Swimming upstream: working to prevent the extinction of freshwater fishes

Image © Michel Roggo

By | 2018-02-19T15:24:27+00:00 February 8th, 2018|Ecosystems, Fish, Freshwater, Species|Comments Off on Swimming upstream: working to prevent the extinction of freshwater fishes

Synchronicity Earth has an affinity for overlooked and underfunded species: it is at the heart of what we do. Our Freshwater Programme embraces this – perhaps more than any other strand of our work.

Earth is a blue planet, and as well as its vast oceans, its rivers and lakes also harbour an extraordinary diversity of life. Whilst liquid freshwater covers just 0.8 per cent of Earth’s surface, it directly supports almost one third of vertebrate species.

Like the rainforests of the Amazon, it is a hotspot for life on Earth. For example, in Central and South America, 5,600 vertebrate species can be found in just 0.002 per cent of Earth’s liquid water (Albert et al., 2011). But unlike the charismatic species which inhabit many other threatened environments, freshwater species are often paid little attention, even within the field of nature conservation itself!

A funding deficit

Freshwater conservation receives just 3.2 per cent of grant funding from European environmental foundations (Cracknell et al., 2016).

Meanwhile Synchronicity Earth’s own analysis of more than $450 million of freshwater conservation funding (a small amount given the scale of the problem) showed that only 6.6 per cent went towards projects which specifically targeted the conservation of one or a subset of freshwater species. That begs a question – where does the rest go?

Well, on the occasions where foundations do focus on freshwater conservation, funding and the programmes supported tend to focus on improving watershed management and restoring wetland ecosystems. There is good reason for this focus: the human engineering of freshwater environments has radically altered these habitats. Major rivers such as the Yellow, the Nile and the Colorado already fail to reach their deltas during dry seasons (Strayer and Dudgeon, 2010), whilst wetland extent has declined by 64-71 per cent since the turn of the 20th century (Gardner et al., 2015).

However, whilst this work is critical to safeguarding the habitats that freshwater species will rely upon for their long-term survival, there is an urgency to the crisis in freshwater ecosystems which means that without targeted interventions many species will become extinct. Between 1970 and 2014 the Living Planet Index indicates (from a sample of 881 freshwater species) that 81 per cent of freshwater life on Earth was lost. 81 per cent!

Overlooked freshwater species

Amongst the most threatened groups of freshwater species are freshwater fish. Approximately one in three freshwater fish (32 per cent) have been assessed to be threatened with extinction, competing with amphibians for the unwanted title of the most at risk vertebrate group on the IUCN Red List, which acts as a barometer for the health of life on Earth. Currently 29 per cent of critically endangered species inhabit freshwater systems, and as new assessments continue to shed light on the gravity of the situation facing freshwater species it is becoming more and more evident that something has to change.

Piraputanga (Brycon hilarii) Aquário Natural, Rio Baía Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

Freshwater species often struggle to grab the limelight. However, as far as freshwater fish are concerned, there are whole industries dedicated to these remarkable species – angling, aquaria, fisheries, the ornamental trade – and it is no wonder. They are kaleidoscopic in colour; exhibit amazing adaptations; inhabit some of the most spectacular environments on Earth; are often of huge cultural and ecological significance; and finally, are of critical importance to global food security – particularly for many of the world’s poorest communities.

It is this paradox, between the appeal of freshwater fish and their critical conservation status, which is the inspiration for a new initiative.

Changing the nature of freshwater species conservation

On 9th and 10th January, Synchronicity Earth supported a meeting generously hosted by the Fishmongers’ Company at Fishmongers’ Hall in London bringing together experts on freshwater conservation and representatives from the zoo and aquaria community and the aquatics trade. Participant organisations included WWF, Global Wildlife Conservation, ZSL, the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, IUCN Species Survival Commission and IUCN’s Freshwater Biodiversity Unit. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss and develop a new concept for increasing conservation action for threatened freshwater fish. The initiative aims to build a partnership between organisations from across the non-profit and commercial sectors and to engage those with an interest in freshwater fish in their conservation.

After a successful first workshop, we are now working to form a scoping group with representation from the key stakeholders to understand exactly what sort of organisation we need to build, and how best to engage different communities in contributing towards a shared vision: preventing extinctions of freshwater fishes. Synchronicity Earth is excited to be working with its partners to turn this innovative concept into a much-needed reality!

Interested in finding out more about this initiative? Contact: merlin@synchronicityearth.org

Read our Insight about freshwater conservation: Synchronicity Earth Freshwater Insight

You can also find out more about freshwater conservation and Synchronicity Earth’s work on our freshwater page.