Restoring fish to German waters ravaged by flooding | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 19.12.2013
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Restoring fish to German waters ravaged by flooding

Extreme flooding devastated communities along Germany's Elbe River half a year ago. Floods wiped out local fish populations, affecting tourism and livelihoods. But locals are now working to restore the region's lakes.

On a cold and foggy morning at a lake's edge near the rural town of Fischbeck, local fisher Gernot Quaschny inspects a load of carp and sander trucked in from nearby waterways. "It looks good, they all look really good," said Quaschny, as the fish writhed in his net. The fish were part of a 300-kilogram delivery in large water tanks specially built onto the backs of trucks. Over the following weeks, around 2.5 tonnes of fish would be trucked into Fischbeck, in an attempt to kickstart the recovery of the local aquatic environment.

Last June, large parts of Germany were hit by heavy and sustained rainfall, with widespread flooding affecting five states and multiple communities. Fischbeck, in Saxony-Anhalt state west of Berlin, was among the worst-hit, with two-meter-high floodwaters not only destroying property, but also having a deep impact on local ecosystems. High temperatures combined with water that refused to subside fouled lakes and caused fish stocks to collapse.

But now, locals have been working on restoring fish to the lakes. Helping the ecosystem has meant helping themselves, as the picturesque lakes draw tourists and local livelihoods depend on fishing.

Gernot Quaschny tends to fish in large green tub (photo: Jonathan Gifford)

Fishermen like Quaschny have taken up fish restoration efforts themselves

'Fetid soup'

Manure from farms in the region contaminated the floodwaters, and locals described the countryside as being covered in thick, stinky mud. The water was stripped of oxygen, which suffocated the aquatic ecosystem including fish and eels. This also drove away the water birds that depend on them.

"The problem was that the water didn't move for four weeks," Quaschny explained. "Things started to rot and smell, and then the weather got hot," explained Quaschny. His description of the scene was nothing short of apocalyptic: "There were insects, thousands of mosquitoes … the water was black, it stank. It was a black, fetid soup."

Quaschny became somewhat of a local hero during the flooding: Despite his home being almost completely submerged, he used his small fishing vessel to ferry fresh water and supplies to stranded residents.

Once the waters subsided, Quaschny discovered that his home and shop front - which had been in his family for generations - was unsalvageable. The softly spoken fisherman also lost his livelihood as the local lakes and waterways were left bereft of fish.

Mostly-submerged houses in the town of Fischbeck (photo: picture alliance/dpa)

Fischbeck was among the communities most affected by flooding during summer 2013

Repopulation effort

Six months on, efforts are underway to rebuild lives and livelihoods in Fischbeck. Construction is underway at fisher Quaschny's property. He's been calling a former river barge, lifted off the ground on concrete foundations, home. Sunken river barges were also used to plug the burst dykes that initially sent the floodwaters surging toward Fischbeck.

The local professional fishing association has been organizing the effort to repopulate local fish stocks. Most of the financing has come from a local bank. Around 25,000 euros was raised for carp and sander to be caught in adjacent areas not as affected by flooding, and transported to Fischbeck.

Birgit Kaesebier of the fishing association, upon attending one fish release, said this is the first time she's seen fish populations so severely affected by flooding. "I've been working in the fishing industry for more than 30 years and I've never experienced this on such a scale before," Kaesebier said.

The local environment has recovered on its own to some extent in the six months after the flooding, and many water birds have returned. Quaschny said there is now sufficient oxygen in the water for fish to survive, and by reintroducing a range of adult and juvenile fish, the stocks should recover relatively quickly. Quaschny and Kaesebier agreed eel populations would need longer - maybe around seven years to return to pre-flood levels.

Blue bucket full of fish (photo: Jonathan Gifford)

Fishermen wish there was more funding available for such restoration projects

"What are lakes without fish in them? Tourists aren't coming, the water birds can't feed," said Quaschny. "It's a big ecosystem, where many factors play a role. The faster we can return the fish, the faster things can return to how they were before."

Bernt Witt, mayor of the local district and head of the region's recreational fishers' association, was also lakeside to observe the fish release. "We live on the Elbe River, we live with the Elbe, but we also live from the Elbe," Witt said. "Whereas the big city has theater, we have the countryside and water," Witt added. He said that neither the German government nor the European Union has offered assistance to fishers affected by the flooding - in contrast to local farmers, who had benefited from such schemes.

Climate change and flooding

Flooding events in Germany and even in Saxony-Anhalt are not entirely unusual, but the particularly devastating floods of this year had a profound affect on local communities. If extreme weather events continue to become more common as a result of climate change, as many scientists warn, the need for efforts such as the repopulation in Fischbeck may become more frequent.

While locals were able to secure funding and fish this year, Kaesebier fears that if such events become more common, it could become a major problem. "If the waters were as devastated as they are up here, then eventually it wouldn't make sense to reintroduce any life back into them," Kaesebier said.

"Or we'd reintroduce something, and the next flood would come, then we'd have an even bigger loss. That would be the problem," Kaesebier concluded.

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