World’s Migratory Species of Animals in Decline, Global Extinction Risk Increasing

Posted on February, 12 2024

Landmark UN Report launched during CMS COP14 Reveals Shocking State of migratory species

Billions of animals make migratory journeys each year on land, in rivers and oceans, and in the skies, crossing national boundaries and continents, with some travelling thousands of kilometres across the globe to feed and breed.

Migratory species play an essential role in maintaining the world’s ecosystems, and provide vital benefits, by pollinating plants, transporting key nutrients, preying on pests, and helping to store carbon - but many are under increasing threat and the extinction risk for migratory species globally is growing, according to a landmark report from the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).

Launched during the CMS COP14 in Samarkhand, the first-ever State of the World’s Migratory Species concludes that the top threats to all migratory species are overexploitation and habitat loss due to human activity, while climate change, pollution and invasive species are also having profound impacts. The report reveals:

  • Nearly half (44%) of CMS-listed species are showing population declines;
  • More than one-in-five (22%) of CMS-listed species are threatened with extinction;
  • Nearly all (97%) of CMS-listed fish are threatened with extinction; and
  • Half (51%) of Key Biodiversity Areas identified as important for CMS-listed migratory animals do not have protected status

Most worryingly, nearly all CMS-listed species of fish – including migratory sharks, rays and sturgeons – are facing a high risk of extinction, with their populations declining by 90% since the 1970s.
“Out-of-sight and out-of-mind, the world’s migratory freshwater fishes are in freefall. From sturgeon and eels in Europe to the diverse species making up one of the most massive migrations of them all in the Mekong, numbers of these extraordinary fishes are plummeting - due to a variety of threats, including hydropower dams, habitat loss, pollution and climate change,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead in reaction to the Status of the World’s Migratory Species report.

“This alarming CMS report is another urgent wake up call. Decision makers must start valuing migratory freshwater fishes - and taking steps to safeguard them - not only because they are critical to the food security and livelihoods of millions of people but because they are also essential to the health of their rivers and surrounding ecosystems."

Analysing the threats to species, the report shows the huge extent to which the decline in migratory species is being caused by human activities.

The two greatest threats to both CMS-listed and all migratory species were confirmed as overexploitation – which includes unsustainable hunting, overfishing and the capture of non-target animals such as in fisheries – and habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation – from activities such as agriculture and the expansion of transport and energy infrastructure.

One key priority is to map and take adequate steps to protect the vital locations that serve as breeding, feeding and stopover sites for migratory species - particularly the world’s wetlands, which are critical for many fish migrations and serve as stepping stones and destinations on the world’s great flyways.

But the report shows that nearly 10,000 of the world’s Key Biodiversity Areas are important for CMS-listed migratory species, but that more than half (by area) are not designated as protected or conserved areas. 

The report also investigated how many migratory species are at-risk but not covered by the Convention. It found 399 migratory species – mainly birds and fish, including many albatrosses and perching birds, ground sharks and stingrays – are categorised as threatened or near-threatened but are not yet CMS-listed.

Freshwater fishes are particularly underrepresented on the CMS-list, with less than 30 migratory freshwater fish out of more than 1180 species on the list. Yet there are around 1200 migratory freshwater fishes and many of them are threatened.

Governments at CMS COP14 can start to redress this imbalance by approving the listing of two of the world’s long distance freshwater migrants - South America’s Gilded and Laulao catfish - on Appendix II.

“CMS delegates can signal a new era for threatened migratory freshwater fishes by providing greater protection for two of the freshwater world’s most extraordinary fish: the Gilded catfish, which can migrate an astonishing 5,700km, and the Laulao catfish, which covers a more modest but still incredible 3,000km. These South American species are under increasing threat from fishing, hydropower dams and mining activities - and need all the protection they can get,” said Kathy Hughes, WWF Freshwater Species and Habitat Lead.

“But there will still be far too few threatened  migratory freshwater fishes covered by CMS. So this must be the start of a concerted effort by countries and the convention to add many more in future - and decision makers must then accelerate efforts to safeguard them and their rivers.”

The State of the World’s Migratory Species report echoes this general call for governments to accelerate action to address the threats to migratory species and provides a set of priority recommendations for action, which include strengthening efforts to tackle illegal and unsustainable taking of migratory species; scaling up efforts to protect, connect and effectively manage important sites for migratory species; and expanding efforts to tackle pollution and climate change.

For migratory freshwater fishes, WWF is calling for decision makers to accelerate national and international efforts to tackle the main threats, including destructive hydropower dams, harmful infrastructure, overfishing and accidental bycatch, pollution, unsustainable sand mining, conversion of wetlands, and climate change.

Among other solutions, WWF Freshwater Practice is urging decision makers to:

  • Avoid river fragmentation by investing in LowCx3 (low carbon, low cost & low conflict with communities and nature) renewables, such as solar or wind rather than high impact hydropower - and by considering the energy needs of a region at a system scale & planning to avoid negative impacts;
  • Avoid river fragmentation by promoting alternative forms of water storage;
  • Utilize more sustainable barrier designs and operate dams for e-flows;
  • Remove obsolete dams, weirs and other barriers to restore connectivity, and implement river protections that safeguard connectivity; and
  • Restore wetlands and reconnect floodplains.

WWF is also urging more countries to join the 45 current members of the Freshwater Challenge. This country-led initiative to restore 300,000kms of degraded rivers and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands by 2030, and protect key ecosystems - building on the 30x30 targets for inland waters in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF).

Sockeye Salmon migrating in Canada.
© Michel Roggo
Healthy wetlands are central to the world's great Flyways
© Yifei ZHANG / WWF
Sturgeon (Huso huso)
© Lubomir-Hlasek WWF
demoiselle crane
© Harish Segar / WWF