Loss of an ancient fish: here for an epoch, gone in a day

A 65 million year old fish species, almost eliminated in the space of 60 years. That is sadly the story of the Asprete (Romanichthys valsanicola). This small nocturnal fish that hides under rocks now only numbers between 10-15 in its total population. They are now only found on a 1km stretch of the Vâlsan river in Romania. For millions of years, it has lived relatively unchanged. However, humans pose a fatal threat to these living fossils through their irresponsible interventions in ecosystems, which could lead to a living record of our natural history being wiped out forever.

Lax protection of the Asprete

Owing to the Asprete’s perilously low population numbers, it is on the critically endangered list of the Berne Convention of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. As part of a Natura 2000 site and the Valsan Valley Nature Reserve, there are laws and regulations that protect their habitat. However, despite all of these legal categorisations, nature conservation campaigners argue that the authorities do not properly enforce them.

Illustrating this point is the main contemporary threat to the species- an upstream hydroelectric dam. This dam subsequently alters the flow of water downstream and an insufficient easement flow threatens the Asprete. Hidroelectrica, a state-owned company, manages this dam, making these violations of nature protection regulations even more astounding.

Impotency of the law

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. The breaching of EU Directives in Romania is nothing new and efforts to engage in lawsuits in Romania are futile, with corruption rife. In addition, regulatory framework is open to abuse in Romania, leading to the misuse and misspending of funds. Environmental agencies have, previously, effectively supported the changing of a Natura 2000 site’s hydromorphology, which flies right in the face of what a Natura 2000 site’s purpose. These blatant abuses are continued in this specific case and there is little room for recourse. The European Commission opened an EU Pilot, which is not even a formal infringement proceeding, on the Asprete’s plight, but they soon abandoned it. As a result the legal remedies do not look promising for the Asprete.

Notwithstanding, dams first posed a threat to the Asprete in the late 1960s, when Romania’s communist regime embarked on building a series of hydroelectric dams. They gave no thought to the ecology of the ecosystem and the Asprete’s habitat when they drew up these plans. Before this, the Asprete inhabited not only the Vâlsan but also two parallel rivers. However, due to dam construction and the subsequent abuse of environmental regulations by post-communist governments, the Asprete’s population dropped to 200 in the early 2000s, and is in an even direr straits today.

Connected conservation

It is not just direct interventions on the water that affect the Asprete. Moreover, influences on the wider riparian ecosystem also impact the Asprete. In some cases, 70 to 80 percent of local biodiversity can depend on a river and vice versa. Deforestation impacts the whole ecosystem, and this is a systematic problem in Romania. River fragmentation, habitat degradation, and illegal waste disposal all threaten the river ecosystem, compounding the problems posed by dams.

Dams themselves can lead to the disappearance of wetlands and riverbeds. Subsequently, this affects amphibians, birds and mammals, as well fish like the Asprete. Dams reduce the connectivity of habitats by disrupting free flowing rivers, thus affecting the migration of animals. All in all, this degrades the whole value of the habitat.

On the brink

The National Agency for Protected Areas (ANANP) runs the management of Romania’s protected areas. Currently, this excludes NGO involvement in their management. NGOs played a key role in protected area management in the last 20 years, when the state was not present. This reduces the efficacy of NGOs, although they have a wealth of knowledge to offer on such topics.

It was here 65 million years ago. People cannot just destroy it in 50 years — it’s not right.

Andrei Togor
Fish Biologist

However, not all hope is lost. Despite these circumstances, it is volunteers who are fighting back for the Asprete. Volunteer efforts have been led by Alex Gavan, a prominent mountain climber and conservationist, alongside Nicolae Craciun, a biologist. They have come up with an action plan to save the Asprete which focuses on river basin restoration in the Vâlsan, awareness raising, the introduction of a warden, and captive breeding capacities for the Asprete. Naturally, funding is an issue, as this action plan would require millions of euros to be realised. However, it will be signed by ministerial order, giving this project some weight.

Extinction will not only wipe out the Asprete species, but its whole genus as well. If the support for this plan is not forthcoming, then it risks the loss of a unique species that, as a living fossil, acts as a good indicator of environmental conditions. Action needs to be taken, otherwise the rapid demise of this 65 million year old species will reach an ominous conclusion.

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