back button BACK TO PRESS

World’s Forgotten Fishes Vital for Hundreds of Millions of People But One-third Face Extinction, Warns New Report

World’s Forgotten Fishes Vital for Hundreds of Millions of People But One-third Face Extinction, Warns New Report

For immediate release, March 23, 2021

Bull Trout in Oregon, USA © Freshwaters Illustrated
Scroll to the top

For immediate release
February 23, 2021
Download photos
Download report

The world’s dazzlingly diverse freshwater fishes are critical for the health, food security and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, but they are under ever increasing threat with one in three already threatened with extinction, according to a report published today by 16 global conservation organizations, including Re:wild (formerly Global Wildlife Conservation) and Shoal.

World’s Forgotten Fishes details the extraordinary variety of freshwater fish species, with the latest discoveries taking the total to 18,075 – accounting for over half of all the world’s fish species and a quarter of all vertebrate species on Earth. This wealth of species is essential to the health of the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands – and supports societies and economies across the globe.

Freshwater fisheries provide a main food source for 200 million people across Asia, Africa and South America, as well as jobs and livelihoods for 60 million people. Healthy freshwater fish stocks also sustain two huge global industries: recreational fishing generates over US$100 billion annually, while aquarium fishes are the world’s most popular pets and drive a global trade worth up to US$30 billion.

But freshwater fishes continue to be undervalued and overlooked – and thousands of species are now heading toward extinction. Freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in our oceans or forests. Indeed, 80 species of freshwater fish have already been declared extinct by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including 16 in 2020 alone. Meanwhile, populations of migratory freshwater fish have fallen by 76 percent since 1970 and mega-fish by a catastrophic 94 percent.

“The loss of biodiversity impoverishes our planet and ourselves, and nowhere is this loss more acute than in freshwater ecosystems,” said Harmony Patricio, freshwater fish conservation program manager for Re:wild and Shoal. “In addition to the decline of ecosystem services, we are also losing the spiritual and cultural values that many freshwater species represent. It’s high time that freshwater biodiversity gets the recognition it deserves, and that conservation actions are prioritized and implemented at the scale necessary to meet the challenge.”

The report highlights the devastating combination of threats facing freshwater ecosystems—and the fishes that live in them—including habitat destruction, hydropower dams on free-flowing rivers, over abstraction of water for irrigation, and domestic, agricultural and industrial pollution. In addition, freshwater fishes are also at risk from overfishing and destructive fishing practices, the introduction of invasive non-native species and the impacts of climate change as well as unsustainable sand mining and wildlife crime. For example:

  • The hilsa fishery in the Ganges upstream of Farakka crashed from a yield of 19 tons to just 1 ton per year after the construction of the Farakka barrage in the 1970s;

  • Poaching for illegal caviar is a key reason why sturgeons are one of the world’s most threatened animal families, while critically endangered European eels are the most trafficked animal; and

  • Excessively high fishing quotas in Russia’s Amur river contributed to a catastrophic fall in the country’s largest salmon run with no chum salmon found in spawning grounds in summer 2019.

“Freshwater fish represent over half of all fish species, yet they live in only one percent of the planet’s surface,” said Barney Long, Re:wild senior director of species conservation. “Freshwaters are teeming with biodiversity, which supports ecosystem functions that we all rely on, but 83% of studied freshwater species populations have declined since 1970.”

There is a long list of threats, but there are also solutions—and 2021 offers real hope that the world can turn the tide and start to reverse decades of decline in freshwater fish populations. The world must seize the opportunity to secure an ambitious and implementable global biodiversity agreement at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in Kunming, China—one that must, for the first time, pay just as much attention to protecting and restoring our freshwater life support systems as the world’s forests and oceans.

“The good news is that we know what needs to be done to safeguard freshwater fishes,” said Stuart Orr, WWF global freshwater lead. “Securing a New Deal for the world’s freshwater ecosystems will bring life back to our dying rivers, lakes and wetlands. It will bring freshwater fish species back from the brink too—securing food and jobs for hundreds of millions, safeguarding cultural icons, boosting biodiversity and enhancing the health of the freshwater ecosystems that underpin our well-being and prosperity.”

Specifically, this New Deal for Nature and People must build on the freshwater transition outlined in the CBD’s 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook, which echoes the six pillars of the WWF-led Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity—a comprehensive plan that can deliver solutions at the scale necessary to reverse the collapse in freshwater fish populations.

The World’s Forgotten Fishes report was published by Alliance for Freshwater Life, Alliance for Inland Fisheries, Conservation International, Fisheries Conservation Foundation, Freshwaters Illustrated, InFish, IUCN, IUCN SSC FFSG, Mahseer Trust, Re:wild, Shoal, Synchronicity Earth, The Nature Conservancy, World Fish Migration Foundation, WWF and Zoological Society of London.

Shoal is hosted by Re:wild and Synchronicity Earth and represents a worldwide collaborative effort to accelerate action for freshwater species conservation. Shoal does this by creating a powerful shoal built on partnerships between freshwater scientists, communities, businesses, organizations, and individuals who are passionate about protecting freshwater ecosystems. This network of experts enables Shoal to assess priorities and direct critical funding to the most impactful projects that address the most urgent threats to the 30% of freshwater species that are threatened with extinction.

# # #

Photo: Bull Trout in Oregon, USA © Freshwaters Illustrated
Download photos
Download report

Re:wild is on a mission to protect and restore the wild. We have a singular and powerful focus: the wild as the most effective solution to the interconnected climate, biodiversity and pandemic crises. Founded by Leonardo DiCaprio alongside a group of renowned conservation scientists, Re:wild is a force multiplier that brings together Indigenous peoples, local communities, influential leaders, nongovernmental organizations, governments, corporations and the public to protect and rewild at the scale and speed we need. Re:wild launched in 2021 based on more than three decades of combined conservation impact of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Global Wildlife Conservation, leveraging expertise, partnerships and platforms under one unified brand, bringing new attention, energy and voices together. Our vital work has protected and conserved over 12 million acres benefitting more than 16,000 species in the world’s most irreplaceable places for biodiversity. We don’t need to reinvent the planet. We just need to rewild it—for all wildkind. Learn more at

WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with over 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.

Lindsay Renick Mayer
Global Wildlife Conservation

Richard Lee
WWF Freshwater Communications
+31 654 287956

Scroll to the top

Related News and Other Stories

What happens to wildlife during an eclipse?

By on April 03, 2024

What happens to wildlife during an eclipse?

Listening and looking for a ghostly messenger

By Katie Doke Sawatzky on March 25, 2024

Listening and looking for a ghostly messenger