Conservation potential of North American large rivers: the Wabash River compared with the Ohio and Illinois rivers

Mark Pyron, Rebecca Logsdon Muenich, Andrew F. Casper

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background: Large rivers are ecological treasures with high human value, but most have experienced decades of degradation from industrial and municipal sewage, row-crop agricultural practices, and hydrologic alteration. We reviewed published analyses of long-term fish diversity publications from three intensively managed large river ecosystems to demonstrate the conservation potential of large river ecosystems. Results: We show how the incorporation of recent advances in river concepts will allow a better understanding of river ecosystem functioning and conservation. Lastly, we focus on the Wabash River ecosystem based on high conservation value and provide a list of actions to maintain and support the ecosystem. In the Wabash River, there were originally 66 species of freshwater mussels, but now only 30 species with reproducing populations remain. Although there were multiple stressors over the last century, the largest change in Wabash River fish biodiversity was associated with rapid increases in municipal nutrient loading and invasive bigheaded carps. Conclusions: Like similarly neglected large river systems worldwide, the Wabash River has a surprising amount of ecological resilience and recovery. For instance, of the 151 native fish species found in the 1800s, only three species have experienced local extinctions, making the modern assemblage more intact than many comparable rivers in the Mississippi River basin. However, not all the changes are positive or support the idea of recovery. Primary production underpins the productivity of these ecosystems, and the Wabash River phytoplankton assemblages shifted from high-quality green algae in the 1970s to lower less nutritional blue-green algae as nutrient and invasive species have recently increased. Our recommendations for the Wabash River and other altered rivers include the restoration of natural hydrology for the mainstem and tributaries, nutrient reductions, mechanisms to restore historical hydrologic patterns, additional sediment controls, and improved local hydraulics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number15
Pages (from-to)15
JournalFisheries and Aquatic Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 3 2020


  • INHS
  • River conservation
  • Long-term
  • Freshwater fishes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Molecular Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Oceanography


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