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Bending the curve of freshwater biodiversity decline

September 27, 2019

What are the most significant and pressing freshwater biodiversity research questions that, if answered, would improve our ability to understand the state of freshwater biodiversity and improve its management and restoration, now and in the future?

This is the question asked by researchers affiliated with the Alliance for Freshwater Life as part of a new ‘horizon scanning’ research project seeking to identify the big questions in freshwater science, policy and conservation.

Horizon scanning research in conservation

Such horizon scanning projects have increased in popularity in recent years in environmental conservation, often creating valuable resources for students, academics, policy makers and environmental managers. For the last ten years, Prof. William Sutherland from the Conservation Science Group at the University of Cambridge, UK has been leading horizon scanning research for global conservation issues in collaboration with colleagues from across the world. This work is carried out using literature reviews and surveys with experts and stakeholders.

Sutherland and colleagues highlight that horizon scanning research is particularly good at ‘closing the gap’ between academia and policy-making by identifying key research questions of common interest. Their 2019 review of emerging issues for conservation includes a number of freshwater topics, including meltwater from Antarctic ice sheets and the environmental impacts of a planned 6188 km canal in Northern China.

Emerging issues in freshwater conservation

A classic review paper of emerging issues for freshwater conservation was published by Prof. David Dudgeon and colleagues in 2007. One of their opening statements – “Fresh water makes up only 0.01% of the World’s water and approximately 0.8 % of the Earth’s surface, yet this tiny fraction of global water supports at least 100 000 species out of approximately 1.8 million ‐ almost 6% of all described species” – is routinely cited across academia, policy and management circles.

Similarly, their identification of five key issues – over-exploitation; water pollution; flow modification; destruction or degradation of habitat; and invasion by exotic species (with climate change added in a 2010 follow up paper) – remain central to freshwater conservation debates and practice.

‘Bending the curve’ of global freshwater biodiversity decline

Whilst there are a growing number of horizon scanning research projects focusing on freshwaters (for example), the new call by Alliance for Freshwater Life researchers aims to provide a comprehensive of the key research topics, both now and in the future. In this way, they hope to generate and synthesise global knowledge and expertise to help ‘bend the curve’ of global freshwater biodiversity declines – in other words, to address the downward trajectory of many freshwater species and ecosystems across the world.

The ‘bend the curve’ phrase was used last year in a paper by Prof Georgina Mace and colleagues, who argued that the development of the post-2020 strategic plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity provides a vital window of opportunity to set out an ambitious plan of action to restore global biodiversity.

Meagan Harper, a graduate student at Carleton University, Canada who is co-ordinating Alliance for Freshwater Life survey says: “Freshwater biodiversity has been experiencing population declines at as much as twice that experienced in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. While we have known about the problems facing freshwater biodiversity for a while, coordination among groups trying to improve freshwater biodiversity has been slow.

“We think this call for questions, and the research agenda that will be produced, will help increase this coordination among researchers and policy makers, and will help increase our understanding of where gaps in our current knowledge are impeding progress in freshwater biodiversity conservation.”

“We are hoping to accomplish several things with this project,” Harper continues. “First, to produce a research agenda or guide that would provide ideas for early career researchers or fundamentally-oriented researchers on how to engage in applied freshwater biodiversity science. Second, to signal to funders and managers/policy makers where additional research is needed. And third, to identify common projects for groups like Alliance for Freshwater Life, Shoal, and InFish, among others, as well as areas where we as a community can invest our efforts.”

“Ultimately, our purpose in creating this list is to help in the effort to stop, or even reverse, the current trajectory of freshwater biodiversity loss, to ‘bend the curve’ for freshwater biodiversity,” Harper concludes.

You can take part in their Alliance for Freshwater Life horizon scanning survey here.

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