World Wildlife Fund UK News

23 Feb 2021

One third of freshwater fish threatened with extinction, new report warns

One third of freshwater fish threatened with extinction, new report warns: Threat - Brown trout trying to jump man-made river barrier in Finland © Petteri Hautamaa WWF Finland
  • Latest count shows more fish species in rivers and lakes than oceans - but global populations are in freefall, with 16 species declared extinct in 2020 alone.
  • WWF calls on UK Government to back Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity as part of new global nature targets.

WWF has today [23 February 2021] warned that the UK is “no exception” when it comes to the loss of freshwater fish species, as a new report exposes the dire outlook for populations across the world.

According to World’s Forgotten Fishes, a report from 16 global conservation organisations, nearly one in three species is now threatened with extinction and global freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in oceans or forests:

  • Populations of migratory freshwater fish have fallen by 76 per cent since 1970;
  • Mega-fish (fish weighing more than 30kg) have declined by a catastrophic 94 per cent;
  • 80 species of freshwater fish have been declared ‘extinct’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including 16 in 2020.

In UK waters, burbot and sturgeon are already extinct, while salmon – the so-called King of Fish – has suffered significant declines since the 1960s, and the European eel remains critically endangered.

Much of that decline is driven by the poor state of freshwater habitats in parts of the UK, with just 14.6% of rivers in England achieving Good Ecological Status last year. This is mostly due to agricultural pollution such as nitrates and phosphorous, physical modifications to waterbodies, such as dams, and, sewage. Furthermore data released by the Environment Agency in 2020, showed no English rivers met ‘chemical standards’ for water quality.

The new World’s Forgotten Fishes report details the extraordinary variety of freshwater fish species, with the latest discoveries taking the total to 18,075 – accounting for over half of all the world’s fish species and a quarter of all vertebrate species on Earth.

Around the world, freshwater fisheries provide the main source of protein for 200 million people across Asia, Africa and South America, as well as jobs and livelihoods for 60 million people. Despite the importance of freshwater ecosystems, these habitats are facing a devastating combination of threats including habitat destruction, dams on free-flowing rivers, over abstraction of water for irrigation, and domestic, agricultural and industrial pollution.

This is on top of risks from overfishing and destructive fishing practices, the introduction of invasive non-native species and the impacts of climate change, as well as wildlife crime.

Dave Tickner, Chief Adviser on Freshwater at WWF, said:

“Freshwater habitats are some of the most vibrant on earth, but – as this report shows – they are in catastrophic decline around the world. Nature is in freefall and the UK is no exception: wildlife struggles to survive, let alone thrive, in our polluted waters.

“If we are to take this government’s environmental promises seriously, it must get its act together, clean up our rivers and restore our freshwater habitats to good health. That means proper enforcement of existing laws, strengthening protections in the Environment Bill to put UK nature on the path to recovery, and championing a strong set of global targets for recovery of nature, including rivers.”

WWF is calling all governments, including the UK’s, to back the implementation of a global Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity, as part of an ambitious agreement at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference later this year. This six-point plan would include reducing pollution, allowing rivers to flow more naturally, controlling invasive species, and ending overfishing and removing obsolete dams.

WWF is further urging the UK Government to strengthen protections in the Environment Bill, including ensuring the Office for Environmental Protection is truly independent.

ENDS

For further information, additional content or to arrange an interview, please contact:  

Lucinda Kay| Media Manager (News) at WWF

T: +44 (0) 1483 412 487 | M: +44 (0) 7932 345 284 | E: lkay@wwf.org.uk  

Out of hours contact

T: +44 (0) 7500 577620| press@wwf.org.uk

NOTES TO EDITORS

The full report is available here.

Assets available here.

  • World’s Forgotten Fishes was published by Alliance for Freshwater Life, Alliance for Inland Fisheries, Conservation International, Fisheries Conservation Foundation, Freshwaters Illustrated, Global Wildlife Conservation, InFish, IUCN, IUCN SSC FFSG, Mahseer Trust, Shoal, Synchronicity Earth, The Nature Conservancy, World Fish Migration Foundation, WWF and Zoological Society of London.
  • The report details the extraordinary variety of freshwater fish species, with the latest discoveries taking the total to 18,075 – accounting for over half of all the world’s fish species and a quarter of all vertebrate species on Earth.
  • Of the 10,336 (56%) freshwater fishes whose conservation status has been assessed by IUCN, 30% are considered at risk of extinction.
  • Freshwater fisheries provide the main source of protein for 200 million people across Asia, Africa and South America, as well as jobs and livelihoods for 60 million people.
  • Healthy freshwater fish stocks also sustain two huge global industries: recreational fishing generates over US$100 billion annually, while aquarium fishes are the world’s most popular pets and drive a global trade worth up to US$30 billion.
  • Freshwater fishes 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.
    • The Hilsa fishery in the Ganges upstream of Farakka crashed from a yield of 19 tonnes to just 1 tonne per year after the construction of the Farakka barrage in the 1970s;
    • Poaching for illegal caviar is a key reason why sturgeons are one of the world’s most threatened animal families, while Critically Endangered European eels are the most trafficked animal; and
    • Excessively high fishing quotas in Russia’s Amur river contributed to a catastrophic fall in the country’s largest salmon run with no chum salmon found in spawning grounds in summer 2019.
  • WWF is calling for an ambitious and implementable global biodiversity agreement at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in Kunming, China.

Emergency Recovery Plan for Freshwater Biodiversity

  • Published in BioScience, the plan calls for the world to take urgent steps to tackle the threats that have led to an 83% collapse in freshwater species populations and the loss of 30% of freshwater ecosystems since 1970 – ecosystems that provide us with water, food, livelihoods, and protection from floods, droughts and storms.
  • Developed by a global team of scientists, this is the first comprehensive plan to protect and restore freshwater habitats, which host far more species per square kilometre than land or oceans – and are losing this extraordinary biodiversity two or three times faster.
  • The six-point plan prioritises solutions that are rooted in cutting edge science and have already proved successful in certain locations. These are:
    • Allowing rivers to flow more naturally.
    • Reducing pollution.
    • Protecting critical wetland habitats.
    • Ending overfishing and unsustainable sand mining in rivers and lakes.
    • Controlling invasive species.
    • Safeguarding and restoring river connectivity through better planning of dams and other infrastructure.

About WWF

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Contact Information

Lucy Kay
Media Manager
WWF
Lkay@wwf.org.uk