A new report puts this down to a ‘devastating combination’ of threats from damming rivers to draining wetlands, abstracting too much water for irrigation to releasing too much untreated waste, from unsustainable and damaging fishing practises to introductions of invasive non-native species and the escalating impacts of climate change.
Nearly one in three species is now threatened with extinction and global freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in oceans or forests, the stated report by 16 conservation groups, including WWF, the London Zoological Society (ZSL), Global Wildlife Conservation and The Nature Conservancy.
The report – called World's Forgotten Fishes -- added that populations of migratory freshwater fish have fallen by 76% since 1970; Mega-fish (fish weighing more than 30kg) have declined by a catastrophic 94% ; 80 species of freshwater fish have been declared ‘extinct’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including 16 in 2020.
While the latest count shows more fish species in rivers and lakes than oceans - but global populations are in freefall, with 16 species declared extinct in 2020 alone.
Freshwater fish provide 200 million people around the world with food and 60 million people with livelihoods. They also reel in approximately US$100 billion a year. But “the diverse benefits of healthy freshwater ecosystems continue to be undervalued and overlooked and disappearing at a shocking rate”, the report noted.
In Europe, there are an estimated 1 million river barriers – at least 100,000 of which are obsolete, while just 40% of Europe’s waters are classified as in good ecological health
Globally, we’ve lost 35% of the world’s remaining wetlands in the past 50 years, said the report. Only a third of rivers over 1000km still flow freely from source to sea.
Aquaculture ‘not a solution’
Aquaculture constitutes 46% of world fish production – 63% (51 million tonnes) 33 of which is freshwater aquaculture. With the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, humanity’s reliance on aquaculture for food security is expected to grow. But aquaculture is not a substitute for wild fisheries, the report noted. It claims that sustainable fish production from aquaculture relies on healthy and genetically varied brood stock, which is collected from the wild. Furthermore, millions of people rely on wild populations for subsistence fishing, while for poor families, aquaculture fish are less affordable than wild caught.
WWF is calling all governments to back the implementation of a global Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity, as part of an ambitious agreement at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference later this year. This six-point plan would include reducing pollution, allowing rivers to flow more naturally, controlling invasive species, and ending overfishing and removing obsolete dams.
“Only by implementing this plan, can we hope to restore the world’s freshwater ecosystems and reverse decades of decline in freshwater fish populations,” the report wrote. “By committing to this plan, countries can enhance the health of their rivers, lakes and wetlands – and secure the future of their fish and fisheries.”