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World’s Forgotten Fishes Vital For Hundreds Of Millions Of People But1/3 Face Extinction, Warns New Report

Freshwater fish populations are collapsing

February 2021
– The world’s dazzlingly diverse
freshwater fish are critical for the health, food security
and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, but they
are under ever increasing threat with one in three already
threatened with extinction, according to the World’s
Forgotten Fishes

published today by 16 global conservation

  • Freshwater fish make up 51% of all
    fish species and ¼ of all vertebrate species on
  • Nearly 1/3 of freshwater fish species are
    threatened with extinction;
  • 76% decline in migratory
    freshwater fish since 1970;
  • 94% decline in mega-fish
    (heavier than 30kg) such as Danube sturgeon since
  • Freshwater fisheries provide food for 200
    million people and livelihoods for 60 million;
  • Fisheries valued at over US$38 billion, while
    recreational fishing generates US$100

There are18,075 freshwater fish
species, accounting for over half of the entire world’s
fish species and a quarter of all vertebrate species on
Earth. This wealth of species is essential to the health of
the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands – and supports
societies and economies across the globe. But freshwater
fish 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

Nowhere is the world’s nature
crisis more acute than in our rivers, lakes and wetlands,
and the clearest indicator of the damage we are doing is the
rapid decline in freshwater fish populations. 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 World’s Forgotten
Report highlights the devastating
combination of threats facing freshwater ecosystems – and
the fish 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 fish 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. For
example, poaching
for illegal caviar
is a key reason why
sturgeons are one of the world’s most threatened group of
, while Critically Endangered European eels
are the most trafficked animal.

Sturgeon: the world’s
most endangered family of species

hundreds of years, sturgeons played a major role in local
economies, providing food and livelihoods for many. A beluga
sturgeon measuring 7.2 metres was once caught in the Volga
River, but few giants are spotted these days. Indeed, few
sturgeon of any size are seen in the wild these days. These
gentle giants have been swimming around since the age of the
dinosaurs, but 23 of the 27 species are now on the brink of
extinction. Indeed, the closely related Chinese paddlefish
was declared extinct in 2020. The Danube and the Rioni River
in Georgia are the only two rivers remaining in Europe where
migrating sturgeons reproduce naturally. Ongoing
developments through navigation projects, dredging
activities or planning of hydropower dams continue the
pressure on sturgeon populations in Europe, many of which
already depend on release
as a last glimmer of

Sturgeon and other migratory fish species
represent the historical, economic and natural heritage of
the Danube. Furthermore, they are indicators of the
ecological status of the river’s watercourses, especially
concerning the function of the river as an ecological
corridor. Transnational management and restoration actions
to re-establish these corridors as migration routes, as well
as stocking with indigenous species, are essential until we
have achieved a self-sustaining population

If you want a bad example on which fate
freshwater fish can take, sturgeon tell the story. Only a
few decades ago, communities and whole regions thrived on
sturgeon fishing and caviar trade. Today, they are more
threatened than any other group of species in the world!
Efforts to restore sturgeon populations are ongoing across
Europe, but urgent action and concerted efforts are needed
to turn the clock back!
” – Beate
WWF Network Sturgeon Strategy

WWF-CEE is engaged in
sturgeon protection measures in most Danube
Our priority is to identify and protect
the critical habitats of the remaining four sturgeon species
(Huso huso, Acipenser stellatus, A.
, A. gueldenstaedtii) in the Lower Danube
and north-western Black Sea, as well as to reduce pressure
on their remaining populations by addressing poaching and
ensuring protection. If we can save sturgeons, we
will save so much more – helping to revive the rivers they
live in for the benefit of people and

There is a long list of threats to
freshwater fish, but there are also
– and 2021 offers real hope that the
world can turn the tide and start to reverse decades of
decline in freshwater fish populations. The world
must seize the opportunity to secure an ambitious
and implementable global biodiversity agreement
the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference
in Kunming, China – one that must, for the first time, pay
just as much attention to protecting and restoring our
freshwater life support systems as the world’s forests and

The good news is that we know what
needs to be done to safeguard freshwater fishes. Securing a
New Deal for the world’s freshwater ecosystems will bring
life back to our dying rivers, lakes and wetlands. It will
bring freshwater fish species back from the brink too –
securing food and jobs for hundreds of millions,
safeguarding cultural icons, boosting biodiversity and
enhancing the health of the freshwater ecosystems that
underpin our well-being and prosperity
,” said

Specifically, this New
Deal for Nature and People
must build on the freshwater
transition outlined in the CBD’s
5th Global Biodiversity Outlook
, which echoes the
6-pillars of the WWF-led Emergency
Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity
– a
comprehensive plan that can deliver solutions at the scale
necessary to reverse the collapse in freshwater fish

What we need now is to recognise
the value of freshwater fish and fisheries, and for
governments to commit to new targets and solutions
implementation, as well as prioritizing which freshwater
ecosystems need protection and restoration. We also need to
see partnerships and innovation through collective action
involving governments, businesses, investors, civil society
and communities
,” said Orr.

Humanity must
urgently bend the curve of biodiversity loss before we reach
a tipping point from which we may not recover, and which
will have dramatic consequences for all life on Earth. CEE
leaders must join other world leaders to commit to a New
Deal for Nature and People, including halting and reversing
biodiversity loss and habitat loss by

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