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World’s ‘forgotten fishes’ in catastrophic decline

February 23, 2021
Snorkelling in a river in Western Cape, South Africa. Image: Jeremy Shelton

Nearly a third of global freshwater fish species are threatened by extinction, according to a major new report compiled by 16 conservation groups.

Released today, The World’s Forgotten Fishes report states that 80 species of freshwater fish are known to have gone extinct, with 16 of these extinctions occurring in the last year alone. Since 1970, populations of migratory freshwater fish have fallen by 76%, and large ‘megafauna’ fish species by a startling 94%.

The report, published by a coalition of groups including WWF, IUCN, and the Alliance for Freshwater Life, highlights the rich variety of global freshwater fish species: the current known total of 18,075 species accounts for over half of all the world’s fish species, and a quarter of its vertebrate species.

However, despite the vital role these fish species play in human health, food security, livelihoods and culture for communities across the world, many of their populations are in critical decline. Common threats to freshwater fish include habitat destruction, hydropower dam construction, agricultural and industrial pollution, and climate change. In some regions, overfishing, poaching and invasive species are also key pressures.

The Iznajar hydropower dam in Spain. Dam construction is one of the key threats to freshwater fish populations in global rivers. Image: Global Warming Images / WWF

“Nowhere is the world’s nature crisis more acute than in our rivers, lakes and wetlands, and the clearest indicator of the damage we are doing is the rapid decline in freshwater fish populations. They are the aquatic version of the canary in the coalmine, and we must heed the warning,” says Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead.

“Despite their importance to local communities and indigenous people across the globe, freshwater fish are invariably forgotten and not factored into development decisions about hydropower dams or water use or building on floodplains. Freshwater fish matter to the health of people and the freshwater ecosystems that all people and all life on land depend on. It’s time we remembered that,” Orr argues.

The report is published only days after a paper in the journal Science shows that half of all global river systems have been significantly impacted by human activities, with only very large tropical basins subject to lower levels of alteration. The study, by Dr. Guohuan Su and colleagues, states that freshwater fish biodiversity has become homogenised in many river basins due to human alterations, primarily river fragmentation and the introduction of non-native species.

Freshwater fish are part of vital aquatic ecosystems, providing prey for predators such as this giant otter in the Pantanal, Brazil – the world’s largest tropical wetland. Image: R.Isotti, A.Cambone / Homo Ambiens / WWF

However, despite the declining trends in freshwater fish populations across the world, The World’s Forgotten Fishes ends on a hopeful note. It argues that 2021 is a crucial year to address the freshwater biodiversity crisis, through implementing the tenets of the WWF-led Emergency Recovery Plan into a New Deal for Nature and People ahead of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference held in Kunming, China in May.

“The good news is that we know what needs to be done to safeguard freshwater fishes. Securing a New Deal for the world’s freshwater ecosystems will bring life back to our dying rivers, lakes and wetlands. It will bring freshwater fish species back from the brink too – securing food and jobs for hundreds of millions, safeguarding cultural icons, boosting biodiversity and enhancing the health of the freshwater ecosystems that underpin our well-being and prosperity,” states Orr.

“What we need now is to recognise the value of freshwater fish and fisheries, and for governments to commit to new targets and solutions implementation, as well as prioritising which freshwater ecosystems need protection and restoration. We also need to see partnerships and innovation through collective action involving governments, businesses, investors, civil society and communities,” concludes Orr.

Freshwater fish populations are crucial sources of food and livelihood to many communities across the world, including this fisherman on the Luangwa River, Zambia. Image: James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US


Read The World’s Forgotten Fishes report.

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