Freshwater Fish in Peril, New WWF Report States

graphic by Annabel Dirussi for ODP

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

A new report entitled The World’s Forgotten Fishes from the World Wildlife Fund has found that there has been a “catastrophic” decline in freshwater fish, with nearly a third of all freshwater fish species coming perilously close to extinction. 

The statistics paint a sobering picture: 26% of all critically endangered species are freshwater species. 

  • While there are 18,075 species of freshwater fish, numbers have been plummeting as a result of pollution and overfishing, as well as damming and emptying rivers and wetlands. 
  • According to the report, populations of migratory fish have fallen by three quarters in the last five decades. 
  • 80 species have gone extinct so far, and the US had the most extinctions by far —19. 

Why This Matters: Losing freshwater fish would severely affect the world’s ecosystems, economies, and food sources. According to the report, 200 million people rely on freshwater fish for animal protein, and 43% of freshwater fish catch comes from 50 low-income food-deficit countries. Moreover, around 60 million people rely on freshwater fisheries for work, and more than half of these workers are women. Meanwhile, freshwater wetlands have a total economic value five times higher than tropical forests.

Freshwater fish are the world’s most popular pets (even more so than cats and dogs!) according to the US National Pet Owners Survey, while recreational fishing generates over $100 billion annually for the US, with that money going into both local and national economies. 

Saving Freshwater Fish: As the report’s author’s stated: “humanity can’t afford to lose any more of the world’s forgotten fishes or the freshwater ecosystems they inhabit. Rivers, lakes, and wetlands are our life support systems and the extraordinary diversity of fishes within them are essential to their health and ours. To secure our own future, we must act now.” 

Luckily, governments and fisheries managers know what needs to be done to protect these ecosystems and the animals and communities that depend on them. 

In order to restore populations of freshwater fish, the report laid out an emergency plan for recovering freshwater biodiversity. It encouraged governments to not only work on conserving rivers, lakes, and wetlands, but also add specific objectives into the Sustainable Development Goals that focus on freshwater fishes.

The report also emphasized the importance of collective action, partnering with NGOs, businesses, and communities, suggesting that community water stewardship and investments into innovative ways of restoring ecosystems would be productive next steps. 

Carmen Revenga of the Nature Conservancy emphasized the importance of the issue to BBC News: “It’s now more urgent than ever that we find the collective political will and effective collaboration with private sector, governments, NGOs and communities, to implement nature-based solutions that protect freshwater species, while also ensuring human needs are met.


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