SOURCE: Science Daily

DATE: August 8, 2019

SNIP: Rivers and lakes cover just about one percent of Earth’s surface, but are home to one third of all vertebrate species worldwide. At the same time, freshwater life is highly threatened. Scientists from the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) and international colleagues have now quantified the global decline of big freshwater animals: From 1970 to 2012, global populations of freshwater megafauna declined by 88 percent – twice the loss of vertebrate populations on land or in the ocean. Large fish species are particularly affected. And yet there remain large gaps in monitoring and conservation actions for freshwater megafauna, particularly in areas with high levels of biodiversity.

The results are alarming and confirm the fears of scientists involved in studying and protecting freshwater biodiversity,” says Sonja Jähnig, senior author of the study and expert for global change effects on river ecosystems at IGB. From 1970 to 2012, global populations of freshwater megafauna declined by 88 percent, most notably in the Indomalaya (by 99 percent) and Palearctic (by 97 percent) realms – the former covering South and Southeast Asia and southern China, and the latter covering Europe, North Africa and most of Asia. Large fish species such as sturgeons, salmonids and giant catfishes are particularly threatened: with a 94 percent decline, followed by reptiles with 72 percent.

Overexploitation is the primary threat to freshwater megafauna as they are often targeted for meat, skin and eggs. “Furthermore, the decline of large fish species is also attributed to the loss of free-flowing rivers as access to spawning and feeding grounds are often blocked by dams. Although the world’s large rivers have already been highly fragmented, another 3700 large dams are planned or under construction — this will exacerbate the river fragmentation even further. More than 800 of these planned dams are located in diversity hotspots of freshwater megafauna, including Amazon, Congo, Mekong and Ganges river basins,” says Fengzhi He, first author of the study and expert for diversity patterns and conservation of freshwater megafauna at IGB.