Freshwater fish species are in “catastrophic” decline, with one-third facing extinction
03/02/2021 // Divina Ramirez // Views

Nearly a third of all freshwater fish species in the world now face extinction, according to a new report released Tuesday, Feb. 23, by 16 global conservation organizations.

The report, titled "The World's Forgotten Fishes," outlined the disastrous effects that the loss of freshwater fish could have on the planet. Freshwater fish are essential to the health of rivers, lakes and wetlands. Freshwater fish also support economies worldwide and serve as an important source of food for 200 million people.

Unfortunately, the report revealed that 16 of the 80 extinct freshwater fish species to date disappeared last year alone. According to the report, various factors contributed to this outcome and the ongoing decline of fish, including the building of dams, the siphoning of rivers for irrigation and the release of wastewater.

Other factors include the draining of wetlands, the introduction of invasive fish, overfishing and pollution.

Now, of the more than 10,000 freshwater fish species whose conservation status has been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 30 percent are now at risk of extinction.

Stuart Orr, the freshwater lead at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), one of the conservation groups that took part in the research, said it is now time to shine a light back on freshwater fish. "They are the aquatic version of the canary in the coal mine, and we must heed the warning," Orr warned in a statement.

WWF is the world's leading and largest conservation group. Other groups that took part in the research include the Alliance for Freshwater Life (ALF), Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).


Some freshwater fish species face extinction

There are some 18,000 species of freshwater fish, accounting for over half of the world's total fish species. They also account for a quarter of all vertebrates on Earth. This biodiversity is extremely important for both the health of the planet and the economic prosperity of communities worldwide.

In fact, freshwater fish are one of the major sources of protein for some 200 million people across Africa, South America and Asia. And about one-third of those people rely on freshwater fish for their livelihoods.

But despite their importance, freshwater fish are undervalued and overlooked. And that shows up as a palpable decline in freshwater biodiversity. In fact, freshwater biodiversity is declining twice as fast as ocean or forest biodiversity.

For example, populations of migratory freshwater fish, such as salmon, declined by 76 percent over the last five decades. Meanwhile, populations of large fish species known as "megafish," such as the beluga sturgeon, fell by 94 percent in the same period. (Related: Raising farmed salmon means KILLING tons of wild fish to make fish food.)

Orr also explained that the clearest indicator of the damage that humans are doing to the planet is the apparent decline of freshwater fish populations. "Nowhere is the world's nature crisis more acute than in our rivers, lakes and wetlands."

But the extinction of threatened fish species can be mitigated. "The good news is that we know what needs to be done to safeguard freshwater fishes," said Orr.

To protect these "forgotten fishes," Orr and his colleagues outlined a six-point plan:

  1. Let rivers flow more naturally
  2. Improve water quality in freshwater ecosystems
  3. Protect and restore critical habitats for freshwater fish
  4. End overfishing and unsustainable sand mining in rivers and lakes
  5. Prevent and control invasions of non-native fish species
  6. Protect free-flowing rivers and remove obsolete dams

The report also calls for the securing and implementation of a global biodiversity agreement at the upcoming United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China.

Go to to learn more about the importance of freshwater fish for the environment.

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