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Addressing connectivity constraints to freshwater fish: a European perspective

Connectivity of our rivers for fish is seriously constrained in many parts of the world and in some it is threatening to get worse. The scale of this is a serious problem if the benefits of free-flowing rivers and flourishing fish populations, and the fisheries that depend on them, are to be protected and restored towards optimum levels. The time is right to re-consider priorities and to adopt bold new thinking if we are to have free-flowing rivers in the future. In Europe this is being addressed through ambitious and challenging statutory environmental policy: the European Union Water Framework Directive. In this presentation the opportunities, obligations and great challenges of securing defined outcomes under the WFD are considered, and are briefly compared with policies with similar ambitions for connectivity in other parts of the world. Improving connectivity at a strategic level requires better information and better understanding of potential, but also the challenges to securing objectives. The EU funded AMBER project seeks to contribute to this partly through the compilation, for the first time, of a European atlas of barriers. This has already shown that there are many more barriers in European rivers than previously recognised. Technical fishways have generally been the selected option to deliver connectivity for fish, however there is growing recognition that, depending on the objectives, they have their limitations. They often secure connectivity only for certain fish species and for certain times, whilst hydromorphological impacts remain. They are also expensive and probably unaffordable at the large scale required. There is also growing recognition that true connectivity and the multiple objectives of policy such as the WFD, can really only be addressed though barrier removal, but that is tempered by acknowledgement that in many cases this is not possible. In the context of sustainability, and a new mantra of the sustainable management of natural resources, the promotion and communication of solutions to connectivity constraints are considered. Moving the whole agenda forward requires vision to tackle inherited constraints, understanding to manage new pressures, and consideration of the value to society of free-flowing rivers. Lessons learned, for example in Europe and the USA, are valuable - but only if they are communicated well and with passion to enthuse all those with a stake in our rivers and their fish populations. A new popular approach is required taking account of joined-up thinking across society with better communication. This can be supported though improved connectivity of managers, experts and communicators to ensure learning is maximised, and through better social engagement with initiatives such as the World Fish Migration Day and the International Year of the Salmon.
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