Conserving the Asprete and saving it from extinction
A leading Romanian high-altitude climber and noted conservationist, Alex Găvan is a local of the Vâlsan Valley. He spent his childhood on the river’s banks, grew up with Asprete stories, and learned by himself how to swim in the very same Asprete waters.
The fish was little known outside scientific circles and locals from the valley’s communities.
In July 2019, Alex introduced the Asprete and made it known to the world from the summit of Gasherbrum 2 at 8035m altitude in the Himalayas, his 7th 8000m peak climbed without supplemental oxygen. The following autumn, he shared the way forward in a powerful TEDx Talk.
Our vision of conserving the Asprete and saving it from extinction stands on four pillars:
The creation of the Asprete Sanctuary on the shores of the Vâlsan river at Galeșu – that is, the research and breeding base in captivity. It will also double as a green, experiential, immersing visitor center and community hub.
The ecological reconstruction of the Vâlsan river, followed by the Argeș and Doamnei rivers, the historical habitat of Asprete, in which the fish to be later restocked (e.g., restoring fish habitats, ensuring the longitudinal and lateral connectivity of the river, etc.).
Having a firm but kind and efficient advocacy voice. Cultivating a hand-extending approach toward Romanian state institutions at all levels to ensure that environmental laws are followed and enforced.
Continuous education, involvement, and empowerment of the local community. Acknowledging that having the Asprete among them and the presence of the protected area is a privilege and the key to the Vâlsan Valley’s regeneration and sustainable economic growth.
A breakthrough moment
Since the beginning of our project in the spring of 2019, we have been actively advancing with our work on all four pillars by putting countless hours into planning, fieldwork, and advocacy.
Much of the destruction happening on the river has been stopped (the theft of rocks, logging of the riverbanks, the water flow issue is on the right track to be solved, etc.). Due to this, our actions got extensive coverage by the media and won people’s hearts.
In Autumn 2020, there was a breakthrough moment: team members Andrei Togor and Marcus Drimbea reconfirmed the existence of the Asprete in the river by incidentally identifying no less than 12 individuals. This was such a huge find that the news made it to the front page of the BBC. Ten more individuals were found the following spring in the river by our same colleagues.
Species National Action Plan
We have also developed the Species National Action Plan, a critical work soon sanctioned by the Ministry of Environment. The 200 pages document outlines the official roadmap of how Asprete is going to be saved, and it is based on the four action mentioned above pillars.
The plan passed the public debate stage and integrated all the valuable and relevant feedback. The last step to completion and the official release includes the findings from our incoming inventory of the Asprete, a study to be realized in the Vâlsan river in Autumn 2022. This will be done with the support of our MBZ Species Conservation Fund partners and complemented by the analysis of zoobenthos, phytobenthos, water sampling, and a few other relevant fieldwork.
The technical and scientific concept of the Asprete Sanctuary is finalized mainly due to our colleagues Dorin Hanganu and Nicolai Craciun. We are now closely working with the architect Server Tuncay to integrate it into a world-class sustainable design.
We are at full speed with other activities for the incoming period, all of which are already included in the Species National Action Plan. A few of them are:
- research work on the Asprete and his habitat as a continuation of the scientific studies that we have started within the MBZ grant;
- looking forward to being awarded another grant for scientific research with the Disney Foundation, with whom we already got into phase two of the selection;
- closely working with the Romanian Waters Agency, the Argeș-Vedea branch, to adapt or eliminate the artificial barriers along Vâlsan so they do not affect the natural river connectivity; consultations with Open Rivers Programme and Dam Removal Europe in achieving this; we have also submitted a grant application with Open Rivers concerning barriers removal that has already passed the first evaluation stage; exploring long term solutions for the sustainable management of Vâlsan and Dobroneagu dams; implementing an antiflood pilot project by using ecological methods aiming to serve as an example of best practice;
- securing the proper ecological flow for the Vâlsan river; its functioning authorization expired, state company Hidroelectrica is applying for reauthorization of its activities on the river, and this is the best moment to make sure the ecological flow of the river is determined correctly and serviced according to the law; this will also involve the implementation of a transparent, real-time monitoring system of the water flow;
- developing the ecological reconstruction plan of the river;
- declaring the Vâlsan Valley as a KBA – Key Biodiversity Area within the IUCN; it will be the first of its kind for Romania, yet another premiere within the Asprete Lives project;
- supporting Brăduleț mayor’s office and the local community towards getting financed for infrastructure works such as running water, plumbing, and gas, amenities that will reduce the pollution and the pressure on the environment in general and the Asprete habitat in particular;
- supporting a UK filmmaker on a documentary on Romania’s rich biodiversity, with a particular chapter on Asprete;
- developing a network of family-friendly hiking and biking routes that will have the Asprete Sanctuary as its center point; this will merge the area’s superb natural wonders with its rich cultural and historical legacy.
For all these, we are grateful to have the day-by-day hands-on support of our Strategic Partner, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), the world’s first wildlife conservation organization. They have been quietly shaping and influencing conservation practice since their foundation in 1903.
Our current actions will bring us to jointly apply for two major European Commission funding programmes that will complement each other: LIFE in 2023 and PODD – Sustainable Development Operational Programme in 2024.
This multi-million euro endeavor will allow us to fully implement the Species National Action Plan that we have developed. It involves building the Asprete Sanctuary for the research work, ex-situ breeding, and visitor center, as well as achieving the ecological reconstruction of the Vâlsan, Argeș, and Doamnei rivers on which the fish will later be restocked.
In the manner we envisioned the project, the Asprete Sanctuary will be self-sustainable after the LIFE and PODD funding has ended.
For long-lasting results, our holistic approach also includes obtaining custody of the protected area in partnership with FFI.
Everything we have achieved so far is the product of the passionate and entirely volunteer work of everyone involved since the very inception of this project.
There is a great team of people we assembled to the help of Asprete, ranging from academics to official bodies to businesses, media, and relevant public figures as ambassadors.
But we are always looking forward to making and welcoming new friends and supporters, bringing along their love for nature and humanity.