World’s forgotten fishes vital for hundreds of millions of people but one-third face extinction, warns new report.

The report was published by Alliance for Freshwater Life, Alliance for Inland Fisheries, Conservation International, Fisheries Conservation Foundation, Freshwaters Illustrated, Global Wildlife, Conservation, InFish, IUCN, IUCN SSC FFSG, Mahseer Trust, Shoal, Synchronicity Earth, The Nature Conservancy, World Fish Migration Foundation, WWF and Zoological Society of London.

World’s forgotten fishes vital for hundreds of millions of people but one-third face extinction, warns new report:

  • Freshwater fisheries provide food for 200 million people and livelihoods for 60 million
  • Fisheries valued at over US$38 billion, while recreational fishing generates US$100 billion
  • Freshwater fishes make up 51% of all fish species and ¼ of all vertebrate species on Earth

The world’s dazzlingly diverse freshwater fishes are critical for the health, food security and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, but they are under ever increasing threat with one in three already threatened with extinction, according to a report published today by 16 global conservation organizations.

World’s Forgotten Fishes details the extraordinary variety of freshwater fish species, with the latest discoveries taking the total to 18,075 – accounting for over half of all the world’s fish species and a quarter of all vertebrate species on Earth. This wealth of species is essential to the health of the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands – and supports societies and economies across the globe.

Freshwater fisheries provide the main source of protein for 200 million people across Asia, Africa and South America, as well as jobs and livelihoods for 60 million people. Healthy freshwater fish stocks also sustain two huge global industries: recreational fishing generates over US$100 billion annually, while aquarium fishes are the world’s most popular pets and drive a global trade worth up to US$30 billion.

But freshwater fishes continue to be undervalued and overlooked – and thousands of species are now heading towards extinction. Freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in our oceans or forests. Indeed, 80 species of freshwater fish have already been declared ‘Extinct’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including 16 in 2020 alone. Meanwhile, populations of migratory freshwater fish have fallen by 76 per cent since 1970 and mega-fish by a catastrophic 94 percent.

“Nowhere is the world’s nature crisis more acute than in our rivers, lakes and wetlands, and the clearest indicator of the damage we are doing is the rapid decline in freshwater fish populations. They are the aquatic version of the canary in the coalmine, and we must heed the warning,” said Stuart Orr, WWF global Freshwater Lead. “Despite their importance to local communities and indigenous people across the globe, freshwater fish are invariably forgotten and not factored into

development decisions about hydropower dams or water use or building on floodplains.
Freshwater fish matter to the health of people and the freshwater ecosystems that all people and all life on land depend on. It’s time we remembered that.”

The report highlights the devastating combination of threats facing freshwater ecosystems – and the fishes that live in them – including habitat destruction, hydropower dams on free flowing rivers, over abstraction of water for irrigation, and domestic, agricultural and industrial pollution. In addition, freshwater fishes are also at risk from overfishing and destructive fishing practices, the introduction of invasive non-native species and the impacts of climate change as well as unsustainable sand mining and wildlife crime. For example:

  • The hilsa fishery in the Ganges upstream of Farakka crashed from a yield of 19 tonnes to
    just 1 tonne per year after the construction of the Farakka barrage in the 1970s;
  • Poaching for illegal caviar is a key reason why sturgeons are one of the world’s most
    threatened animal families, while Critically Endangered European eels are the most
    trafficked animal; and
  • Excessively high fishing quotas in Russia’s Amur river contributed to a catastrophic fall in
    the country’s largest salmon run with no chum salmon found in spawning grounds in summer 2019.

There is a long list of threats, but there are also solutions – and 2021 offers real hope that the world can turn the tide and start to reverse decades of decline in freshwater fish populations. The world must seize the opportunity to secure an ambitious and implementable global biodiversity agreement at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in Kunming, China – one that must, for the first time, pay just as much attention to protecting and restoring our freshwater life support systems as the world’s forests and oceans.

“While the situation of migratory fish is dire, there is hope. Our freshwater ecosystems have an
astonishing ability to recover. Through a New Deal for the world’s freshwater ecosystems, we can remove barriers such as obsolete dams, promote sustainable fishing practices, restore ecosystems, and safeguard the food, jobs and cultures of millions of people.  We have the potential to see rivers full of fish once again,” said Herman Wanningen, Director of World Fish Migration Foundation.

“What we need now is to recognize the value of freshwater fish and fisheries, and for governments to commit to new targets and solutions implementation, as well as prioritizing which freshwater ecosystems need protection and restoration. We also need to see partnerships and innovation through collective action involving governments, businesses, investors, civil society and communities,” said Orr.

Species of Freshwater Fish

There are 18,075 species of freshwater fish – more than in the world’s oceans. Freshwater fishes account for 51% of all fish species and ¼ of all vertebrate species on Earth.

Banded cichlid (Heros severus ) swimming through flooded palm trees, rainy season in a tributary of Rio Tapajos, Para, Brazil. There are around 2000 cichlid species in Africa and South America, including an extraordinary 1,600 in Africa’s Great Lakes alone © Michel Roggo / WWF

Beluga sturgeon – Sturgeon are the world’s most endangered family of freshwater fish. Like many of the other sturgeon species, the Beluga sturgeon is critically endangered. In the past, sturgeon could grow to mammoth sizes – as big as a great white shark. The largest ever caught was 7.2m long in the Volga river. But it’s hard to find any beluga sturgeon today, let alone giants – due primarily to dams fragmenting their rivers, overfishing in the past, and poaching for the illegal wild caviar trade © Lubomir Hlasek / WWF.

River Chub nest, Tennessee, USA (c) Freshwaters Illustrated

River Chub nest, Tennessee, USA (c) Freshwaters Illustrated

Bull Trout in Oregon, USA © Freshwaters Illustrated

Buffalo fish, Tennessee, USA © Freshwaters Illustrated

Brooke Trout Maine, USA © Freshwaters Illustrated


Freshwater fisheries are critical to people across the world – providing food for 200 million and livelihoods for 60 million. Vitally important for many vulnerable communities and indigenous people across Africa, Asia and Latin America – particularly in landlocked countries.

Baka villager with freshwater fish, central Africa
Showing a basket of fish from a nearby stream. 200 million people across the world rely on wild freshwater fish for critical protein and nutrients. © Daniël Nelson

Chinese fisherwoman
China produces the largest amount of wild freshwater fish catch each year. Fisherwoman is fishing on Lake Hong, Hubei Province, China © Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

Boy in Colombia with fishing basket
Freshwater fish are critical to the food security of 200 million people across the globe, including local communities and indigenous people. © Camilo Díaz / WWF Colombia

Woman selling fish at Luangwa bridge market, Zambia
The river was threatened by a hydropower dam, which would have impacted the free flowing river’s fish and nature as well as communities that depend on it. Campaign led to the Zambian government scrapping the plan. © James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US


Fisherman holding a piranha
Fisher from the San Luis-La Rompida community, in the Inírida Fluvial Star Ramsar site in Colombia holds in his hands a piranha (Pygocentrus caribba). Expanding protection of freshwater ecosystems is part of the solution to reversing the loss in freshwater biodiversity, including freshwater fishes. © Camilo Díaz / WWF Colombia

Fisher on river Luangwa Zambia
The river was threatened by a hydropower dam, which would have impacted the free flowing river’s fish and nature as well as communities that depend on it. Campaign led to the Zambian government abandoning the plan. © James Suter / Black Bean Productions / WWF-US

Fishermen on Lake Edward, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Fishermen on the lake within the Virunga National Park. Africa’s Great Lakes are the biggest fishery on the continent, producing over 1 million tonnes of freshwater fish per year © Brent Stirton / Reportage for Getty Images / WWF

Freshwater fish market in Myanmar
Fishmongers sell fish in an early morning fish market in Shwe Ku, Kachin State, Myanmar.
Myanmar produces the 4th largest amount of wild freshwater fish in Asia each year. 44% of Myanmar’s fish production is from freshwater fisheries, particularly from the basins of the free flowing Irrawaddy and Salween rivers. © Hkun Lat / WWF-Myanmar

Smoking Salmon in Alaska, USA
Kim Williams checks strips of salmon hanging in her backyard smokehouse. Bristol Bay, Alaska, USA. The salmon run in Bristol Bay is the largest in the USA and was threatened by a massive planned mine development, the Pebble mine. The mine was blocked in late 2020, partly because of the impact it would have had on the salmon fishery. © Paul Colangelo / WWF-US

Predators – Animals eating freshwater fish

Freshwater fishes are vital to the health of freshwater ecosystems – and the other species that live in them, particularly the wide array of predators.

Brown bear catching fish in Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park, Alaska, United States
Alaska © Loraine Muse

Great blue heron with a pile perch fish in Vancouver, Canada © Shane Kalyn

Great egret eating a Sculpin fish at Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary, USA © Alan Peterson

Kingfisher – Hungary © Wild Wonders of Europe / Laszlo Novak / WWF

Pet fish and recreational fishing

Freshwater fish underpin 2 huge global industries: Recreational fishing is valued at over US$100 billion per year, while the pet fish trade covers 125 countries and is valued at up to US$30 billion. Pet fish are also the most popular – or at least populous – pets.

Happy angler on the Amur river in Russia – Mats Höggren with freshly caught sharp-snouted lenok in Komsomolsk on the Amur river in Russia. © Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden

Fly fishing in Kulik Lake, Bristol Bay, Alaska, USA Sean Nelson, a student in the guide academy, fly fishing in Kulik Lake. Bristol Bay, Alaska. © Paul Colangelo / WWF-US

Tigerfish is one of the most prized fish for anglers in southern Africa
Fisherman holding a Tigerfish, Sabir River, South Africa. Tigerfish are renowned by anglers and are a key driver of recreational fishing tourism in many parts of southern Africa © Herman Wanningen

Threats to freshwater ecosystems and fishes

Populations of freshwater fishes are declining alarmingly. Populations of migratory freshwater fishes have declined by 76% on average since 1970, while populations of mega-fish (over 30kg) have crashed by 94% over the same period. No mystery about the cause – dams, over use of water, pollution, invasive non-native species, sand mining, wildlife crime, climate change…

Brown trout trying to leap over man-made barrier – fish are threatened not just by mega dams but also by the millions of smaller barriers that choke the world’s rivers and streams. Many of them are obsolete and could – indeed should – be removed. © Petteri Hautamaa / WWF Finland

BClimate change and increasing demand are drying out rivers in some areas. © WWF / Simon Rawles

Hydropower dam – Fragmenting rivers with dams, including hydropower dams, is one of the greatest threats to the health of rivers and to the future of freshwater fish. Dams block migratory routes and interrupt the natural flow of water, nutrients and sediment which fish rely upon. The Iznajar hydropower dam in Spain © Global Warming Images / WWF

Hydropower dam in Brazil – Manso river dam in Mato Grosso, Brazil impacts the health of the Pantanal, world’s largest tropical wetland, and freshwater fish species that rely on the area’s natural flows and flood pulses. © Jaime Rojo / WWF-US

Irrigation in Brazil. Agriculture uses 70% of extracted water worldwide. Over-abstraction is a threat to freshwater ecosystems and freshwater fish
© David Bebber / WWF-UK

Unsustainable sand mining occurs in many rivers, wrecking habitats and threatening fish populations. © Justin Jin / WWF-US

For more information:

Richard Lee, WWF Freshwater Communications, +31 654 287956,

Nicole Friedman, WFMF Communications Officer, +1 415 272 1985,

The full report can be downloaded here

About WWF

WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organizations,

with over 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.

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