A report finds that freshwater fish are “catastrophically” declining by a third before extinction

Thousands of fish species are facing a “catastrophic” decline – threatening the health, food security and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world. New research shows that a third of all freshwater fish now face extinction.

According to a report released on Tuesday by 16 global conservation groups, 18,075 species of freshwater fish live in our oceans, representing more than half of the global fish species and a quarter of all vertebrates on Earth. This biodiversity is important to preserve not only the health of the planet, but the economic prosperity of communities worldwide.

About 200 million people across Asia, Africa and South America rely on freshwater fishermen for their main source of protein, researchers said in the report “The World’s Forgotten Fish”. About one-third of those people also trust them for their jobs and livelihoods.

Despite their importance, freshwater fish are “underestimated and overlooked,” researchers said – and now freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in oceans and forests.

Eighty freshwater species have already been declared extinct – 16 of them in 2020 alone.

GREECE-MIDDLE
Thousands of dead freshwater fish are seen around Lake Koroneia, Greece, on September 19, 2019.

SAKIS MITROLIDIS / AFP by Getty Images


“Nowhere is the world’s natural crisis more acute than in our rivers, lakes and wetlands, and the clearest indicator of the damage we are doing is the rapid decline of freshwater fish populations. They are the water version of the canary in the coal mine, and we need to heed the warning, “said Stuart Orr of the World Wide Fund for Nature. “Despite their importance to local communities and indigenous peoples around the world, freshwater fish are usually forgotten and not taken into account in development decisions about hydropower dams or water use or construction on floodplains.”

Migratory species have fallen by more than three-quarters in the last 50 years, while populations of larger species, called “megafish,” have declined by a “catastrophic” 94%.

Freshwater ecosystems face a destructive combination of threats – including habitat destruction, hydropower dams, over-abstraction of water for irrigation, various types of pollution, overfishing, the introduction of invasive species and ongoing climate change.

Organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, Global Nature Conservation and The Nature Conservancy have now called on governments to implement a “Crisis Recovery Plan” to save freshwater biodiversity. They recommend protecting and restoring rivers, water quality and critical habitats – undoing the damage caused by overfishing.

“Freshwater fish are important for human health and the freshwater ecosystems on which all humans and all life on earth depend,” Orr said. “It’s time we remembered that.”

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