The European region, here understood as the European biogeographical region, covers most of the Western Palearctic. This region includes all countries from Morocco and Portugal in the west to Novia Semlja to the eastern borders of Europe at the Urals, including the countries of the Caucasus, Turkey, Syrian, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, all of Iran and Iraq in the east. It excludes the Nile and other waters in Egypt and Lybia and also the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. This large area is very diverse in climates from arctic waters in northern Russia, Iceland and Scandinavia south to the northern borders of the Sahara in the Maghreb countries and the deserts of Mesopotamia. It includes three of the globes most important biodiversity hotspots; the Mediterranean basin, the Caucasus and the Irano-Anatolian Biodiversity Hotspots. These three Biodiversity Hotspots were initially designated for their breathtaking plant diversity, but they also host interesting and highly endemic freshwater fish faunas. This represents the many freshwater key biodiversity areas in the region and are inhabited by a large number of threatened species. In these Hotspots, the many rivers are strongly isolated and it"s a real eye-opener to see the rivers, often each spring having its own fauna, isolated from adjacent faunas for millions of years.
There are many important rivers in the European region, all holding wonderful freshwater habitats. The longest river in the area is the Volga (3,645 km), which drains northern Russia and flows south into the Caspian Sea. Once famous for holding the world"s most important populations of sturgeons, the Volga is strongly impacted by large dams, which block the migration not only of the sturgeons, but also making life difficult for anadromous lampreys, herrings and the famous predatory whitefish, Stenodus leucichthys. Caspian Stenodus and several sturgeon species are completely conservation dependent as they have lost all their natural spawning places and are also victims of a high level of poaching. The second largest river is the Euphrates (3,596 km) which, together with his brother, the Tigris, is the home of early human civilization in the European region. Its fish fauna is highly endemic and almost all of approximately 100 native species are found only in this drainage and in some recently isolated endorheic basins. Many endemic species are only found in a few tributaries or less.
A species to be mentioned is Luciobarbus esocinus, which is the largest cypriniform fish of the world. Seeing one of these is really breathtaking. The Euphrates is massively impacted today by dam constructions, water abstraction and pollution, and water resources are extremely overexploited. The Mesopotamian marshes along the lower Tigris, which were drained under the last Iraqi government, are now revitalized with great engagement and efforts represent an especially remarkable habitat. The third longest river and the most species rich (about 140 native species) in the region is the Danube (2,888 km), which flows into the western Black Sea. Today, the Danube is the most important spawning river for the almost extinct sturgeons, such as the beluga, Huso huso, and is the home of many endemic species, several of them restricted to few tributaries. Despite many dams in the upper and middle section of the Danube, the lower Danube is still free flowing and holds large stocks of anadromous herrings and few sturgeons. The marshes of the Danube delta are world famous and the many hillstreams are first quality freshwater habitats.
The last group of habitats, not to be forgotten, are the thousands of postglacial lakes of Iceland, Britain and central and northern Europe, all inhabited by rich fish faunas. Many of them had been the place of fast evolution and speciation, and all are small ‚ÄúDarwin"s dream ponds‚Äú. Especially charrs (Salvelinus) and whitefish (Coregonus) adapted locally, often splitting into several (up to eight in Russian Lake Onega), usually endemic and still poorly explored species.
The freshwater fishes of the Maghreb and geographical Europe have already been assessed against the IUCN Red List criteria. The Red List assessment of the species found in the Asian part of the area is ongoing. There are also strong efforts to build up a first version of freshwater Key Biodiversity Areas in the European region and workshops to do so are ongoing.
As part of European IUCN Red List assessment, 531 native and described species have been assessed. Almost 80% of the European species are endemic to Europe. Overall, at least 37% of Europe"s freshwater fishes are threatened at a continental scale. A further 4% of freshwater fishes are considered Near Threatened. This is one of the highest threat levels of any major taxonomic group assessed to date for Europe. The conservation status of Europe"s eight sturgeon species is particularly worrying: all but one are Critically Endangered. By comparison, 44% of freshwater molluscs, 23% of amphibians, 19% of reptiles, 15% of mammals and dragonflies, 13% of birds, 9% of butterflies and 7% of aquatic plants are threatened at the European level.
The highest levels of species diversity are found in the lower parts of the rivers draining into the Black and Caspian Seas. However, a number of species with restricted ranges are also encountered in the Alps, in Great Britain and Ireland, and around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Most of the threatened species are confined to certain areas in southern Europe. Most freshwater fishes are in some way affected by pollution of domestic, industrial and agricultural origin. Another primary threat to Europe"s freshwater fishes is habitat loss due to over-abstraction of water. Additional major threats are the introduction of alien species, overfishing (particularly in the larger rivers of Eastern Europe) and a massive increase in the construction of dams, blocking migration and altering stream habitats. The European Red List is available here.
Although a formal committee of members has not been established in the region, there is a very active network of individuals engaged in freshwater fish research and conservation. In each region and country, there are usually several regional experts who are consulted when it comes to specific questions and many colleagues have and are continuously contributing to keep the IUCN Red List up to date and, as in the Asian part of the region, to bring together information for the future Red List. Many countries as well as the European Union have special legislations, some of them are very useful for fish conservation, such as the EU Natura 2000 directive.
Kottelat, M. and Freyhof, J. 2007. Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes. Kottelat, Cornol and Freyhof, Berlin. Available here
J√∂rg is an independent research scientist working with the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig. He is an authority on biodiversity, taxonomy, evolution and ecology of freshwater fishes. J√∂rg has 25 years of field experience, and has authored and coauthored some 145 scientific publications, including two Science papers and the Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes (together with Maurice Kottelat, 1997). His papers and books have been cited more than 2,700 times.
J√∂rg has been a member of the Freshwater Fish Specialist group since its beginnings and the project leader for the European Red List assessment as well as for the ongoing assessment of the fishes of the Asian part of the region. Check out his up-to-date publication list and recent activities on his website: joerg-freyhof.de
E-mail: [email protected]