Europe Expands Protected Areas But Biodiversity Battered

BRUSSELS, Belgium, November 22, 2011 (ENS) – Europe’s natural biodiversity heritage is showing “an alarming decline,” according to new research published today by the European Red List, a part of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

In this latest assessment of Europe’s native plants and animals, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, found that a large proportion of molluscs, freshwater fish and vascular plants now fall into a threatened category.

The assessment of some 6,000 species reveals that: 44 percent of all freshwater molluscs, 37 percent of freshwater fish, 23 percent of amphibians, 20 percent of a selection of terrestrial molluscs, 19 percent of reptiles, 15 percent of mammals, 15 percent of dragonflies, 13 percent of birds, 11 percent of a selection of saproxylic beetles, nine percent of butterflies and 467 species of vascular plant species are now at risk.

Spengler’s freshwater mussel, Margaritifera auricularia (Photo by Vincent Prie / Caracol courtesy IUCN)

“The figures confirm the worrying condition of European molluscs,” said Annabelle Cuttelod, IUCN coordinator of the European Red List. “When combined with the high level of threats faced by freshwater fish and amphibians, we can see that the European freshwater ecosystems are really under serious threats that require urgent conservation action.”

Freshwater fish are at risk as a result of pollution, overfishing, habitat loss and the introduction of alien species. Sturgeons are particularly at risk, with all but one of the eight European species now listed as Critically Endangered.

European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik said, “The well-being of people in Europe and all over the world depends on goods and services that nature provides. If we don’t address the reasons behind this decline and act urgently to stop it, we could pay a very heavy price indeed.”

Some of these threatened species, and many other marine species, will benefit from the newly announced expansion of Natura 2000, the European Union’s network of protected areas. Natura 2000 is the centerpiece of Europe’s battle to halt biodiversity loss and safeguard ecosystem services.

The European Commission announced Monday that Natura 2000 has been expanded by nearly 18,800 square kilometers, including a major addition of marine areas covering 17,000 square kilometers, which will increase protection for many endangered marine species.

More than 90 percent of the newly added area is made up of marine sites, mainly in the UK, but also in France, Belgium, Greece, Cyprus and Italy.

The expansions will increase protection for terrestrial habitats, including peat bogs in Lithuania, salt plains in Hungary, and species-rich chalk grasslands in Italy and Cyprus.

The Natura 2000 network now covers almost 18 percent of the EU’s landmass and more than 145,000 square kilometers of its seas.

Commissioner Potocnik observed, “Natura 2000 is at the moment one of the most effective tools we have in Europe to combat biodiversity loss, and it plays a key role in our strategy to protect our natural heritage.”

Critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal, Monachus monachus, as shown in the Milan Museum of Natural History. The current worldwide population is about 350-450 individuals. (Photo courtesy Milan Museum of Natural History)

In the Atlantic, the UK additions feature nine coldwater reefs, including reefs off Rockall Island which are biodiversity hotspots home to coral, sea spiders and numerous as yet unnamed species.

In the Mediterranean, the new sites will improve protection for emblematic species such as the green turtle, Chelonia mydas, the loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta, and the Mediterranean monk seal, Monachus monachus, which play key roles in the ecosystems they inhabit.

“I particularly welcome the improved coverage of European seas,” Potocnik said. “Protecting Europe’s marine environment and its unique features has never been more important.”

The IUCN assessment highlights the success of well-designed conservation measures, including Natura 2000, officials with the conservation organization said today.

Many species protected under the EU Habitats Directive and included in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas now have an improved chance of survival, the IUCN said today. For instance, Centranthus trinervis, a plant endemic to Corsica, has been downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered due to strict protection of its single known site.

Additionally, the control of invasive species such as plants, goats and rats has benefited the majority of threatened land snails in Madeira over the past 10 years.

“These are encouraging signs that show the benefits of conservation actions supported by strong policy,” says Jean-Christophe Vie, deputy director, IUCN Global Species Programme. “Continued implementation of the current European legislation combined with new conservation programs is essential to preserve these important native species and their habitats.”

The adoption of the decisions by the European Commission expanding the number of Natura 2000 sites moves the EU towards finalizing the establishment of the Natura 2000 network by 2012, a key activity proposed in the new EU Biodiversity Strategy adopted by the Commission this year.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.