Euro-limpacs Deliverables

ABSTRACT - DELIVERABLE 72

Report summarising how reference conditions are established for key sites

Ecological assessment of aquatic ecosystems is a growing area of research, and in Europe in particular, this area is experiencing a rapid expansion since the ratification of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD). In contrast to earlier legislation pertaining to aquatic ecosystems, the WFD is probably the most significant piece of ordinance to be assembled in the interests of preserving and restoring the biodiversity of inland waters, wetlands and coastal areas. For instance, whereas previous statutes focused on curbing emissions and monitoring using chemical indicators, the Directive focuses on catchment planning and management, viewing aquatic ecosystems not as isolated entities, but holistically as larger interconnected ecosystems. Indeed, a key feature of the Directive is its focus on detecting ecological change (i.e. degradation and recovery) and determining what human−generated pressures (or stressors) are acting as drivers of change.

To accomplish this the Directive recognises that present and future pressures may dictate different monitoring and assessment designs such as surveillance, operative and investigative monitoring of ecological quality. These three types of monitoring can be summarized as (i) assessment of regional pattern and trends (surveillance monitoring), (ii) detection of ecosystem recovery (operative monitoring) and (iii) assessment of putative stressor(s) (investigative monitoring). One caveat or challenging aspect of all three of the assessment approaches is the need to establish a benchmark, reference condition to anchor judgments of change (i.e. used in the calculation of ecological quality ratios of observed and expected condition). In brief, reference conditions are needed for defining a reference biological community to be used in establishing the upper anchor for setting class boundaries and for identifying departures from expected that may be caused by anthropogenic stress. However, since the landscape of much of Europe has been altered for centuries, even finding minimally disturbed sites, let alone true pristine sites, is difficult for the majority of ecosystem types.

The objectives of this report are (i) to give a short review of methods commonly used to establish reference conditions (RC) of European inland surface waters, (ii) to provide examples of contemporary work with establishing RC (here focus will be on comparing and contrasting methods that are currently being used in the EU Intercalibration exercise), and (iii) to provide a state of the art report on the use of palaeolimnology in defining reference conditions.

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