The State of Fish on World Water Day
Last month, many of the world’s eminent biologists, ecologists and economists gathered in the Vatican to assess the condition of the world’s species. The outlook was grim: 1 in 5 species on Earth faces extinction. And that rate will increase to 50% of all species by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken.
With all the pressing problems facing the world, why should we care? Moral imperatives aside, we should care because we depend on these disappearing animals and plants to provide us with food and medicine, to drive economic growth, and to reconnect us with our natural surroundings, among other things.
On this World Water Day, consider the importance of freshwater fishes alone. Of all the species facing extinction, the IUCN classifies freshwater fishes as the most threatened group of vertebrates on the planet. That’s a huge problem for feeding the world’s growing population, as fishing remains the largest extractive use of wildlife in the world.
Freshwater fisheries provide the largest source of protein and livelihood for millions of the world’s poorest people. In Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, freshwater fishes comprise 50% of animal protein consumed by humans, and 40% in Thailand and Vietnam.
In the United States, recent surveys show that more than 33 million people recreationally fish annually (in addition to commercial fishing operations). That’s 1 in every 7 U.S. residents 16 years old or older. More than 27 million of those people are freshwater anglers, making it the most popular form of wildlife-related recreation in the country.
Freshwater anglers injected more than $25 billion per year into the economy, solely on trip-related and equipment expenditures. And fishing is something that connects us all, crossing blue state/red state boundaries.
In addition to the economic, sustenance, and recreational importance of freshwater fishing, it also provides a lasting vestige of utilizing the resources of a global commons. No private entity owns native fish or can exclude the rest of us from enjoying them and demanding their protection. Instead, since Roman times, freshwater fish and their aquatic habitats have been managed as common resources that we collectively are obligated to care for in the name of the public trust. That model of public trust resource management is increasingly important as the world faces global challenges such as climate change and the growing imperative for cooperation in protecting our shared natural resources.
Today, freshwater fish around the world face serious threats, with habitat degradation presenting the most significant peril. In California alone, 90 of the state’s 122 native fish are in serious trouble, with 30 listed as threatened or endangered.
We can protect this important resource, but it will take a concerted effort to increase the amount of water flowing through depleted rivers and streams, remove antiquated dams and other obstacles, and restore core habitats. With a comprehensive approach that pairs investments in sustainable water supplies with improvements in freshwater ecosystems, we can revive freshwater fisheries and provide safe and sufficient water for urban and agricultural use. Now that’s a world water future worth celebrating.