Conservation planning has traditionally been based on the management of networks of protected areas and many of the world’s governments have committed to expanding these networks to ensure the conservation of biodiversity. A number of questions arise relating to the effectiveness of such an approach for freshwater ecosystems.
Firstly, policy makers are still not able to assess the efficacy of such networks for the conservation of freshwater ecosystems, as there is often no baseline on the status and distribution of freshwater biodiversity. Without such a baseline it is also not possible for policy makers and conservation practitioners to monitor progress towards international, national regional and regional national targets for reducing or halting (EU) loss of biodiversity. They are also unable to evaluate the impacts of conservation interventions and to formulate a comprehensive strategy to conserve and sustainably use freshwater biodiversity now and in the future. The information collated through the BioFresh portal will, for many parts of the world, put in place the baseline required to make such policy and management decisions.
Secondly, current protected areas networks are predominantly designed for the protection of terrestrial habitats and fail to account for the high levels of connectivity within freshwater systems with, for example, many protected areas boundaries set to follow national borders, or rivers. Failure to account for connectivity between sometimes distant parts of a river or lake catchments will in many cases mean little if any protection is afforded to freshwater biodiversity as impacts such as pollution, sedimentation or invasive species may spread rapidly across protected area boundaries.
The effectiveness of current protected areas networks for conservation of freshwater ecosystems needs to be evaluated and new protected areas, often based on catchment boundaries, will be recommended where appropriate. The selection and prioritisation of sites (catchments) to be included within such protected areas networks may be based on methods being developed for identification of Key Biodiversity Areas. The application of this approach for freshwater biodiversity will be further refined and applied through BioFresh.
Finally, research on terrestrial protected areas networks has shown that a network designed for one target taxon may effectively capture and afford protection to other, non-target taxa. Such research will help to inform policy makers and managers in their design of protected areas for freshwater biodiversity. Research to date for freshwater biota suggests that there is little correlation between the distributions of different groups, but has been severely limited by the absence of a centralised source of all relevant data.