Research Calls for Emergency Response Plan to Protect Freshwater Ecosystems

February 19, 2020

Presents Six Recommendations for Future Conservation Efforts

Arlington, Va. (February 18, 2020) – A new study published today in BioScience, presents a first-of-its-kind global framework designed to safeguard Earth’s freshwater ecosystems. Informed by science and successful conservation examples around the world, the paper provides a six-point plan to reverse the rapid decline in the world’s freshwater species and habitats – and safeguard Earth’s life support systems.

The paper is co-authored by Conservation International’s Freshwater Lead Robin Abell and Moore Center for Science Freshwater Specialist Ian Harrison. Additional co-authors include researchers from the World Wildlife Fund, International Union for Conservation of Nature, the U.S. Geological Survey and supporting universities.

Since 1970, 83% of freshwater species and 30% of freshwater ecosystems have been lost. Billions of people around the world depend on the health of rivers, lakes and tributaries for food, water and their economic wellbeing.

“It would be easy to interpret this work as a further message of freshwater doom but it is in fact the opposite,” said Harrison. “It is a forward-looking plan, with specific areas of action, for how to address the 21st century challenges that our freshwater ecosystems face. It presents an opportunity for us to change the trajectory of biodiversity decline in turn supporting the health of the planet and the livelihoods of people.”

“With competing demands for land and water use, we know that freshwater biodiversity conservation isn’t easy – if it were, we wouldn’t be facing such extreme imperilment of fish, invertebrates and other species,” said Abell. “We should embrace the opportunity that this ‘super year’ for biodiversity gives to shine a spotlight on the importance of freshwater systems, species and services they provide.”

The paper proposes six strategies to preserve freshwater biodiversity:

  1. Ensuring that rivers have the water that they need, when they need it to support native aquatic communities and simultaneously meet essential human needs.
  2. Improving water quality through a commitment to reducing pollutants at their source, optimizing the use of nature as a filter, and investing in sufficient wastewater treatment.
  3. Protecting and restoring critical habitats in ways that recognize the special dynamics of freshwater systems as well as their integration within larger landscapes.
  4. Managing exploitation of freshwater species as well as extraction of sand and gravel through improved regulation and enforcement.
  5. Preventing and controlling non-native, invasive species by taking proactive approaches.
  6. Safeguarding and restoring river connectivity by minimizing the impacts of new infrastructure and removing outdated barriers where possible.

Much of the decline of freshwater ecosystems is the result of direct human action. For example, sand dredging from rivers to supply sand for concrete is a rapidly increasing problem. “This sand extraction is destroying habitats essential to the well-being of myriad species, particularly fishes,” said Les Kaufman, associate scientist at Conservation International, “and the decline in fish stocks is literally taking food off the plates of folks in the local communities. These people rely heavily on fish as their major source of protein and for their livelihoods.”

But because the negative impacts on ecosystems are largely human driven, this means there is also great opportunity to make a difference. A global commitment to change fueled by ambition, science and technical feasibility can reverse current trends for the benefit of people and the planet.

2020 has been dubbed the “Super Year for Nature” with key opportunities to discuss conservation efforts at the global scale, including the IUCN World Conservation Congress this June in Marseilles, France and the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be held in Kunming, China, this October.

Additional quotes from the paper’s authors:

“Nowhere is the biodiversity crisis more acute than in the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands – with over a quarter of freshwater species now heading for extinction. The Emergency Recovery Plan can halt this decades-long decline and restore life to our dying freshwater ecosystems, which underpin all of our societies and economies.

“We have a last opportunity to create a world with rivers and lakes that once again teem with wildlife, and with wetlands that are healthy enough to sustain our communities and cities, but only if we stop treating them like sewers and wastelands. The next decade will be critical for freshwater biodiversity: countries must seize the chance to keep our life support systems running by ensuring freshwater conservation and restoration are central to a New Deal for Nature and People.” — Dave Tickner, WWF-UK Chief Freshwater Advisor and lead author on the paper.

“The causes of the global collapse in freshwater biodiversity are no secret, yet the world has consistently failed to act, turning a blind eye to the worsening crisis even though healthy freshwater ecosystems are central to our survival. The Emergency Recovery Plan provides an ambitious roadmap to safeguarding freshwater biodiversity – and all the benefits it provides to people across the world.” — Steven Cooke, co-author, and professor, Carleton University in Canada.

“All the solutions in the Emergency Recovery Plan have been tried and tested somewhere in the world: they are realistic, pragmatic and they work. We are calling on governments, investors, companies and communities to prioritize freshwater biodiversity – often neglected by the conservation and water management worlds. Now is the time to implement these solutions, before it is too late.” — James Dalton, Director Global Water Programmed, IUCN.

“This Emergency Recovery Plan highlights urgent issues in freshwater biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of vital freshwater resources. Inland fisheries, for example, represent an essential source of food and jobs to many people in some of the poorer parts of the world. Yet, at global policy levels, inland fisheries have not received the same degree of attention as marine fisheries. This Emergency Plan makes recommendations on how to bridge that gap.’’ — Abigail J. Lynch, Ph.D., U.S. Geological Survey.

“We must step up the implementation of environmental flows now, if by 2030 we want to be able to show that we are managing our freshwaters sustainably for the shared benefit of our planet and its people.” — Dr. Rebecca Tharme, independent aquatic ecologist, Riverfutures, and member of the IUCN Survival Commission’s Freshwater Conservation Committee.

About Conservation International

Conservation International uses science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature that people rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, Conservation International works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Learn more about Conservation International, the groundbreaking “Nature Is Speaking” campaign and its series of virtual reality projects: “Drop in the Ocean”, “My Africa,” “Under the Canopy” and “Valen’s Reef.” Follow Conservation International’s work on our Human Nature blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.