In 2000 the European Union introduced the Water Framework Directive, new legislation that regulates the use of surface waters within the European Community. The goal of this legislation is to protect, enhance and restore all surface waters within the Community to Good Surface Water Status. Good-Status is described as having low levels of anthropogenic distortion in its hydro-morphological and physiochemical components as well as possessing biota that would normally be associated with the type-specific aquatic ecosystem. The assessment of ecosystem status is to be defined by comparisons with intact representative reference sites, by using modelling techniques that define reference conditions, a combination of the two, or expert judgement. As undisturbed aquatic ecosystems are rare or non-existent in Europe the base-line data will have to be defined using the latter methodologies.
The aim of this project is to help define reference conditions for lotic systems in Europe based on the physical instream habitat parameters of a resident species. Brown trout (Salmo trutta), a ubiquitous and well studies species endemic to Europe, was used as the target organism to develop the assessment protocol. The project focused on the requirements this species has of aspects of its physical habitat; specifically, its usage of depth, velocity, and substrate. An extensive survey of the scientific literature was used to define the requirements trout has for the three physical parameters at four life stages. These are the spawning, nursery, juvenile and adult-resident life stages. These requirements were expressed as tolerance profiles, which defined suitable, usable and not-suitable habitat. The methodology was demonstrated by evaluating the physical habitat available at six reaches in three small streams, March, Burnhouse and Bin Burns, which drain into the Carron Valley Reservoir in central Scotland.
From the perspective of water depth, these streams seem best suited as nursery areas, are less well suited as juvenile habitat, and do not appear to be well matched for adult residents. The assessment of both velocity and substrate indicated that the portion of the study reaches available for use by resident brown trout increased with trout size. The assessment of all three physical habitat parameters at all study reaches found variable portions of the streams suitable for use by spawning trout. When the habitat variables are integrated all stream segments streams seem best suited as nursery and spawning areas. To a lesser extent juvenile trout can use these burns and very little habitat is available for use by adult resident trout.
The tolerance profiles that were created in this study are standardized assessment criteria that when compared with stream survey data can produce an appraisal of habitat availability in any fluvial freshwater system that supports populations of brown trout (Salmo trutta). The assessment method can be combined to produce an integrated habitat assessment, using both an index and by the calculation of Froude number, which is a more realistic approach than the assessment of individual habitat parameters as salmonids choose their microhabitat based on multiple factors. This approach allows an investigator to determine the amount and relative portion of useable habitat and to determine the quality of that habitat. Finally, by examining the physical habitat variable that most strongly correlates with the final integrated habitat distribution the individual habitat parameter that is most important to the distribution of physical habitat at a site can be determined. While this technique would certainly benefit from further development it does show potential to aid in physical habitat assessment of trout streams.