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To celebrate the launch of WWF’s report ‘Forgotten Fishes’, we spoke with Mike Baltzer, Executive Director of Shoal.

Mike shared his thoughts on the threats facing freshwater fishes globally and in Southeast Asia, as well as some of the reasons he is hopeful for the future.

 

A report called Forgotten Fishes has just been released by WWF, which Shoal collaborated on. Can you briefly summarise the report?

The report is a call to action by many of the leading freshwater conservation organisations. It reveals the beauty and diversity of freshwater fishes, which have been overlooked by so many for so long, and demonstrates the vital importance of freshwater fishes as a food source for people, particularly the poorest and landlocked communities across the world. It also presents the importance of freshwater fishes as a source of recreation, such as angling or home aquaria, which in turn support a multi-billion-dollar global economy. It is a call to arms for decision-makers to take a deeper interest in freshwater fish, and to give urgent attention to the freshwater crisis.

How does this align with why Shoal exists, and what you are trying to do?

The report is almost a manifesto for Shoal. Shoal was created to fill an enormous gap in the global conservation effort that the neglect of freshwater species in particular fishes has created. We knew when we set up Shoal that there is a worsening crisis for freshwater species and there was almost no response to it. At the same time, there are large communities of people and businesses that are connected to freshwater fishes but disconnected to the need for urgent conservation action. The first priority for Shoal is to raise awareness of this crisis, inspire people to action when they understand the incredible world of wonder held under the surface and out of sight, and mobilise action to support the communities that are so reliant on fishes for their survival and livelihoods.

Parosphromenus phoenicurus © Wentian Shi

We often talk about the need for the freshwater world to have that “Jacques Cousteau” moment. He took us under the surface of the sea and brought the astonishing beauty of the coral reefs into people’s homes for the first time, inspiring a whole new raft of global interest in marine conservation. This report is hopefully the first step along a comparable trajectory for freshwater fishes.

Freshwater fishes now make up more than 30% of all ASAP species, and recently 16 species in Southeast Asia were moved into the Extinct category of the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. However, most do not appear to be receiving targeted conservation attention. Why do you think that is?

This is not something peculiar to Southeast Asia unfortunately. It is a problem all over the world. It seems to be a vicious circle of neglect. On the one hand, freshwater fishes have been seen simply as a resource to be exploited and so has not drawn the attention of conservation as other biodiversity has, and on the other, fishes are not so easily seen and studied as say birds are and so they have been neglected. The more neglected they are, the less funds available for supporting research and action. The less research they receive, the more they are neglected and so they simply have fallen into a point of crisis and now so many species face a bleak future.

In Southeast Asia, wetlands have been hardest hit by the rapid development of the region, particularly large-scale agriculture and pollution from industrialisation and urbanisation. Without the attention and support, there are very few conservation organisations in the region, or even globally, that can respond to this crisis.

This is where programmes like ASAP and Shoal come in. Now that the issue has been highlighted and the spotlight is focused on fishes in the region, we need to rapidly step up the resources and build the capacity to tackle the crisis, on a species-by-species basis if needs be.

The ASAP team, experts from Mandai Nature and from Shoal are now coordinating the development of an action plan for the ASAP species. This is to facilitate targeted and efficient action for the species. Some fall in the same geographical areas, some are found in the same habitat such as the peat swamp fishes, some share similar threats to their survival like those threatened by invasive species. Most of the species need more data and research as many of them have never been studied and are only known from single collections. One the greatest challenges will be to find solutions for the large migratory fish that are found in the Mekong river basin. In general, there is a lot of work to be done, so the first task after we complete the plan is to find the funds for the work and the teams to lead the action.

What are the biggest threats to freshwater fishes in Southeast Asia?

The primary cause of concern is that the loss and degradation of habitat is driven by clearance of wetlands for agricultural expansion, or through pollution originating from urbanisation and industrialisation. This is the same pattern we are seeing throughout the world. Another habitat-related threat is the growth in the number of dams in the region. This has been a disaster for many of the large migratory fish. This is why there are so many of the great Mekong giant fishes on the ASAP list.

Mekong Giant Catfish Pangasianodon gigas © Roland Wirth

Another very significant threat comes from invasive fishes that have been introduced to rivers and lakes either by accident or through deliberate attempts to increase the food productivity from inland fisheries. Over-exploitation of fish either as a valuable source of protein or to supply fish for the home aquaria trade has been a very direct cause of the decline in some specific species.

One of the greatest threats that also should be mentioned is negligence. In many cases, the threats I have listed could have been avoided if there had been more attention and care given to the fishes. There will be further extinctions if we continue to overlook them.

What changes would you like to see made in Southeast Asia to turn the tide on freshwater fishes?

There will be no change until we take stock of the situation, increase awareness and mobilise action. For the most threatened species, such as those on the ASAP list, we are already preparing a plan to direct immediate action. These species cannot wait for a change to a more sustainable, well planned development approach in the region, and many species simply need some direct attention. We hope we can provide this as soon as possible. Action however depends on having sufficient resources and capacity.

We are going to need an acceleration and growth of the number and capacity of institutions, organisations and governments that are focusing on these species and this crisis. And there will need to be the funds to it. Fortunately, many of the species only require small amounts of funding for the local communities or other local stewards to protect the habitat and recover local populations of threatened fishes. River basin-wide interventions are required for other species, however.

In the medium to longer term, we will need to tackle the larger drivers for the decline of fishes. This is what the report, Forgotten Fishes, lays out. It describes a six-point plan for recovery of freshwater biodiversity and takes a more systemic approach that the governments of Southeast are urged to adopt.  The region is particularly reliant on its inland fisheries resources and without a new consensus to focus on the six points described in the plan, the crisis will deepen further.

What have you seen that has made you optimistic for the future of freshwater fishes?

What we are seeing is an awakening of attention for freshwater fishes. This is exemplified by the fact that the support for Shoal is growing and so many new initiatives are beginning for freshwater, many of which have been involved with the creation of this report.

Also, it has been exciting to see the growth in engagement from local communities and the support given to them for their critical role in protecting the freshwater fishes that are vital to them in many different ways.

One thing that connects almost everyone on the planet is our connection to the streams, rivers and lakes where we live. Very few people live far from a wetland. We may have lost a connection to these vital freshwater systems and have not had the chance to understand the beauty and diversity of the life held in them, but as we understand more, it may trigger a renaissance for our care for them.

 

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