BUCHAREST – For most of us, dinosaurs are an almost mythological species, brought to life only by museums and the movies. Sixty-five million years after their extinction, a species of freshwater fish found in southeastern Europe is one of the few remaining links that connect us to that deep, pre-historic past.
It is the asprete, or “Romanichthys valsanicola” in Latin, a fish that has been around since the age of the dinosaurs, but of which about only about 15 specimens remain along a one kilometer stretch of the Valsan riverbed in central Romania.
HARD TO SPOT
Due to the nocturnal habits of this living fossil, and the fact that it spends most of the day hidden under the rocks, the asprete is a very difficult animal to see; even for those who spend all their time studying it.
But, in a stroke of luck, a group of scientists and activists working to prevent its extinction found a group of 12 aspretes last month, and were even able to record them for the delight of lovers of this species, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) describes as “critically endangered.”
“This is probably the first time that this fish has been recorded in its natural habitat since the species was discovered,” mountaineer and conservationist Alex Gavan, who spent part of his childhood on the banks of the Valsan River and is the most active ambassador for the cause to save the asprete, told EFE.
The video in which 12 aspretes can be seen, Gavan explains, is a cause for hope, as it confirms the survival of the species and points out that the population could likely exceed the estimated 15 specimens.
NAMED FOR ITS TEXTURE
This species, whose origins date back some 65 million years, was discovered in 1956 by the Romanian biology student Nicolae Stoica.
While working on a study about the fish fauna of the area, Stoica found, in the Valsan river, a specimen of “rough” fish that did not correspond to any species previously described in the available zoological treatises.
The student informed the zoological experts Margareta Dumitrescu and Petre Banarescu, who in 1957 published with Stoica the scientific study that accredited the existence of this new species, whose name in Latin means “Romanian fish of the Valsan.”
Its popular name, “asprete,” refers to its rough texture (“aspra” in Romanian) and at the time of its discovery it also existed in at least two other rivers in the area, the Arges and the Valsan, with an estimated population of several hundred specimens.
THREATENED BY A HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
The main cause of the asprete’s dramatic population decline is the construction of the Vidraru Dam, a project launched by the authorities at the time to produce electricity, prevent floods and facilitate irrigation work in this part of Romania.
Managed by the public company Hidroelectrica, the dam has considerably reduced the flow of the river, putting at risk the survival of the asprete.
“Sometimes the dam generates large amounts of water that carry mud downstream; this mud can asphyxiate the asprete when it enters its gills,” says Gavan.
“The Romanian state must respect and enforce its own laws, and this is very important because much of the destruction being done in the Valsan river valley is done by the Romanian state,” explains Gavan.
In addition to the dam, the felling of trees that shade the river during the day and regulate the water’s temperature, as well as other human interventions such as the artificial steps created in the course of the Vaslan to regulate its flow, are all challenging the asprete’s survival.
“We want to build what is known as ‘fish ladders’ so that the asprete does not get caught in a certain section of the river, because this affects its genetic diversity,” says Gavan.
CREATING AN ECOLOGICAL SANCTUARY
In addition to responding to the issues that directly affect the asprete, Gavan and his colleagues in this struggle – which include scientists, businessmen, civil society activists and individual citizens – want to create an ecological sanctuary in the Vaslan River Valley that will attract visitors and generate economic benefits in the area.
Their objective is to carry out an “ecological reconstruction of the valley,” since it will be for nothing if we don’t give the fish the right conditions.”
“We want to involve and empower locals through this project with courses, sustainable agriculture workshops and other initiatives,” says Gavan.