It’s Our Planet too — emergency action plan for the world’s freshwater species

By Dave Tickner, Chief Freshwater Advisor, WWF-UK & Dean Muruven, Global Policy Manager, WWF Freshwater Practice

Banded cichlid swimming through flooded palm trees in Brazil © Michel Roggo / WWF

For conservationists, 2019 has been a mixed bag.

The world’s leaders recently failed to reach a binding deal to tackle plastics pollution at the UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi. Planned hydropower dams continue to cast their shadow over many of the world’s remaining healthy, free-flowing rivers. And new research has pointed to the true scale of declines in the Earth’s insect populations.

But we have also witnessed 16-year-old Greta Thunberg inspiring millions of children around the world to demand action to limit climate change. Maybe, just maybe, the future will be brighter?

Even as Greta’s generation gave us all hope, older and greyer environmentalists were heartened by a surprising discovery — sonar beeps in New York’s Hudson River revealed an Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchusto give it its formal name) estimated at over 4 metres from nose to tail. Even decades ago, such a large sturgeon was considered a rarity. That such a mega-fish could survive in the Hudson nowadays is astonishing.

Fans of aquatic wildlife have had other reasons to cheer recently. Otters have returned to almost every English county. Beavers have come back to Italy after a 500-year absence. The world’s biggest dam removal project — on the Elwha River in the US — has seen salmon revisiting spawning grounds that had been off limits for almost a century.

When we give Mother Nature a chance, she can bounce back. This is especially so in our rivers and wetlands.

European river otter, Norway © Wild Wonders of Europe / Widstrand / WWF

If you ever meet any freshwater biologists you will realize that they are among the most steadfast of all scientists. This is an essential quality in their job descriptions. Despite some notable successes, the scale of the global river and wetland conservation challenge is daunting.

Take sturgeon. The 26 species that make up this ancient family of fish are the single most endangered taxonomic group on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Sturgeon are symptomatic of a deeply worrying trend. It is estimated that fully one third of freshwater fish are at risk of extinction. WWF’s Living Planet Index — akin to a stock market index for wildlife — shows that numbers of animals are plummeting in rivers and wetlands more than twice as fast as in forests or the oceans.

In less than 50 years, we have seen a drop of 83% in global populations of freshwater vertebrates. Now, imagine the response of governments if the FTSE 100 or Dow Jones index had collapsed as rapidly…

Freshwater Living Planet Index © ZSL, WWF

Freshwater species are less publicly celebrated than their ocean or forest cousins. But they are no less wonderful or important. Sturgeon have been around since the Triassic period (a mere 200 million years or so). Amazon catfish migrate thousands of miles up and down the world’s greatest river. Aquatic caddis fly larvae build their own homes out of river bed sediment. The Mary River turtle sports a green mohawk and breathes through its genitals.

And thriving freshwater species are an indicator of healthy rivers and wetlands, which are crucial to anyone who drinks water or eats food. Which would be all of us.

So you would think that freshwater habitats and species would feature prominently in global environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sure enough, “inland waters” do get a mention or two in the Aichi targets (the biodiversity goals agreed by the world’s governments in 2010) and there is a target on freshwater ecosystems under SDG6, even if the main focus of that goal is the provision of “water for all”.

But compare this with the recent (and very welcome) clamour to safeguard the world’s oceans. The UN Secretary-General has appointed a Special Envoy for the Ocean and in 2017 the world’s governments came together for a dedicated Ocean Conference.

The recent announcement of a UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration explicitly promises action to address degradation of land and marine habitats. Despite the vertiginous decline in freshwater biodiversity, rivers are, at best, included only implicitly.

Zambia’s Luangwa River at sunset © James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US

For those concerned that freshwater biodiversity has not received its due, we now have a golden opportunity. In 2020, the CBD targets will be refreshed. Key inter-governmental meetings will review countries’ progress on the SDGs and the Paris climate agreement. It is an unprecedented opportunity to secure a New Deal for Nature and People — and this could be a new deal that includes a freshwater focus.

To this end, WWF brought together some of those older, greyer freshwater folk (along with a few who are more youthful in appearance) in London a few weeks ago to prepare an emergency action plan for the world’s rivers and wetlands. The meeting included some of the best experts from the international, academic and NGO communities. Collectively they boasted hundreds of scientific publications and decades of lobbying experience.

Over two days of candid conversation, we thrashed out an agreement on the key measures that governments and others need to take to halt and then reverse the breakdown of freshwater ecosystems.

We agreed on the urgent need for action to restore river flows and slash pollution levels. Limiting the number of new dams and removing obsolete ones will also be critical. We need real and rapid protection for the most important wetlands and new measures to stem the tide of invasive aquatic species. Rising threats such as rampant, and often illegal, sand mining or uncontrolled fishing must also be brought under control.

Beyond these direct measures, better approaches to economic planning and to food and energy security will be needed to ensure that the world lives within environmentally sustainable limits. Improved governance is required to underpin all these efforts. Canny communications about the benefits to be gained from healthy freshwater habitats will also be crucial.

Yellow-billed stork in Zambia © James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US

Our intention is to publish this plan as soon as possible in the form of a prominent academic paper. But obviously that will not be enough. We want to ensure that these measures are given explicit attention in the declarations that heads of state or ministers will sign. We need to bring the plan to the attention of the wider conservation community — many of whom are unfamiliar with the particular challenges of freshwater conservation — and to the policy makers who will shape the outcomes of the 2020 discussions.

The freshwater conservation community is more organised than ever and determined to grasp the moment in 2020 but we are going to need some help. So, to the millions of anglers that understand the value of rivers as a haven for fish, to all of those who have ever enjoyed peace and tranquillity along the banks of a stream or lake, and to bird watchers who enjoy getting their feet muddy in a wetland, you need to lend your voice to protect what you value and love.

And if you happen to need a reminder of just how beautiful our freshwater habitats are, then be sure to watch Our Planet on Netflix. It provides a stark reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not change the way we think about nature.

Our Planet includes an episode dedicated to freshwater habitats & species © Netflix

Greta Thunberg and the millions of youngsters who marched with her stand to inherit a world in which fabulous habitats — especially rivers and wetlands — are rendered almost lifeless. They have shown powerfully that they want something different. The world needs to take action now to make sure this happens. We need a New Deal for Nature and People. It needs to include measures to restore freshwater biodiversity.

Your authors have only ever known a world in which there has been less and less wildlife.

We have both become dads in recent years. We want our children to experience a world that is cleaner, safer and full of life. We intend that, for our kids, the presence of mega-fish like sturgeon in rivers like the Hudson will not be a newsworthy event. It will simply be normal.

Sturgeon in Great Lakes, North America © Eric Engbretson Underwater Photography / WWF-Canada