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Freshwater fish are in "catastrophic" decline with one-third facing extinction, report finds

Giant Chinese paddlefish declared extinct
Giant Chinese paddlefish declared extinct after surviving 150 million years 00:55

Thousands of fish species are facing "catastrophic" decline — threatening the health, food security and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world. New research shows that one-third of all freshwater fish now face extinction

According to a report published Tuesday by 16 global conservation groups, 18,075 species of freshwater fish inhabit our oceans, accounting for over half of the world's total fish species and a quarter of all vertebrates on Earth. This biodiversity is critical to maintaining not only the health of the planet, but the economic prosperity of communities worldwide. 

About 200 million people across Asia, Africa and South America rely on freshwater fishers for their main source of protein, researchers said in "The World's Forgotten Fishes" report. About one-third of those people also rely on them for their jobs and livelihoods. 

Despite their importance, freshwater fishes are "undervalued and overlooked," researchers said — and now freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in oceans and forests. 

Eighty freshwater species have already been declared extinct — 16 of them in 2020 alone. 

Thousands of dead freshwater fish are seen around Lake Koroneia, Greece, on September 19, 2019.  SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP via Getty Images

"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 coal mine, and we must heed the warning," said Stuart Orr of the World Wildlife Fund. "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."

Migratory species have dropped by more than three-quarters in the last 50 years, while populations of larger species, known as "megafish," have declined by a "catastrophic" 94%. 

Freshwater ecosystems face a devastating combination of threats — including habitat destruction, hydropower dams, over-abstraction of water for irrigation, various types of pollution, overfishing, the introduction of invasive species and ongoing climate change.  

Organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, Global Wildlife Conservation and The Nature Conservancy have now called for governments to implement an "Emergency Recovery Plan" to save freshwater biodiversity. They recommend protecting and restoring rivers, water quality and crucial habitats — undoing the damages caused by overfishing. 

"Freshwater fish matter to the health of people and the freshwater ecosystems that all people and all life on land depend on," Orr said. "It's time we remembered that."

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