It’s time for an emergency recovery plan for freshwater biodiversity

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10 Mar

The 2020 report by the World Fish Migration Foundation, Living Planet Index, found that migratory freshwater fish have globally declined by an average of 76% since 1970, and is even more pronounced in Europe (-93%). This can be explained by a number of factors, including habitat degradation and change, pollution and climate change.

Echoing the findings of the Living Planet Index, WWF released on 23 February 2021 a new report on The World’s Forgotten Fishes, which focuses on freshwater fish species. Although only 1% of aquatic habitat is freshwater, 51% of known fish species are found in freshwater! But those species are often ‘forgotten’ by policymakers, which appear to focus more on the marine environment, and, if they have time, on the freshwater ecosystems.
One of the ten chapters of the report is dedicated to angling and its impacts on freshwater fish species. The report recognises the social and economic impacts of the recreational fisheries sector highlighting that the sector generates globally over €83 billion each year, supports in Europe hundreds of thousands of jobs, and has many wellbeing aspects for our societies. It also outlines how the sector contributes to raising awareness about the decline of freshwater fish species. For example, in 2015, an analysis of the detailed catch-log books kept by angling camps in India revealed that the endemic mahseer population was in perilous decline. If it had not been for anglers, this freshwater mega-fish may have gone extinct without ever being recognised as a valid species. The report however does not shy away from mentioning that recreational fishing can be a threat to this fragile ecosystem, if not managed properly, if recreational fishers are not handling properly their gear, or discard fishing nets into nature.
The report concludes on a somewhat positive note by outlining an emergency recovery plan for freshwater biodiversity, which might be the last chance to create the necessary conditions to reverse the loss of biodiversity. Built around six pillars, this recovery plan would help “bending the freshwater biodiversity curve” back upwards, if properly adopted and implemented:
  1. Let rivers flow more naturally;
  2. Improve water quality in freshwater ecosystems;
  3. Protect and restore critical habitats;
  4. End overfishing and unsustainable sand mining in rivers and lakes;
  5. Prevent and control invasions by non-native species; and
  6. Protect free-flowing rivers and remove obsolete dams.

Some of those pillars are already identified as objectives to pursue at the European, national or local levels, others are objective of the European Commission in its Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. However, implementation of policies and legislations is often lagging behind the ambition. One thing is for sure: actions need to be taken now to avoid the irreversible biodiversity loss that already started.

© WWF, The World’s Forgotten Fishes, 2021

Learn more about WWF’s emergency recovery plan for freshwater biodiversity here.

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