23 February 2021
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One third of freshwater fish threatened with extinction, new report warns
- 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.