Freshwater Conservation: An interview with Dr William Darwall

Image © Will Darwall

By |2022-08-15T15:17:24+00:00July 12th, 2018|Conservation, Fish, Freshwater, Hydropower, Interviews, Species|Comments Off on Freshwater Conservation: An interview with Dr William Darwall

Dr William Darwall is Head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Biodiversity Assessment and Knowledge Team (BAKT) – Freshwater Unit at the IUCN Global Species Programme, based in Cambridge. The goal of the IUCN BAKT – Freshwater Unit is to provide information on species and sites of importance to freshwater biodiversity to inform conservation development, policy and planning. A major part of this work is getting better coverage of freshwater species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Synchronicity Earth has been supporting the IUCN BAKT – Freshwater Unit since 2013. In this interview, we spoke to Will about the challenges facing freshwater conservationists and about his own experiences in the field.

Q: How and why did you initially become involved in freshwater conservation?

I actually started off in marine conservation. But, from a very young age I’ve always been interested in freshwater species through the aquarium hobby. I used to keep fish tanks in particular for the very entertaining African cichlids. But probably the very first inspiration for me was when my sister won a goldfish, called Bert, at the funfair!

I’ve always been interested in the aquatic side of things. I worked on guppy behaviour for my PhD, but it wasn’t until an opportunity came up to do some work on Lake Tanganyika that I started getting more involved in freshwater conservation. I spent about 6 months there helping to develop an underwater survey programme for species in the lake. I’ve always been interested in these African cichlids, so Lake Tanganyika was an amazing place to spend time. I brought some of the survey methods from marine conservation, and we trained scientists from all four countries which border the lake: first to swim, then to dive and then to do the underwater survey. After that, I got a job on Lake Malawi for a few years, so by then I was already mainly freshwater focused and thoroughly hooked!

Q: Why should people care about freshwater environments and species?

For me, there are three main reasons to care. Firstly, a reason which I think Synchronicity Earth shares with me: we need to care about all species on this planet, not just those that are ‘cute’ and ‘cuddly’.

As a background to that, as far back as 1982, a number of countries signed up to the UN World Charter for Nature, which stated that we should protect all species, regardless of their apparent worth to people – sadly this viewpoint seems to have disappeared in more recent times.

Freshwater species are not insignificant – around a quarter of the world’s vertebrates live in freshwater, and about half the world’s fish!

Most people think that there are far more marine fish, but in fact almost half of the world’s fish live in freshwater ecosystems. We need to look after them all.

Secondly, if people took the time to really look closely at what species we have in freshwater ecosystems, they would see that there are some amazing creatures in there. But freshwater species get very little attention, they aren’t in the public eye like other terrestrial and marine species. In some ways, this is a ‘PR’ issue – communicating the wonder and value of these species is just not working very well, so addressing this is very high on the agenda of things we need to do. A great start would be to have a top-level documentary series focusing on freshwater ecosystems.

Yacare caiman (Caiman yacare), Pantanal, Brazil. Photo: Michel Roggo

The third reason is more pragmatic. Freshwater ecosystems provide us with many benefits, commonly referred to as ‘ecosystem services’. The current focus for government is on provision of these services, and particularly since the financial crisis, is on investing in conservation which has a notable benefit to people. Looking at freshwater, it is not hard to see where these benefits lie. The services provided by functioning freshwater ecosystems are of incredibly high value – one global estimate put their value at around USD 4 trillion a year! From a human perspective, freshwater ecosystems provide us with so much, for example:

  • Clean, accessible drinking water: functioning wetlands are very important for water purification and water retention. During dry seasons, if you’ve got wetlands upstream, they retain and slowly release water so that you have a constant supply of water throughout the year. These upper wetlands are sometimes called ‘the world’s water towers’.
  • Food: inland fisheries are far more significant than people appreciate. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) fully admit that their estimates of production from inland fisheries are hugely underestimated – the information simply isn’t being recorded as it is at an artisanal scale. On balance there is likely to be a lot more unreported artisanal fishing than large scale commercial fishing in inland waters. And it’s not just fish that are targeted, it’s shrimps, prawns, crabs and even molluscs: there is a huge industry based on these species in many parts of the world.
  • Carbon storage: freshwater ecosystems play a vital role in sequestering carbon. There’s some really good work being done by Wetlands International and others highlighting the value of peatlands which constitute around 50% of the world’s wetlands. The services they provide are huge and not fully realised, certainly within current policy.
  • Recreational benefits and human wellbeing: the world’s lakes and rivers also provide excellent recreational opportunities and provide people with a great sense of well-being. Personally I feel great whenever I’m near water, it takes you away from the everyday worries of the world.

Spreading our biodiversity bets

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