aquatic ecosystems to enable both research and applications to be taken beyond the current state of the art, by pursuing a clearly defined set of scientific and technological goals.
Research activities will be devoted to develop novel solutions that ameliorate passage of migratory fish species in rivers, deter or attract fish to preferred routes and away from hazardous areas, and optimize renewable energy production while maintaining high ecological standards.
Four research WPs (WP1-WP4) will be implemented to pursue four Objectives:
- Work Package 1 - WP1 - FISH STRESS AND BEHAVIOUR: quantifying behavioural mechanisms and stress-related responses to anthropogenic disturbances in rivers and related physiological indicators
- Work Package 2 - WP2 - FISH HYDRODYNAMICS: advancing existing capabilities of observing and modelling flow fields around swimming fish and the bio-mechanics of fish locomotion
- Work Package 3 - WP3 - TOOLS AND TECHNOLOGIES: innovating currently-adopted technologies related to detection and tracking of fish to gain insights on fish behaviour from field and lab observations
- Work Package 4 - WP4 - FISH MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS: developing fish management tools and novel design of facilities devoted to fish protection and to improve eco-compatibility of hydropower systems
The ESRs individual projects will be integrated and contribute to the overall research programme.
Strong networking mechanisms will be implemented to promote European R&D leadership and to disseminate knowhow specifically to practitioners, river managers and environmental protection authorities across European countries.