Surfacing inland fisheries in our biodiversity crisis response

© Pete Oxford/iLCP

Today, as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Conference of the Parties, heads of State and ministers have discussed the need for an ambitious response to the biodiversity crisis. The resulting ‘Kunming Declaration,’ led by China, emphasizes ‘that biodiversity, and the ecosystem functions and services it provides, support all forms of life on Earth and underpin our human and planetary health and well-being, economic growth and sustainable development.’

Were the authors of that statement thinking of inland fisheries when they wrote it? Probably not, but the statement is a near-perfect distillation of why the CBD’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, to be finalized in 2022, should give due attention to inland fisheries and should explicitly recognize freshwater ecosystems (aka inland waters) supporting them.

Inland fisheries are a critical ecosystem service

Inland fisheries — or wild capture fisheries from inland waters — are critical to the livelihoods, wellbeing, and cultures of some of the most marginalized in society, especially Indigenous, landless and smallholder rural households for whom poverty and malnutrition are most prevalent. They provide the primary source of animal protein, plus essential nutrients like lysine and calcium, for at least 200 million people. Around 90% of inland fisheries are caught via small-scale operations and consumed locally. Within communities, the cost of disrupted inland fisheries is borne disproportionately by households for whom fish and other aquatic organisms constitute the dominant livelihood, given the paucity of other options. Put simply, inland fisheries are an essential ecosystem service for millions of people and contribute across the Sustainable Development Goals.

Not every ecosystem service can definitely be tied to biodiversity, but inland fisheries can. Evidence suggests that the number of freshwater fish species in some systems is linked to stable, high-yield fisheries. So, loss of fish biodiversity may have implications for fish catch. With the most productive riverine fisheries being found in systems with the highest fish diversity, the fates of inland fisheries and some of the world’s freshwater biodiversity hotspots are intertwined. Loss of freshwater biodiversity can have ecosystem repercussions that extend beyond the aquatic environment: the case of mammals and birds feeding on Pacific salmon spawning in headwater streams, as well as the enrichment of vegetation, soil, and insects with nutrients derived from the fish, illustrates the critical functions that freshwater species can play in ecosystems.

The virtuous circle of sustaining inland fisheries

Sustaining wild capture inland fisheries, then, requires conserving the populations of fish that serve as the source for those fisheries. While overexploitation is certainly a factor in declines of some fish populations, habitat loss and degradation are of equal or greater concern. So, fish species conservation means managing, protecting, and restoring healthy freshwater ecosystems, which often involves interventions on lands draining to those aquatic systems.

Having to encompass upstream, downstream, and even terrestrial activities makes freshwater conservation challenging. But, on the positive side, the ‘nature’ that benefits from freshwater biodiversity conservation — and, by extension, sustainable inland fisheries interventions — can go well beyond fish to include a wide range of aquatic and terrestrial species and ecosystems. Watershed management can also produce multiple co-benefits, from climate mitigation and adaptation, to human health and wellbeing, to water regulation and provision. And, some of these benefits can be monetized.

An example from Bangladesh illustrates these relationships among inland fisheries, biodiversity, ecosystem protection, and the generation of multiple benefits. Through participatory community planning, the Management of Aquatic Ecosystems through Community Husbandry (MACH) project mobilized communities into registered organizations empowered to conserve resources; undertook wetland restoration; established fish sanctuaries; implemented fishing norms and rules; addressed sedimentation from sloping lands, developed alternative livelihoods, and much more. Results not only included increased fish catch yields outside the sanctuaries, but also increased populations of threatened fish species, the return of wintering water birds at numbers an order of magnitude greater than before the project began, reduced erosion and runoff, and a host of governance improvements.

Surfacing inland fisheries and freshwater health

Unfortunately, despite the wealth of benefits derived from inland fisheries and from the healthy freshwater ecosystems and watersheds that support them, freshwater biodiversity and services have rarely been global conservation priorities. Our failure to address threats to freshwater systems and species is evidenced by the numbers: for instance, the Living Planet Index has found an 84% decline in populations of monitored freshwater species since 1970, and 64% of wetlands around the world have been lost since 1900.

And yet, freshwater conservation receives only a fraction of all conservation funding. An analysis by the European Foundation Centre found that freshwater systems receive only 3.2% of the environmental funding provided by European foundations. North American foundations do a bit better, with around 8% of their environmental funding going to freshwater work, although a Synchronicity Earth analysis showed that more than 84% of this funding remained in North America.

Over 570 experts have signed a letter urging UN Biodiversity Convention leadership and delegates to elevate inland waters biodiversity, ecosystems, and services in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. This amplification of freshwater conservation voices is also manifest in joint efforts to ‘bend the curve’ of freshwater biodiversity loss. In parallel, our Inland Fisheries Alliance — a consortium of conservation, development, and research organizations — is working to elevate and integrate inland fisheries in global agendas like the UN Convention on Biological Diversity as well as more development-focused dialogues like the UN Food Systems Summit (where inland fisheries were included in proposed ‘blue foods’ solutions).

The conservation and development sectors are increasingly looking to find common ground, especially around ecosystem services. Inland fisheries epitomize nature’s benefit to people and are an obvious focal point, especially in the nexus between water, food, and health. But, until now, neither the conservation nor development sector has afforded these ‘hidden harvests’ the attention they deserve. The conservation community has by and large relegated them to a development issue (or a threat to native biodiversity), while development decisions have largely been made absent of consideration of how agriculture, energy production, and built water infrastructure could affect inland fisheries and the people who depend on them.

With all indications pointing to the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework elevating and encompassing nature’s contributions to people, and with the biodiversity crisis beginning to get nearly equal billing as the climate crisis in terms of impacts to humanity, now is the time to shine a spotlight on the importance of inland fisheries and on an ecosystem approach to sustaining them, recognizing the interdependence between human wellbeing and ecosystem health and the need to maintain freshwater ecosystems now and in the future. The Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework provides a landmark opportunity to recognize inland fisheries and inland waters and formalize commitments to sustaining them.

Founded by conservation, research, and development organizations, the Alliance is guided by a vision shared among its diverse members.