Marine Institute

New study suggests the Irish Arctic charr is at serious risk of extinction as result of climate change

A male arctic charr from Lake Windermere. Photo Cr Ian Winfield. 13 November 2020 - The warming of lake temperatures across Ireland and central Europe poses major risk to rare Arctic charr fish populations which date back to before last Ice Age.

A new study led by Centre for Freshwater and Environmental Studies at Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT), in conjunction with the Marine Institute, has undercovered new evidence that identifies climate change as a a major risk to the increasingly rare populations of Arctic charr found in Irish lakes and other regions across Europe.

The Arctic charr is a cold-water fish in the family Salmonidae which is native to alpine lakes and Arctic and subarctic coastal waters. The species is remarkable because it has the most northerly geographic distribution of any freshwater fish and can survive in lakes high in the Arctic circle, even living under ice for up to 9 months of the year. It is therefore curious that it is also found at warmer, southern regions, including here in Ireland.

The research project which is co-funded under the BEYOND2020 and WATExR projects, included international collaboration between climate scientists and fish biologists. It examined a selection of lakes across Ireland, Britain, France and Swizerland, located near the southern extent of the Arctic charr's native range. The study found that winter temperatures in critical spawning habitats are warming rapidly and impacting potentially on critical spawning habitats of this species. The study used multiple, established models of the Earth's climate system and accounted for different levels of future atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions to find out how much additional warming might occur and what temperature risks would be posed to sensitive developing charr eggs following spawning.

"The results are sobering", says Dr Seán Kelly, post-doctoral research fellow with the Centre for Environmental and Freshwater Science in Dundalk Institute of Technology working on the BEYOND 2020 project, and lead author of the study.

"Unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced considerably, winter warming of up to 4 degrees is likely to occur in these lakes in spawning habitats, rendering them highly unsuitable for the development of charr eggs. Furthermore, unlike many marine species, these lake populations have very little opportunity to migrate to more suitable, cooler lakes and establish new spawning grounds and are therefore at risk of extinction from these lakes unless they can quickly adapt to such warmer conditions."Lough Bunaveela, Co. Mayo, one of the few remaining Irish lakes with an arctic charr population. Photo credit Mary Dillane

Along with lake-resident populations in Britain and in Alpine regions of central Europe, the Irish Arctic charr is considered a glacial relict, a secretive fish left behind after the glacial retreat at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. As these regions warmed, the charr populations left behind could survive only in sufficiently cold, deep lakes and are usually found in mountainous areas. One of the last remaining Irish populations of Arctic charr is found in Lough Bunaveela, a small lake in the Nephin Beg mountains, at the top of the Burrishoole catchment in County Mayo.

Dr. Elvira de Eyto, biologist with the Marine Institute adds "Occurrences of charr in Bunaveela have been recorded in the records of the Marine Institute since the early 1980s, albeit in small numbers. These records form part of the long term monitoring program run by the Marine Institute in the Burrishoole catchment, Co. Mayo (http://burrishoole.marine.ie )."

The study indicted that climate model scenarios which limited global warming to "below 2°C, if not 1.5°C", as pledged in the Paris Agreement, supported future spawning habitat temperatures that may allow charr populations to persist. However, the fact that global emissions have not yet been sufficiently curbed to align with this 'best-case' scenario, and are currently tracking the more severe emissions scenario, certainly does not bode well for the fate of Arctic charr and the authors warn that we are at risk of losing this emblematic fish entirely from our lakes within the next hundred years. These charr population may persist only if they can adapt to warmer winter conditions; whether they can do this, and at a rate faster than lake warming, remains to be seen and should be a focus of future research.

The research was published in Climatic Change and is available open-access at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-020-02887-z

Marine InstituteEPA ResearchWaterXBEYOND 2020European Research Area for Climate ServicesJPI ClimateUniversite Savoie Mont BlancINRAEUK Centre for Ecology & HydrologyUniversity College CorkDundalk Institute of Technology

For more information, please contact:
Sheila Byrnes e. sheila [dot] byrnes [at] marine [dot] ie m. +353 (0)87 815 5271
Sinéad Coyne e. sinead [dot] coyne [at] marine [dot] ie m. +353 (0)87 947 7090

Acknowledgments:

This work was co-funded under the BEYOND2020 and WATExR projects. BEYOND2020 (Grant-Aid Agreement No. PBA/FS/16/02) is carried out with the support of the Marine Institute and is funded under the Marine Research Programme by the Irish Government. WATExR is part of ERA4CS, an ERA-NET initiated by JPI Climate, and funded by MINECO (ES), FORMAS (SE), BMBF (DE), EPA (IE), RCN (NO), and IFD (DK), with co-funding by the European Union (Grant Number: 690462). The EPA funding for the ERA-NET initiative falls under the EPA Research Programme 2014-2020, a Government of Ireland initiative funded by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. It is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the statutory function of co-ordinating and promoting environmental research. The work was also supported by Science Foundation Ireland, the Marine Institute and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland, under the Investigators Programme Grant Number SFI/15/IA/3028 and by the Marine Research Programme 2014 -2020.

Disclaimer:

Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the material contained in this press release, complete accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Neither the Environmental Protection Agency, the Marine Institute nor the authors accept any responsibility whatsoever for loss or damage occasioned or claimed to have been occasioned, in part or in full, as a consequence of any person acting or refraining from acting, as a result of a matter contained in this press release.

Notes to the Editor:

About the EPA Research Programme 2014–2020:
The EPA's current Research Programme 2014–2020 is built around three pillars - Sustainability, Climate and Water. More information about the EPA Research Programme can be found by visiting the EPA website where you can subscribe to the Research Newsletter. This provides news and updates about research calls, events and publications that are of relevance to researchers and other interested parties. You can also follow EPA Research on Twitter @EPAResearchNews for the information and developments about the Research Programme and its projects.

About the BEYOND 2020 project:
The BEYOND 2020 project (Grant-Aid Agreement No. PBA/FS/16/02) - Burrishoole Ecosystem Observatory Network 2020 - is carried out with the support of the Marine Institute and is funded under the Marine Research Programme by the Irish Government.

For more information on BEYOND 2020, please visit: www.dkit.ie/beyond-2020
Follow us on Twitter: @B2020project

About DkIT:
Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) was founded in 1970 and has earned its reputation as the leading higher education provider in the North East of Ireland through its first-class teaching and learning, research and enterprise engagement. Set in a state-of-the-art campus in Dundalk, County Louth, DkIT provides quality educational and training opportunities to approximately 5,000 students across four Schools in Business and Humanities, Health and Science, Engineering and Informatics and Creative Arts from undergraduate and master's degrees to PhD level.

For more information on DkIT, please visit: www.dkit.ie
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