Mediterranean Killifish (Aphanius fasciatus)

© Paolo Fastelli, Massimiliano Marcelli and Flavio Monti (Wikimedia Commons)

Aphanius fasciatus is a fish that lives in brackish and salty coastal waters around the Mediterranean. Its conservation status in the reporting period 2007-2012 was assessed as unfavourable in the Continental and Mediterranean biogeographical regions, primarily as a result of changes in water salinity, pollution and natural drying out of lagoons. In Slovenia, coastal wetlands and former saltpans are a key habitat for Aphanius fasciatus, but these have been mostly abandoned as salt production has become economically unviable. However, its status in Slovenia has undergone a genuine improvement through the establishment of protected areas and maintenance of the fishes’ habitats within them. In particular, LIFE funding was used to maintain and improve the quality of pools, ditches, and channels inhabited by the fish resulting in healthier populations and in their current overall favourable conservation status.

Challenges addressed

According to the Member State’s Article 17 reports and the Habitats Directive, the main pressures affecting Aphanius fasciatus in Slovenia are pollution to surface waters, management of aquatic and bank vegetation for drainage, and the drying out of water bodies. The first two pressures are ranked as medium importance, and drying out is ranked as high importance. Threats identified by Slovenia are flooding (with low importance) and modification of hydrographic functioning and reduction or loss of habitat features (with high importance). Eutrophication may be a threat at the local scale. The introduction of non-native species is also cited as a threat to the species.

Objectives

The main objective of the LIFE projects protecting the Killifish was to improve the conservation status of the species and target habitat types in the Natura 2000 site Sečovlje salina. Further objectives were to prevent negative effects of human disturbance to species and habitats, to raise awareness among the local population and wider public about the importance of saline habitats and to provide and exchange information on sustainable restoration methods and conservation management issues in these ecosystems.

Planned and implemented measures

A number of Natura 2000 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) have been established for Aphanius fasciatus, including Sečovlje saltpans and the mouth of the river Dragonja, the Strunjan saltpans with the lagoon Stjuza, and Škocjanski zatok. The establishment of the protected area status was a contributing factor to the fish’s conservation status improvement. The habitats used by the species in Slovenia are part of man-made areas, like saltpans, in which traditional uses are being abandoned, leading to habitat degradation. The establishment of a legal protection status for these areas increased the opportunities for securing conservation funding to maintain the habitats that would otherwise deteriorate.

The regular maintenance of channels as well as the management of the water regime and water flow in the saltworks was probably the main driver for the favourable conservation status of the species in Slovenia. A LIFE monitoring-based assessment of the fish found healthier populations in pools with better water flow. The report concluded that ensuring good water flow in water bodies populated by Aphanius fasciatus had a positive impact. This was achieved, for example, by ensuring connectivity between water bodies. It also found that based on measures undertaken in the protected area, the smaller the water body, the more important it is to also have deeper areas for the fish to hide from predators. It recommended keeping these factors in mind when designing and maintaining ditches in Aphanius fasciatus habitat.

Stakeholder involvement

Two LIFE projects targeting Aphanius fasciatus in Slovenia (in the Sečovlje salt pans), were of particular importance to species recovery: ‘Secovlje - Conservation of endangered species and habitats in the Secovlje salt-pans Park’ (2003 – 2006) and ‘MANSALT - Man and Nature in Secovlje salt-pans’ (2010-2015). Both projects were led by a development agency and large enterprise (respectively).

The management body of the protected area of the Sečovlje Salt Pans Natural Park was the main stakeholder responsible for conservation measures. Most of the park area is state property, but it is managed by a private enterprise. Scientists from the National Institute of Biology, Marine Biology Station were involved in ecological monitoring of the fish in the Sečovlje Salt Pans Natural Park. Information on the fish and specific measures targeting it were unavailable for other sites.

Key achievements and impacts

The LIFE projects targeting Aphanius fasciatus in Slovenia improved its habitat, leading to healthier populations of the fish. In total, Slovenia reported a habitat size of 2,064,000 m² for Aphanius fasciatus for the period 2007-2012.

The two LIFE projects targeting Aphanius fasciatus also had measurable positive effects on bird species, with an increase in the number of breeding sites and sightings of species not previously present such as Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna), Common Redshank (Tringa totanus), Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) and European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster). Other species that depend on the saline pools have also benefited, including the brine shrimp Artemia parthenogenetica, the marine crab Carcinus aestuarii, the marsh shrimp Upogebia littoralis, and a variety of other insects, reptiles, lizards, snakes, crustaceans, bivalves, and bristleworms. The habitats associated with the sites were also improved through, for example, tidal and flood regime maintenance and addition of habitat features like dykes and floating sandy islands. Habitats affected included estuaries, mudflats and sandflats not covered by seawater at low tide, Salicornia and other annuals colonising mud and sand, Spartina swards (Spartina maritimae), Mediterranean salt meadows (Juncetalia maritimi), and Mediterranean and thermo-Atlantic salt marshes and salt meadows (Sarcocornetea fruticosi).

Costs and financing (i.e. how much and from which sources)

The two LIFE projects in Slovenia that targeted Aphanius fasciatus made significant contributions to the species’ conservation. The total budget for the 2003 – 2006 Secovlje project was €714,440, and the 2010-105 MANSALT project had a total budget of €7,056,366. Both projects received 50% co-financing from the EU but information on the sources of national co-financing, and the importance of other non-LIFE funding sources, is not available.

The costs of maintaining the habitat are high, as the habitat is dependent on human activities and infrastructure related to the salt pans, most of which are no longer actively in use.

Lessons learned

The key targeted conservation measures that led to the improvements

  • Establishment of protected areas.
  • Regular maintenance of water channels.
  • Management of the water regime.

Factors that supported the conservation measures

  • Availability of funding (LIFE) to cover high cost of habitat maintenance.

Quick wins that could be applied elsewhere for the species

  • Ensuring pools, channels, and ditches in managed habitats are designed with appropriate sizes and depths.
  • Ensuring good water flow in water bodies inhabited by Aphanius fasciatus

Examples of good practice, which could be applied to other species

  • The use of conservation funding to finance habitat maintenance measures when habitats are part of manmade systems for which the original economic incentive no longer exists.

Reference information

The information presented here is based on the work done as part of the European Commission study on identifying the drivers of successful implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives (under contract ENV.F.1/FRA/2014/0063), carried out by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, BirdLife International, Deloitte, Denkstatt, Ecologic, ICF Consulting Services and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The information and views set out in this case study are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Commission.

Their sources include:

Beltram, G (2007) Conservation and management of wet-lands in Slovenia. Quark – Research and development in Slovenia, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Winter 2006/2007, 70-81. http://www.quark-magazine.com/pdf/quark07/0702CMWetlandsinSloveniaB.pdf

EEA/ETC-BD (2018) Aphanius fasciatus. https://bd.eionet.europa.eu/article17/reports2012/species/summary/?period=3&group=Fish&subject=Aphanius+fasciatus&region=

EUNIS (undated) EUNIS Factsheet Mediterranean Toothcarp - Aphanius fasciatus. European Environment Agency (EEA). http://eunis.eea.europa.eu/species/430 Accessed 01.03.2018

European Commission (undated) LIFE project factsheet: Sečovlje - Conservation of endangered species and habitats in the Sečovlje salt-pans Park LIFE03 NAT/SLO/000076. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/life/project/Projects/index.cfm?fuseaction=search.dspPage&n_proj_id=2501 Accessed 01.03.2018

IUCN (2006) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Aphanius fasciatus. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/1847/1 Accessed 01.03.2018

Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning (2013) Prioritised Action Framework (PAF) for Natura 2000 for the EU Multiannual Financing Period 2014-2020. Slovenia. http://www.natura2000.si/fileadmin/user_upload/LIFE_Upravljanje/PAFSlovenijaVerFinal2.pdf

Trkov, D, Mavrič, B, Obersnel, N, Lipej, L (2015) Monitoring ribe solinarke Aphanius fasciatus v Sečoveljskih solinah: Report on the implementation of the task under the LIFE MANSALT project LIFE 09 NAT/SI/000376. TERRA VIVA SV. PETER d.o.o.