Hydroscape:connectivity x stressor interactions in freshwater habitats

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Biological and Environmental Sciences

Abstract

All types of ecosystems exhibit connectivity at some level. However, connectivity is the quintessential property of aquatic systems. Connectivity matters in freshwaters because it is the means by which energy, materials, organisms and genetic resources move within and between hydrological units of the landscape (the 'hydroscape'). Hydrological connectivity is a particularly effective vector for multiple climatic, biological, chemical and physical stressors, although other forms of connectivity also link freshwater ecosystems. Our proposal addresses the fundamental question of how connectivity and stressors interact to determine biodiversity and ecosystem function in freshwaters.
Connectivity is multifaceted. It may be tangible - water moves downhill or over floodplains, or more subtle - terrestrial organic matter is incorporated into aquatic food webs. Animals and people naturally gravitate to freshwaters, thus providing additional dispersal vectors that can carry propagules to isolated sites. Connectivity may be passive or active and occurs across scales from the local to the global. Freshwater scientists recognise the fundamental role of connectivity in key paradigms such as the river continuum and flood pulse concepts. Land-water connectivity is also the founding principle behind catchment management. However, in reality, a long tradition of focusing on individual stressors, sites, taxonomic groups or habitats, has led to a highly disjointed view of the most intrinsically interconnected resource on the planet. While the need for an integrated approach to water management is universally acknowledged, an understanding of this most fundamental part of the infrastructure of freshwaters is lacking. This is a serious obstacle to meeting critical societal challenges, namely the maintenance of environmental sustainability in the face of multiplying human-induced stresses. Without a more integrated view of the freshwater landscape we struggle to answer basic questions. These include (i) how do organisms, nutrients and energy move naturally within and between landscapes? (ii) how is this basic template altered by different stressors, singly or in combination? (iii) how has widespread alteration of land cover and of the basic infrastructure of freshwaters that largely drives connectivity, redistributed pressures and modified their effects? (iv) how should reductions in stressors and changes to connectivity, that are now widely implemented, be prioritised when seeking to restore biodiversity and ecosystem function?
Our primary aims are to (1) determine how hydrological, spatial and biological connectivity impact on freshwater ecosystem structure and function in contrasting landscape types, and (2) use this understanding to forecast how freshwaters nationally will respond to (i) multiple, interacting pressures and (ii) management actions designed to reduce pressures and/or alter connectivity. We will achieve these aims by working at different spatial (landscape vs national) and temporal (sub-annual to decadal vs centennial) scales and using a combination of complementary well established and more novel molecular and stable isotope techniques. We will combine existing data sources (e.g. archived sediment cores, biological surveys and the millions of records held in national databases) with targeted sampling to maximise cost effectiveness and achieve a cross habitat and ecosystem wide reach.
Landscape scale thinking has become the new mantra of nature conservation and environmental bodies but the knowledge needed to ensure resilience to climate change and to underpin large scale conservation and restoration of aquatic landscapes is currently lacking. In this regard an understanding of how biodiversity and ecosystem function respond to the changing connectivity x stressors arena in freshwaters is critical. The outputs of the proposed research will deliver the integrated understanding of the hydroscape that is now required urgently.

Planned Impact

Our project bridges the gap between policy/management needs and state-of-the-art scientific research on the impacts of connectivity and multiple stressors on freshwater ecosystems. Outputs will provide the scientific evidence base and regulatory guidance needed to support the future sustainable management of freshwater landscapes at the local, national and international scale.
Our results will be useful to organisations engaged in waterbody restoration, biological conservation, the control of invasive species and diseases of wildlife and humans. At the national scale, these include organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, GB Non-Native Species Secretariat (NNSS), water utility companies, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Plantlife, Buglife and the Rivers Trusts, with all of whom we have long established working relationships. More locally, organisations such as the Norfolk Ponds Project, Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, Norfolk Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group, Natural England, Norfolk Rivers Trust, Broads Authority (a project partner), River Glaven Conservation Group, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Eden Rivers Trust, Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre, Forth Fisheries Trust, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Buglife Scotland, and many other similar organisations will also benefit from a better understanding of the links between connectivity and environmental stressors. In particular, we expect the results of this work to challenge the widely held belief that re-connecting isolated waterbodies and removing obstructions to fish migration are essential features of restoration projects. For example, in highly impacted systems, the adverse effect of the spread of invasive species and/or pollution caused by such re-connections may be greater than any benefit provided by links to refugia that can provide biological source material for recolonisation.
At the local level, our research outputs will help water managers improve biodiversity and habitat quality in a sustainable way. This will result in greater amenity value, with local businesses benefitting from more visitors and increased income, and increases in native biodiversity and water quality, which will help meet conservation objectives. Residents, visitors and local schools will gain a better understanding of the links between environmental stressors, connectivity, biodiversity and ecosystem function, especially through their combined impact on ecosystem service provision.
At the UK level, the results will provide environmental and conservation agencies (e.g. EA, SEPA, SNH, NRW, NE, Defra, RSPB) and policy makers with a better understanding of the processes involved in achieving the sustainable management of freshwaters and their catchments. In particular, appreciating that measures aimed at restoring a particular site may be impacted by connectivity across the freshwater landscape.
At an international level, the results are expected to inform the implementation of the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy, which aims to "halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services". More specific international beneficiaries are the Directorate General for the Environment (DG Environment) in relation to informing Water Policy (Water Framework Directive) and Biodiversity Policy (Europe 2020). The proposed work on heavy metals pollution links directly to the EU Environmental Quality Standards Directive (2008/105/EC), which has the "aim of ensuring that existing levels of contamination in biota and sediments will not significantly increase....". We are also focusing on trace metals that are currently listed as 'Priority Substances' or 'Priority Hazardous Substances' under the Water Framework Directive.

Publications


10 25 50
 
Description Advanced Training Short Course in Bioassesment
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
 
Description Blogs on Hydroscape project web site 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Web site and associated blogs used to communicate non technical information on project background and activities being undertaken by project team, especially to report on work in the field. Approx 5000 web site hits.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL https://hydroscapeblog.wordpress.com/about/
 
Description Water quality management meeting (Strathclyde) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Attended working group meeting on lake management to advise on outcomes of microbial monitoring and its implications. Engagement with industry professionals refined focus of interest and highlighted opportunities for collaborative working
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017