The sculpin-pearch or Romanian-darter "Romanichthys valsanicola" is an endemic species of the Arges Basin in Romania. This species, which is related to the unusual Danube and Rhone Strebers (the Zingel species) was only discovered in 1957 and immediately found to be extremely rare and localised (the Arges, Doamnei and Valsan rivers). Having disappeared from the Arges and Doamnei rivers following dam works in 1967 and pollution, it was already considered close to extinction in 1971. Surveys carried out in 1989 and 1992 revealed that only a few specimens survided in the upstream parts of the Vilsan river basin. Its current distribution area is confined to a section of several kilometres of this waterway. The major threats identified are the insufficient discharge because of a dam built in 1967 on the Valsan, the multiple sources of pollution affecting the river (domestic waste water, waste from hospitals, lead mines, poison use for poaching, etc.) and extractions of stones and boulders from the river (for building purposes). Romanichthys valsanicola is registered in Annex II to the Berne Convention and the Vilsan river has benefited from a legal protection status since 1994. When Romania will join the EU, the sculpin pearch will also be added as a priority species into Annex II of the Habitats Directive.
The project aimed at restoring favourable ecological conditions for the species in its natural environment (Valsan river) through the set-up of an action plan and species monitoring. Urgent actions to restore the quality of the river were to be carried out, including an increase of the baseline water discharge from the dam, the halt of boulder extractions from the riverbed, and the restoration of the natural substratum of the river. A precise monitoring of the biotic and abiotic parameters of the river must be implemented in order to specify the status of conservation of the species. On the basis of these elements, a plan to save the species must be drawn up and implemented in cooperation with all the actors concerned. Educational and awareness actions were planed to raise the attention and the participation of inhabitants of the valley. For the case the situation of the species would have enabled it, the project also reserved the right to attempt new breeding experiments, to reproduce the species in captivity with the support of German and French specialists. Such an experiment was already attempted in 1992 with seven adult individuals in Germany, but did fail at the time.
The project was the first concrete conservation initiative in favour of this species since its discovery in 1957, except for the legal protection of the river in 1994, which was not implemented in the field. The project has globally succeeded in improving the conservation status of the most endangered fish species in Europe. Actions to recover the quality of the natural habitats of Romanichthys valsanicola were efficient and led to the natural increase of the population. At the end of the project, the population size and structure were reinforced thanks to yearly natural reproduction. The population size was estimated at 200 individuals and at least three successive generations of Aspret could be founded in the Valsan in 2003. The distribution range of the population was also extended, since individuals were found both upstream and downstream of the distribution range observed at the project start. These positive results have been reached thanks to the following measures: 1) 500 tons of stones and pebbles were dropped into the Valsan to restore the stony riverbed and to provide shelters to this nocturnal territorial bottom-living species. 2) An additional downstream flow was obtained from the hydro electric company managing the Valsan dam to increase the minimum average flow (an additional 63 l/s from October to April and 126 l/s during the rest of the year). 3) A warden living in the Valley was employed during the whole duration of the project to ensure the surveillance of the river, to educate inhabitants and tourists and control forbidden activities (poaching, prohibit angling, rock extraction, poisoning, waste dumping...). 4) 20 panels were installed along the river course to remind users of the reserve regulation. 5) Educational and awareness actions were carried out to inform inhabitants of the valley about the outstanding natural heritage of their river (leaflet, brochure, quiz for children, video, local information meetings, exhibition, web site). 6) Finally, the monitoring of the biotic and abiotic parameters of the river water concluded that its quality was satisfactory as far as species needs are concerned and that the main prey species (Rhitrogena semicolorata) was sufficiently abundant. Nevertheless, in spite of the efforts carried out, the main threats for the species could not be entirely handled: The deal with the hydro electrical company aiming at increasing the minimum flow downstream the dam does not reach the expected result (1.5 m3/s, i.e. 1500 l/s). The company explained that such a flow would lead to a loss in electric production equivalent to 50,000 ?/year. So far, the captive breeding experiment launched with the collaboration of French specialists of the Zingel genus did not succeed and no other natural population of this species have been discovered. The risk of extinction of this species remains a major threat, due to its distribution restrcited to one single river stretch. A major threat discovered during the project, regarding the next dam draining operation, is still pending and could have drastic consequences for the species survival. Some alternatives have been studied but the question who has to bear the extra-cost is still not solved. Consequently, in spite of the evident short-term success of the project, the long term survival of this species of very high European value is not yet ensured. The pending threats are however outside of the range of the beneficiary's competences. In fact, regarding the economical issues of the energetic producing plan and the requested modification, a governmental decision is needed. So, the survival of Romanichthys valsanicola mainly depends on political will. (note: in 2006, prior to the EU accession of Romania, Romanichthys valsanicola has been proposed by the Romanian authorities as a "priority species" for listing on Annex II of the Habitats Directive)