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LIFEnews features 2014

LIFE projects restore rivers: migrating fish return

The first LIFE platform meeting to address riverine species, held recently in Estonia, was attended by representatives from over 15 completed and ongoing LIFE projects concerning the conservation of freshwater species, particularly migratory fish.

Photo: EC"Happyfish" project monitoring fish stock in the Emajõgi River
Photo: LIFE07 NAT/EE/000120

River systems across Europe have become degraded due to human activity. Weir and dam construction, river straightening, loss of river bed substrate, water extraction and eutrophication, and stream fragmentation are among the factors that threaten fish populations.

The platform meeting in Tartu (Estonia) on 10-12 September 2014 focused on species reintroductions, monitoring, migration barriers and fish passes, and the benefits of involving stakeholders and local communities in LIFE projects. Bent Jepsen (LIFE Astrale GEIE Nature/Biodiversity Coordinator) introduced the three-day programme and gave an overview of LIFE’s priorities in relation to this topic.

Wildlife Estonia / Eesti Loodushoiu Keskus hosted the meeting. This NGO is the coordinating beneficiary of the ‘HAPPYFISH’ project (LIFE07 NAT/EE/000120) and the follow-up project ‘LIFE HAPPYRIVER’ (LIFE12 NAT/EE/000871). ‘HAPPYFISH’ restored oxbow lakes in the Emajõgi River and the Alam-Pedja Natura 2000 site in Estonia, to improve conditions for several Habitats Directive Annex II fish species. On the second day of the meeting, attendees took a boat trip to the project sites to see the work that has been done already and to learn about forthcoming actions

Restocking rivers

Several LIFE projects have reared and reintroduced riverine species into restored habitats in Natura 2000 areas. ‘LIFE HAPPYRIVER’ is restoring the natural riverbed in the River Laeva to create fish spawning grounds into which asp (Aspius aspius) will be introduced. Farmed thick-shelled river mussel (Unio crassus), whose complex life-cycle involves an obligatory phase on a host fish, were reintroduced to rivers in Sweden during the ‘UC4LIFE’ project (LIFE10 NAT/SE/000046).

Photo:LIFE06 NAT/D/000005Allis shad (Alosa alosa) ready to be reintroduced
Photo:LIFE06 NAT/D/000005

LIFE-Projekt Maifisch’ (LIFE06 NAT/D/000005) successfully reintroduced allis shad (Alosa alosa) into the Rhine river system in Germany. This species lives much of its life in the sea and returns to rivers to spawn. In partnership with a US expert and using allis shad from the Gironde watershed in France, the project developed a mass breeding and marking technique, and then released 4.8 million allis shad larvae. Subsequent monitoring, carried out as part of the follow-up project, ‘Alosa alosa’ (LIFE09 NAT/DE/000008), has confirmed that released fish have returned to the Rhine and spawned. This ongoing project is further developing techniques for an ex-situ allis shad stock in France and Germany, including the installation of a pilot facility in Germany close to the Rhine.

Critically endangered species of sturgeon, such as the European sturgeon (Acipenser sturio), are of prime interest for reintroduction programmes, as explained by Dr Harald Rosenthal, the President of the World Sturgeon Conservation Society. He outlined progress in the rearing of sturgeon juveniles and plans for sturgeon reintroductions in the river Danube.


Removing barriers to migration

Migratory fish species are vulnerable to obstacles in river systems that prevent them reaching their spawning grounds. These include hydro-electric dams, weirs, fish-farm or industrial infrastructure. Barriers can be overcome by their removal or by the construction of fish passes (bypasses or fish ladders). LIFE projects have implemented both strategies.

Jörn Gessner (Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries) and Paolo Bronzi (Vice-President of World Sturgeon Conservation Society) noted a lack of efficiency in many fish passes and presented the case for harmonising procedures for their operation, with particular reference to sturgeon. Participants also discussed technical requirements of fish passes for different species and legal regulations in different European countries.

Representatives from the ‘Ljubljanica connects’ project (LIFE10 NAT/SI/000142) in Slovenia described the installation of fish passages, and the project’s monitoring of fish and hydrological conditions.

Photo:LIFE06 NAT/D/000005Fish passage built for migratory fish
Photo:LIFE06 NAT/D/000005

Participants heard how the ‘ReMiBar’ project (LIFE10 NAT/SE/000045) had removed around 300 barriers, mainly in smaller rivers and streams in northern Sweden, to the benefit of migrating fish and other riverine species. The ‘LIFE Free Fish’ (LIFE12 NAT/BG/001011) project is similarly removing migration barriers in Bulgaria.

Denmark hosts the world’s only remaining population of houting (Coregonus oxyrinchus), a species that cannot navigate through fish passages. The ‘Houting’ project (LIFE05 NAT/DK/000153) therefore removed or bypassed barriers to migration, whilst also restoring spawning grounds, river meanders and shallow wetlands in four Danish river systems. Through actions to conserve one species, this project benefitted an entire ecosystem.

Enhancing ecosystem services

By restoring riverine habitats, LIFE projects can also enhance the ecosystem services they provide. The ‘UC4LIFE’ project, for example, improved river quality by raising water levels in a number of Swedish rivers to create a more natural floodplain hydrology. Although the project’s target species was a mussel, biodiversity was generally increased as a result.

Ole Ottosen highlighted changes in the perception of what a good quality LIFE river restoration project must include, by drawing on lessons learned from Danish projects over the past 25 years. This included improved knowledge of what constitutes a good fish spawning ground and the best type of riverbed substrate for the type of river.

The ‘Vindel River LIFE’ project (LIFE08 NAT/S/000266) addressed the degradation of a river fragmented by channels used to float timber downstream. The project restored a series of tributaries and removed dams to enhance habitats for several fish species and the freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera). Christer Nilsson, from the project’s beneficiary Umeå University, talked about the linkage between science (restoration ecology) and practice (ecological restoration), and why some river restoration projects fail to record expected outcomes.

Also concerned with wider ecosystem functioning, the ‘Life Grote Nete’ (LIFE05 NAT/B/000090) and ‘Wald-Wasser-Wildnes’ (LIFE09 NAT/DE/000006) projects restored multiple habitat types in a Belgian lowland river and in the National Park Eifel in Germany, respectively.

Getting the message across

Report Conclusions session during the LIFE platform meeting
Photo: Inga Racinska

Andris Urtans, from the Latvian Nature Conservation Agency, coordinating beneficiary of the ‘NAT-Programme’ project (LIFE11 NAT/LV/000371), told attendees of the benefits of tuning river restoration projects to local actor interests (e.g. fishermen’s associations, NGOs, local municipalities and landowners). This helps get the message across that such projects often add value to a local natural resource, for example, with general improvements in water quality. Getting local people and organisations involved and motivated can be the key to sustaining long-term riverine habitat management initiated by a LIFE project. This enhances the cost-effectiveness of LIFE project actions, a subject taken up in a later presentation by João Silva (Astrale LIFE Nature expert).

Project dissemination activities can play a key role in raising awareness of the threats to habitats and species. Cristina Munteanu, representing ‘SAVING DANUBE STURGEONS’ (LIFE11 INF/AT/000902), told participants how the project is raising awareness of the overexploitation of six sturgeon species native to the river Danube, particularly in Romania and Bulgaria. The project provides information to village communities and fishermen, for example, on alternative sources of income to the illegal catching of sturgeon. The project showed that perceptions can be changed when well-targeted information is provided.

One of the important outcomes of the UK project, ‘RESTORE’ (LIFE09 INF/UK/000032) was the creation of a ‘RiverWiki’, a tool for sharing best practices and lessons learnt for policy makers, practitioners and researchers of river restoration. This interactive source of information on river restoration schemes around Europe currently holds 813 case studies from 31 countries.

Although the meeting primarily focused on actions in northern and central Europe, there were also poster presentations from river restoration projects in Spain (‘MARGAL ULLA’ - LIFE09 NAT/ES/000514) and Italy (‘BIOAQUAE’ - LIFE11 BIO/IT/000020).

Platform meeting recommendations

A number of recommendations arose from the concluding panel discussion, including better linkage between the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and LIFE projects, a greater emphasis on climate change, enhanced capacity building to help set up new projects, simplified administration for project managers, and improved guidelines for LIFE project applicants. A greater focus on after-LIFE monitoring was recommended, with more responsibility given at national level.

It was agreed that river restoration should be foremost science-based with more reliance on natural processes, restocking and reintroduction projects must include elements to check fish species’ fitness for natural environments before release, and that greater project transparency should extend to publically-available information about costly fish passes.

The report on the conclusions of the platform meeting will be published shortly on the LIFE website (



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