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Sink or swim: over one in three freshwater fish species in Europe

threatened with extinction
Thursday, November 1st, 2007

The first ever assessment of European freshwater fishes indicates

astonishing species diversity but also the devastating impact of over 100
years of development and management of freshwater systems and fishes.

Gland, Switzerland, 1 November, 2007 (IUCN) - The diversity of life in European freshwater
ecosystems is rapidly declining, according to a new scientific study.

The research is published in the new book Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes, in
collaboration with the World Conservation Union (IUCN). It shows that 200 of the 522 (38%)
European freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction and 12 are already extinct,
using the IUCN Red List of Threatened Speciesâ„¢ 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.”

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.

The Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes was written by Maurice Kottelat (Cornol) and
Jörg Freyhof (IGB, Berlin). 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 of Threatened Species.

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. Fish conservation should be managed
in the same way as conservation of birds and mammals, by agencies in charge of conservation,
and not as a crop by agencies in charge of agriculture. All species are part of the human
heritage, just as, for example, Acropolis; the difference is that if Acropolis were destroyed one
could still re-build a duplicate, but an extinct species cannot be duplicated. “

The Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes 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

Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Head of IUCN’s Species Programme, said: “This new study
shows that we are far from achieving European governments’ targets to halt biodiversity loss by
2010. The status of fish populations reflects the condition of European lakes and rivers. This
handbook highlights that freshwater ecosystems are probably the most threatened. This is
worrying as water increasingly becomes a scarce resource around the world. Protecting and
conserving biodiversity is vital, as people’s health and livelihoods rely on these systems for basic
necessities such as food and clean water.”

Human population in Europe has almost doubled since 1900, and agriculture and industry have
developed massively. According to the UN Environment Programme this has led to the
destruction of nearly 60% of Europe’s wetlands, leaving freshwater species declining at a great
rate. Freshwater ecosystems are incredibly valuable and provide Europe with many essential
products and services including fish for food, clean water, flood control, tourism and leisure
activities. Their sustainable management and the conservation of freshwater species depend
upon accessible, reliable and comprehensive information. Even smaller scale conservation
activities at a local level can make a significant impact on species, helping to tackle the serious
issue of biodiversity loss in Europe’s freshwater fish.

Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes:

Maurice Kottelat & Jörg Freyhof. 2007. Published by the authors. ISBN 978-2-8399-0298-4, 2007, xiv+646
pp., 17.5 x 26 cm 87.00 Euro. Available from

About The World Conservation (IUCN)

Created in 1948, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) brings together 84 States, 108 government
agencies, 800 plus NGOs, and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 147 countries in a unique
worldwide partnership. The Union’s mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the
world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is
equitable and ecologically sustainable.

The Union is the world’s largest environmental knowledge network and has helped over 75 countries to
prepare and implement national conservation and biodiversity strategies. The Union is a multicultural,
multilingual organization with 1,000 staff located in 62 countries. Its headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland.

About the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) and Species Programme

The Species Survival Commission (SSC) is the largest of IUCN’s six volunteer commissions with a global
membership of 7,000 experts. SSC advises IUCN and its members on the wide range of technical and
scientific aspects of species conservation and is dedicated to securing a future for biodiversity. SSC has
significant input into the international agreements dealing with biodiversity conservation. Web: