© Karine Aigner / WWF-US
The World's Forgotten Fishes
Valuing Freshwater Fish is critical for people and nature
The World's Forgotten Fishes report is a celebration of freshwater fishes – and it’s a call to action too.

Rivers, lakes and wetlands are among the most biodiverse places on earth. They cover less than 1% of the planet’s total surface, yet they’re home to almost a quarter of all vertebrate species – including over half of all the world’s fish species.

It’s an extraordinary fact: 51% of all known species of fish live in freshwater - 18,075 species. And more are being discovered all the time. 

But few people have any idea of the unimaginable diversity that swims below the surface of the world’s freshwater ecosystems or how critical these undervalued and overlooked freshwater fishes are to the health of people and nature around the world.  

  • Freshwater fishes account for almost 1/4 of all the world’s vertebrate species;

  • ​Freshwater fishes provide food for 200 million people;

  • And livelihoods for 60 million;

  • Recreational fishing is valued at over US$100 billion per year;

  • But 1/3rd of freshwater fishes are threatened with extinction;

  • And 80 species are already extinct.

Promoting thriving populations of freshwater fishes and the ecosystems within which they thrive is a priority for WWF and the 15 organisations  and alliances that produced this report.

Click HERE or on the image to open the report . 



Freshwater habitats are extremely diverse – and so are the fishes that live in them

There are millions of rivers, lakes, and wetlands worldwide, and they boast their own distinct and dynamic conditions. Many are also completely isolated from each other. Isolation and the complex web of ecological niches in freshwater ecosystems have led to the evolution of a disproportionate number of fish species relative to the total area they inhabit.

These circumstances all add up to perhaps the most staggering – but little known – fact about freshwater fishes: there are more freshwater species than saltwater ones. There are 11,000 species that migrate at some point in their lives and even five known species of sharks patrolling freshwaters.

But there’s so much we still don’t know about these incredibly diverse freshwater creatures. We do know that healthy freshwater fish populations are critically important for people and nature and that freshwater fishes are facing an unprecedented crisis.


Freshwater Fishes Diversity
Freshwater Fisheries are critical indicators of the resilience of our life support systems

Healthy freshwater ecosystems are essential to sustain thriving populations of freshwater fishes. But it is also true that the wealth of freshwater fishes is critical to the health of the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands. Freshwater fishes play a regulatory role within an ecosystem and are central to the natural balance. 

The decline in freshwater fish populations is the clearest indicator of the damage we have done – and are still doing – to our rivers, lakes and wetlands. 

Freshwater fishes need healthy freshwater ecosystems. And so do people. By securing the health of their rivers, lakes and wetlands, we can also secure the future of our fish and fisheries. 

Healthy Freshwater Fisheries
Under-reported, undervalued and under pressure

Wild-caught freshwater fisheries provide food security and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people across the world and are estimated to be worth US$ 38 billion. They are especially critical for many poor and indigenous communities in landlocked countries. 

Wild capture of freshwater fish is underestimated because global statistics only show country-level catches. However, artisanal and subsistence fishers also catch freshwater fish in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which are rarely documented.
Freshwater fisheries are also under pressure - pollution, excessive water abstraction, dams and other infrastructure, sand mining, and land-use change (e.g., loss of floodplains) threaten their long-term viability.

Decision-makers need to start factoring freshwater fisheries into development decisions and give space for community-led management and habitat conservation.  

The Value of Freshwater Fishes
Angling is one of the world’s favourite pastimes

Recreational fishing attracts hundreds of millions of people worldwide for its adventure, challenge, or only relaxation. There are 90 million anglers in China, 39 million in the USA, and almost 26 million in Europe, who every year look for the connection with the environment and wild freshwater fishes through recreational fishing. And they spend vast amounts of money in the process - recreational fishing is worth over US$100 billion each year. 

But the angling industry relies on healthy freshwater ecosystems to support thriving populations of fish. Recreational fishing has to be well managed to avoid issues such as the introduction of invasive non-native species and poor fish handling, among others. By working together with conservation organizations and following best practices, anglers can reduce risks and contribute significantly to freshwater conservation - and continue to enjoy their favorite pastime. 



​Not dogs or cats, but freshwater fishes

Freshwater fish rank first when it comes to pet numbers. This global hobby is good for our health - researches show that having a fish tank (or visiting an aquarium) reduces stress, anxiety and blood pressure, and even help us to sleep.

Ornamental fish are traded every year in 125 countries, at a retail value of US$15-30 billion. There are concerns about the impact of the industry, since it can be a pathway for the introduction of invasive non-native species and weak regulation can lead to overharvesting and poor practices.

But it can support communities and conservation. Like inland fisheries and angling, this is an industry that needs thriving populations of freshwater fishes in healthy freshwater ecosystems. Sustainably managed wild fisheries supplying the aquarium trade can provide much-needed incomes in poor communities and an incentive to conserve specific species and their freshwater habitats. 

Denison Barb (c)

© Beta Mahatvaraj

Salmon carvings on cave walls

The history of humanity is tied to waterways – and freshwater fish. About 25,000 years ago, people even carved a salmon on a cave wall.  Our civilisations developed beside rivers and lakes; our cities, towns and villages relying on them for water, food, power,  navigation and sanitation. People’s lives have long been shaped by the life cycles of fishes and the pulsing flows of the rivers they live in. 

Freshwater fishes are part of our collective inheritance, and they still remain culturally important to this day. In some parts of the world entire festivals are held in honour of freshwater fishes. In some cultures, they are sacred. And some communities use freshwater fishes as medicine. Their loss is a loss for all humanity, which will have far reaching consequences for communities and cultures.

Painting of some fish species

© Zeb Hogan / WWF

The sharp end of the biodiversity crisis

Nowhere is the world’s biodiversity crisis more acute than in freshwater ecosystems. Around a third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction, and 80 species have already been declared Extinct. 

Since 1970, mega-fish populations have crashed by 94% on average, while migratory fish populations have fallen by 76%. The damage we do to our freshwaters is the damage we do to our fishes - sand mining, dams, pollution, among other threats, are just the tip of the iceberg. We’re only just beginning to understand other threats to biodiversity like noise, light, and microplastics pollution. It’s time to scale up the solutions we know and have tested while looking for innovative ways to save our freshwaters and fishes. 


Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity

The good news is that we know what needs to be done: the world must implement an Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity. WWF and the 15 NGOs and alliances that signed up to this report are championing an Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity and taking action to reverse decades of decline. Developed by scientists and freshwater experts from across the world, this practical six-pillared plan is based on sound science and real experience – each pillar has been implemented in different parts of the world: 

1. Let rivers flow more naturally;
2.Improve water quality in freshwater ecosystems;
3. Protect and restore critical habitats;
4. End overfishing and unsustainable sand mining in rivers and lakes;
5. Prevent and control invasions by non-native species, and;
6. Protect free-flowing rivers and remove obsolete dams.

In 2021, governments may have their last chance to chart a new course that could reverse the loss of nature and put the world back onto a sustainable path. Countries have to seize the opportunity and agree on an ambitious and implementable new framework to tackle the loss of habitats and species at the conference of the Convention of Biological Diversity – a framework 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.

Emergency recovery plan