World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

underwater photo of a Siberian Sturgeon

Don’t Forget the Fishes

  • Date: 15 February 2024
  • Author: Madalen Howard, WWF

Freshwater fish, often overlooked in conservation initiatives, are essential components of aquatic ecosystems. Despite their vital roles in maintaining biodiversity and supporting human livelihoods, they remain marginalized in the realm of conservation. This oversight is evident in the lack of representation of freshwater migratory species in protective measures.

Currently underway in Uzbekistan, the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP14) of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) brings together nations, conservation organizations, and experts to address the pressing issues facing migratory species worldwide. One of the most significant highlights of this conference is the release of the inaugural authoritative report on the Status of the World’s Migratory Species, which paints a stark picture of the challenges migratory animals are facing.

Regrettably, its key findings are sobering:

  • 44% of CMS-listed species experiencing population declines
  • 22% facing extinction
  • 97% of CMS-listed fish under threat
  • 51% of Key Biodiversity Areas are crucial for migratory animals lacking protected status

The report emphasizes the urgent need to safeguard critical habitats, particularly wetlands essential for fish migrations, and acknowledges that freshwater fishes are underrepresented on the CMS list. Of over 1100 CMS-listed species, fewer than 30 are freshwater migratory fish.

Out-of-sight and out-of-mind, the world’s migratory freshwater fishes are in freefall. From sturgeon and eels in Europe to the diverse species making up one of the most massive migrations of them all in the Mekong, numbers of these extraordinary fishes are plummeting. This is due to a variety of threats, including hydropower dams, habitat loss, pollution and climate change.

"This alarming CMS report is another urgent wake up call. Decision makers must start valuing migratory freshwater fishes—and taking steps to safeguard them—not only because they are critical to the food security and livelihoods of millions of people but because they are also essential to the health of their rivers and surrounding ecosystems,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead in reaction to the Status of the World’s Migratory Species report.

Michele Thieme, deputy goal lead of the Freshwater Team at WWF-US, and colleagues prepared a briefing for CMS COP14 requesting protection consideration for 87 freshwater fish species encompassing a wide variety from the Siberian Sturgeon to the American Eel. At this year’s meeting, experts will deliberate on the protection of two, including the dourada, a catfish that undergoes the longest freshwater fish migration in the world. “Hopefully, that’s the beginning of a new era for recognition and inclusion,” Thieme said.

For migratory freshwater fishes, WWF is calling for decision makers to accelerate national and international efforts to tackle the main threats, including destructive hydropower dams, harmful infrastructure, overfishing and accidental bycatch, pollution, unsustainable sand mining, conversion of wetlands, and climate change.

Among other solutions, WWF is urging decision makers to:

  • Approve Appendix II protected status for two South American migratory catfish.
  • Avoid river fragmentation by investing in LowCx3 (low carbon, low cost & low conflict with communities and nature) renewables, such as solar or wind rather than high impact hydropower—and by considering the energy needs of a region at a system scale & planning to avoid negative impacts.
  • Avoid river fragmentation by promoting alternative forms of water storage.
  • Utilize more sustainable barrier designs and operate dams for e-flows.
  • Remove obsolete dams, weirs and other barriers to restore connectivity, and implement river protections that safeguard connectivity.
  • Restore wetlands and reconnect floodplains.

WWF also urges more countries to join the Freshwater Challenge, a country-led initiative aimed at restoring degraded rivers and wetlands, aligning with the 30x30 targets for inland waters in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF).

There is an opportunity at COP14 to start a new chapter for freshwater migratory fish. We need to ramp up national and international efforts. This involves addressing issues like destructive hydropower dams, overfishing, pollution, and climate change. Investing in LowCx3 renewables such as solar or wind energy can help reduce river fragmentation, along with promoting alternative water storage methods, and river protections which play a crucial role in maintaining connectivity for migratory fish.

As we strive to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity, it’s imperative that we recognize and address the unique challenges facing freshwater fish. Only by giving due attention to these often-neglected animals can we achieve comprehensive and effective conservation of migratory species worldwide.


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