A fisherman on Inle Lake, one of Myanmar's top picturesque tourist attractions. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
A fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar. Photo: iStock / Getty Images

Asia has a wealth of freshwater fishes. Thousands of species swim through our rivers, lakes and wetlands – and our cultures. Fishers across the continent haul in at least 8 million metric tons a year, providing critical food for tens of millions of people and jobs for millions more.

They also play a vital role in the health of our freshwater ecosystems – our very life-support systems. But we keep on ignoring them – at their peril and ours. 

Right now, we are at a critical juncture for the future of the planet. This will be a momentous year to place nature on the path to recovery, with not only make-or-break decisions on climate change and biodiversity but also a post-Covid recovery that offers an opportunity to build back better.

There is also increasing consensus about the urgent need to tackle major environmental crises, including deforestation, ocean pollution and the collapse in species populations.

But one challenge seems to have slipped past decision-makers across Asia: what to do about the world’s increasingly threatened freshwater fishes. Out of sight below the water surface, they are invariably out of mind at the bottom of the political agenda. They need to be near the top. 

As detailed in “The World’s Forgotten Fishes,” a major new report by WWF and 15 other global conservation groups, freshwater fish species are dazzlingly diverse and now total 18,075 – accounting for more than half of all the world’s fish species and a quarter of all vertebrate species on Earth.

Many of them live here in Asia, where they range from a tiny minnow in the Philippines that weighs in at just 0.04 gram to the (few) remaining giants of the Mekong that can tip the scales at 300 kilograms.

Often relegated to the fringes of discussions about food security, wild freshwater fisheries provide millions of people across our continent with their primary source of animal protein. China hauls in 2 million metric tons each year, just pipping India to the world’s leading catch.

Despite their lengthy coastlines, at least 65% of Bangladesh’s and 44% of Myanmar’s fish production comes from freshwater fisheries. If Cambodia’s extraordinarily productive freshwater fisheries failed, it would have to increase its pasturelands by 155% and croplands by 59% just to make up the shortfall – causing untold and irreparable damage in the process.

Yet freshwater fish and fisheries remain undervalued and overlooked across the continent.

And it’s not just food security. Fisheries also provide jobs for millions of people, while recreational angling for iconic fish such as the golden mahseer and the pet-fish trade offer communities the opportunity to develop sustainable livelihoods.

Sadly, freshwater fishes are rapidly disappearing. More than 80 species have already been declared extinct, including 16 last year alone – 15 of them in the Philippines, along with the iconic Chinese paddlefish.

But this is only the beginning. Around one-third of all freshwater fishes are threatened with extinction. Migratory populations have fallen by 76$ since 1970, while the numbers of iconic mega-fish have crashed by a disastrous 94% in the same period.

But there’s no mystery about the cause of this crisis: It’s down to us – from building on wetlands and floodplains, to our poorly planned hydropower dams to over-abstraction of water for agriculture, unsustainable fishing, pollution, invasive species, sand mining and climate change.

And to our long-standing failure to value rivers, lakes and wetlands – the life-support systems that all people and all life on land depend on – or the freshwater fishes that live in them, so they are almost never factored into development decisions.

Drastic change is needed, but there’s good news – we already have the solutions.

Asian countries can drive efforts to secure an ambitious and comprehensive global biodiversity agreement later this year at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Kunming, China, with measures to let rivers flow more naturally, protect and restore critical habitats and species, and reduce pollution levels, while controlling the spread of invasive non-native aquatic species and ending overfishing, destructive fishing and unsustainable sand mining.

We will also need to protect our continent’s remaining free-flowing rivers from poorly planned new hydropower and other infrastructure.

But we don’t need to wait. We can start investing in solutions now – such as community fish conservancies. In both Laos and Thailand, networks of community-led fish sanctuaries have boosted the diversity and abundance of freshwater fish species, benefiting people and nature.

Meanwhile, WWF is partnering with governments, donors, businesses and communities on ambitious regional initiatives on resilient Asian deltas, Asian flyways and river dolphin rivers, all of which will help to enhance the health of our rivers, lakes and wetlands – and the fish within them.

By scaling up funding for proven solutions and efforts to secure a comprehensive New Deal for nature and people, we have a real chance to turn the tide – and bring life back to our dying rivers, lakes and wetlands.

It will also bring freshwater fish species back from the brink – securing food and jobs for tens of millions, safeguarding cultural icons, and enhancing the health of the freshwater ecosystems that underpin our well-being and prosperity.

Christy Williams

Christy Williams is WWF regional director for Asia.