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IUCN makes bold claim that heightened extinction risk of African freshwater biodiversity threatens livelihoods

September 2, 2010

Today IUCN launched the results of a 5-year project to apply Red List extinction risk categories to 5,167 species of African freshwater biodiversity. The results are worrying – 21% of freshwater species were classed as threatened with extinction. Interestingly the IUCN press release explicitly states that this trend puts “the livelihoods of millions of people at risk” citing as evidence estimates of 7.5 million people in Sub-Saharan African depending on inland fisheries and the case of overfishing a group of fish know as ‘chambo’ in Lake Malawi (link for full details). Whilst the tactic of aligning extinction risk with threats to livelihoods is clearly intended to gain policy attention in relation to water extraction, dams and invasive alien species, I wonder whether the claimed causal link is as solid or clear cut as suggested. For instance, to what extent are ‘replacement’ fisheries composed of ubiquitous species dependent on the biodiversity in the system, or put another way what happens to other fresh water biodiversity with human use value when native fish assemblies are eradicated and replaced with a few food fishes? In short, is there a scientific basis for using the outputs of a threshold-based categorisation scheme to predict that millions of people will lose a key source of income, food and materials? This is not intended to suggest that the IUCN are being alarmist, rather it is to prompt discussion on the evidence we have, or the future research we need, to test causal links between the maintenance of freshwater biodiversity and the maintenance of freshwater ecosystem services. With water development set to increase massively across Africa, with for example, a doubling of irrigated land area by 2025 there is clearly an urgent need to marshal evidence and arguments.

Paul Jepson

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rob Holland permalink
    September 9, 2010 09:41

    There are a couple of interesting points that arose from this press release although perhaps the most interesting one is not to do with the “bold” claim. I’m not familiar enough with the literature to comment on where the research gaps are so it would be interesting to hear from other people who are more knowledgeable about this. However research published a few years ago suggests that the majority of fishery resources in Africa and overexploited, fully exploited or about to reach their maximum level of exploitation. Irrespective of the extinction risk of individual species this suggests that their needs to be careful management of fisheries across the continent. To draw a parallel with the most famous example of a fishery loss. The collapse of fish stock on the Grand Banks had considerable economic costs, however the advantage that people who exploited this resource had was that they were able to move to new fishing grounds, would this be possible for people who live in sub-Saharan Africa? Possibly, but it would be a major societal upheaval.
    What about replacing the biodiversity with a few food fish? I think the concern here is really to do with the resilience of the system to change. Changes to the aquatic systems brought about by human activities including climate change would suggest that if you are reliant on a few food species and the conditions change this could lead to loss of the few species on which people rely.
    Paul hits the nail on the head regarding what I think is the more interesting aspect of the story when he says that the tactic of aligning extinction and livelihoods is intended to gain attention. When we were sorting out the publicity for this story it was very difficult to write the press release in the way that it would have been written for mammals/birds etc. which would be X% of mammals threatened, here is a picture of a charismatic mammal, here are the threats to it. Such stories always gain wide press attention whereas the coverage of our release was more muted despite the importance of the species for many people. Reporting of aquatic animals (with only a few notable exceptions) tends to focus on how many we can exploit. If we set a quota for the annual harvest of Tigers (Endangered IUCN red list) then it would be front page news, set a quota for the annual harvest of Tilapia bemini (Critically Endangered IUCN red list) and it would get no coverage. So the question that I would like to pose is how do we highlight the state of freshwater biodiversity and bring it to the wider public attention without creating links between societal demands for freshwater species?

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