The ideas discussed at last week’s conference on Ecosytem Services are still reverberating through my mind, particularly as I try to reconcile the competing needs of different water users. It is not enough just to argue that managing towards a healthy “good status” ecosystem will bring undoubted benefits to all, as I tried to illustrate using the competing needs of wildlife and rowers on the River Wear in Durham. Hard-line ecologists tend to think that the Water Framework Directive places an obligation on governments to manage towards Good Ecological Status in all water bodies but, in fact, there are clauses in the Directive which require governments to balance “costs” and “benefits”, which brings complications to any debates.
With these thoughts in mind, I put together a chart to illustrate how different activities which are grouped under the broad heading of “cultural ecosystem services” may relate to the general Water Framework Directive objectives of Good Ecological Status. “Recreation” is one “cultural service” that we obtain from ecosystems, and “contact water sports” should, in theory, be one beneficiary of any investment in improved water quality (swimmers and canoeists have no desire to swallow mouthfuls of polluted water). But what about those who just want to walk on the banks of lakes and rivers and enjoy the view? I suspect that, so long as large-scale landscape features are intact (overhanging vegetation, some meanders) and the river does not have an unpleasant smell, the public would probably accept less than good status (or, at least, not see the need to spend the extra needed to achieve good status).
A diagram illustrating the relationship between recreational activities and ecological status. The EU’s Water Framework Directive expresses the quality of an ecosystem in terms of five classes, from “high” to “bad”, with good status being the theoretical target that all water bodies should achieve.
And what about angling? This is an activity where views will differ, even within the fishing community. Game fishermen, in pursuit of salmon and trout, should benefit from efforts to improve rivers. However, many coarse fish are less fussy about their habitats and there are even anecdotal accounts of fishermen complaining that the angling is poorer after water quality improvements. Many types of pollution are the equivalent of spraying manure onto a pasture, fertilising the water and thereby enabling it to support a larger mass of fish. Specialist carp fishermen represent the extreme position: their target species love rooting around in the bottom of shallow nutrient-rich lakes and ponds, so it is possible that they might even be happy with conditions well below good status. I might be wrong, but it would be interesting to compare angler’s perceptions of river and lake quality with the data that our current status assessments are based. This is not to say that any particular user group is “right” or “wrong”, only that we may need to approach discussions about benefits of healthier ecosystems with our eyes wide open.