The world’s freshwater fishes are under ever increasing threat, with one in three already threatened with extinction, according to a report published by 16 global conservation organizations.
Freshwater fisheries provide the main source of protein for 200 million people across Asia, Africa and South America, as well as jobs and livelihoods for 60 million people. Healthy freshwater fish stocks also sustain two huge global industries: recreational fishing generates over US$100 billion annually, while aquarium fishes are the world’s most popular pets and drive a global trade worth up to US$30 billion.
However, they continue to be undervalued and overlooked – and thousands of species are now heading towards extinction. Freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in our oceans or forests. Indeed, 80 species of freshwater fish have already been declared ‘Extinct’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including 16 in 2020 alone. Meanwhile, populations of migratory freshwater fish have fallen by 76 per cent since 1970 and mega-fish by a catastrophic 94 per cent.
“They are the aquatic version of the canary in the coalmine, and we must heed the warning,” said 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.”
The report highlights the devastating combination of threats facing freshwater ecosystems – and the fishes that live in them – including habitat destruction, hydropower dams on free flowing rivers, over abstraction of water for irrigation, and domestic, agricultural and industrial pollution. In addition, freshwater fishes are also at risk from overfishing and destructive fishing practices, the introduction of invasive non-native species and the impacts of climate change as well as unsustainable sand mining and wildlife crime.
There is a long list of threats, but there are also solutions – and 2021 offers real hope that the world can turn the tide and start to reverse decades of decline in freshwater fish populations.
Photo credit: © Petteri Hautamaa WWF Finland