Fishes in European rivers are threatened by manifold stressors such as structural degradation, water pollution, overexploitation, land-use changes in the catchment, invasive species and global processes including climate change. Identifying main stressors in a stream/river system is of utterly importance for efficiently utilizing the scarce funds for conservation measures in order to achieve the best possible outcome. Within 203 headwater streams of Rhine, Elbe and Danube, we quantified the relative influence of different environmental stressors (water chemistry, food availability (macroinvertebrates), terrestrial predators) and anthropogenic stressors (land use, structural modification of streams) on fish assemblages at different spatial scales based on multivariate biota-environment models. In our analyses, the predictor variables percentage of impoundments, crop farming (especially erosion-prone crops such as maize) and ground sealing in the catchments, the number of wastewater treatment plants and biogas plants in the catchments as well as structural modifications of river banks were most often identified as stressors influencing fish community composition. However, the effects of the stressors varied between the investigated survey-area scales (two different catchments sizes and riparian strips) and regionally (entire study area, major drainage systems, river catchments, stream sizes, geographical subregions). In most cases, fish community composition was simultaneously affected by multiple stressors, underpinning the need for a more holistic and ecosystem-based approach in freshwater conservation and restoration.
Keywords: Catchment land use; Freshwater biodiversity conservation; Hydropower; Piscivorous birds; Structural degradation; Wastewater.
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