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Freshwater fishes and other threatened but overlooked biodiversity must be new flagships for conservation (commentary)

  • Today there are believed to be at least 15,000 species of freshwater fishes. Only 54 percent of them have been assessed under the IUCN Red List, and one-third of these species are considered to be under threat of extinction. For the many species that remain unassessed, or for which there is too little information to make an assessment, the situation is likely to be as bad or worse.
  • While there is so much to do, there are only a handful of dedicated freshwater fish conservation organizations, and few have full-time staff. Trout and salmon have received large amounts of attention and, as a consequence, there are many stories of conservation success. There are fewer stories of success for species outside North America and northern Europe. And this is what we will change with Shoal.
  • The call by leading conservation agencies for a “new deal for nature” at the next Conference of the Parties of the Convention for Biological Diversity in 2020 needs to be firmly founded on neglected species, particularly freshwater biodiversity. Shoal will engage thousands of people and businesses across the globe who share a love of and stake in the future of freshwater species and healthy, productive wetlands but until now have had little opportunity to engage in the more mainstream conservation movement.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

“Why on earth would anyone give up working on tigers to focus on freshwater fish?” is the question I am asked most frequently since becoming the Executive Director of Shoal, a new initiative for freshwater biodiversity.

When I took up the role of leading WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative nine years ago, I may have thought the same. But after only five months getting Shoal ready for its launch on March 1, I discovered that freshwater species are loved as broadly and as passionately as tigers — though by a quite different set of people. Those freshwater nature supporters, however, have had little engagement in formal conservation, while freshwater species, under threat from a myriad of sources, have largely been overlooked and neglected by most conservation organizations. Many successful projects have been launched by anglers, water managers, fisheries, and aquarists, but few have been acknowledged by or merged within more mainstream conservation efforts.

Wetlands are in decline across the world and the species that are dependent on them are in crisis. More than 15,000 freshwater fish species have been described to science. Many more are added each year. Of the known freshwater fishes, approximately 54 percent have been assessed for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. One-third of these species are considered to be under threat of extinction. The situation is certainly a lot worse than even this scant assessment portrays — and that is only for fishes. When it comes to other freshwater species, such as shrimps or plants, a lot less is known.

Lake Matano, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo: ©Wim Giesen.

The diversity and specialism in freshwater fish is as incredible as in any other taxa. The smallest fish, found in the blackwater swamps of Borneo, is only a few millimeters long, while the Beluga sturgeon can reach more than seven meters. Threats to these species stem from the destruction of habitat, including the loss of free-flowing rivers, pollution (the plastics story is yet to be fully told for wetlands), and invasive species often introduced to increase fish production or discarded from the tanks of hobbyists.

While there is so much to do, there are only a handful of dedicated freshwater fish conservation organizations, and none of them has full-time staff. Trout and salmon have received large amounts of attention and, as a consequence, there are many stories of conservation success for these species. There are fewer stories of success for species outside of North America and Northern Europe. And this is what we hope to change with Shoal.

Freshwater fish are not the only neglected species. In fact, most conservation attention and funding is given to a very small number of flagship species. However, there is a growing movement pushing for the conservation of the thousands of remaining less-charismatic species. For example, two organizations, Synchronicity Earth and Global Wildlife Conservation, have committed to focus on lesser-known but highly threatened species. The movement is also beginning to get the attention of the general public.

Dawkinsia assimilis, a species of ray-finned fish endemic to the southern Western Ghats in India. Photo: ©Rolf Blitz.

While the flagship and umbrella benefits of the few charismatic species have great value in conservation, successful conservation can only be measured by the depth of impact we have on the many threatened species. It is these species that are the best indicators for the health of the diversity of habitats across the globe. The closer we can get these habitats to supporting a diversity of species, the more robust the planet will be and the more valuable they will be to human survival. Achieving this will require the conservation movement to take broader engagement to a new level. The call by leading conservation agencies for a “new deal for nature” at the Conference of the Parties of the Convention for Biological Diversity in 2020 needs to be firmly founded on these neglected species, particularly freshwater biodiversity.

For many years, we have recognized that we need to broaden the participation and engagement of wider groups of society in nature conservation. We have seen a great improvement in this regard: Businesses are supporting species conservation action, for instance, not only because of their corporate social responsibilities but often because their customers and employers demand it. Very often it is down to the passion and interests of visionary leaders in large corporations. We have seen growing engagement of people from both urban areas to those on the forefront of nature conservation in the remotest parts of the world. But there is still a very broad gap between conservation planning and action and the meaningful engagement and participation of those that ultimately will make the difference. Innovation in our approaches in nature conservation is needed to further focus as much as it can on closing that gap.

Shoal has been created to play its part in this next wave of conservation. Shoal aims to engage thousands of people and businesses across the globe, who share a love and stake in the future of freshwater species and intact wetlands but until now have had little opportunity to engage in the more mainstream conservation movement. If Shoal is successful, it may witness a shift in the way broader stakeholders are engaged in the successful protection and restoration of a very significant component of the life support systems for this planet.

Giant Carp. Photo: ©Zeb Hogan.

Mike Baltzer joined Shoal as its Executive Director on October 1, 2018. Shoal is a partnership of organizations, institutions and companies hosted by Synchronicity Earth. In January 2018, a group of experts and organizations began to draw up a plan for what is now Shoal. Shoal launched on March 1, 2019, at the Fishmonger’s Hall in London to coincide with World Wildlife Day on 3 March. For more information, visit www.shoalconservation.org.

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