The Planet Has Lost 83% Of Its Freshwater Aquatic Life in 50 Years, Finds Report

World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report reveals a 69% decline in wildlife populations.

Climate Change
6 min read
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  • World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report reveals a 69% decline in wildlife populations.

  • Freshwater species populations have suffered an 83% decline in the last 50 years. The report found that the number of freshwater fish, globally, declined by 76% from 1970 to 2016.

  • Exploitation of the forests, habitat degradation and loss, invasive species, pollution, climate change, obstruction in rivers and disease are the main drivers for this decline in wildlife populations, says the report.

  • Wildlife experts state that creating a nature-positive society would help reverse this downward trend.


Wildlife populations, including birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish, have seen an average 69% decline since 1970, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (Formerly World Wildlife Fund) Living Planet Report (LPR) 2022, released on October 13.

The exploitation of forests and animals, habitat degradation, the introduction of invasive species, pollution, climate change and disease are the major drivers of this decline in wildlife population, reads the report. Obstructions in the migratory route of fish, is a significant reason behind the decline of aquatic organisms.

The report, a comprehensive analysis of the global state of nature, uses data from almost 32,000 populations of 5,230 species, tabulated by the Zoological Survey of London from 1970 to 2018.

Asian countries, including India, have seen a 55% decline in the wildlife populations, while the African countries have seen a 66% decline.

The most significant decrease has been observed in the Latin American and Caribbean regions where there has been a decline of 94% in wildlife population from 1970 to 2018.

“The message is clear, and lights are flashing red. About half of the global economy and billions of people are directly reliant on nature. Without recognising and respecting the rights, governance, and conservation leadership of Indigenous Peoples and local communities around the world. A nature-positive future will not be possible."
Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International

Changing River and Ocean Ecology and Its Impact on Fish Movements

The freshwater aquatic life has also decreased by 83% globally in the last 50 years, the report highlights. Freshwater fish population, specifically, declined by 76% from 1970 to 2016.

The survival of long-distance fish is in danger due to the construction of dams on rivers and other projects for power generation which obstruct the migratory routes of fish. Only 37% of the world’s rivers flow uninterrupted for 1,000 km.

In India, sand mining, dams and increasing pollution in rivers are the main challenges. For example, sand mining in the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh has started showing harmful effects. Due to this, the river’s flow has reduced, and the mahseer fish has reached the verge of extinction.

At the same time, pollution and dams are coming to the fore as a hindrance in conserving the Ganges dolphin.

Pollution, accidental bycatch and poaching and slow river flow due to dams and barrages, lead to massive loss of dolphin habitats. Emerging threats include the development of industrial waterways on rivers and infrastructure projects such as river linking.

World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report reveals a 69% decline in wildlife populations.

Painted storks in a river in Karnataka. Free-flowing rivers support extraordinary aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity.

Photo: Subharnab Majumdar/Flickr.

The Living Planet Report also foregrounds the role of mangrove forests in coastal protection. “Overexploitation, pollution, storms and coastal erosion are some reasons that degrade many mangroves,” says the report. “Mangrove loss causes loss of habitat for biodiversity and the loss of ecosystem services for coastal communities,” the report adds.

The report finds that 137 sq. km. of the Sundarbans mangrove forest has been eroded since 1985. As a result, the Sundarbans region lost land and ecosystem services for 10 million people who live there.

“Mangroves are also a key nature-based solution to climate change. They contribute to mitigation through sequestering and storing ‘blue carbon’ in waterlogged soils, and densities exceeding many other ecosystems,” the report adds.

There are many examples of saving mangroves in India. The women from the Jharkhali village of Sundarbans have started planting mangroves to reduce cyclones’ impact and succeeded in their cause.

World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report reveals a 69% decline in wildlife populations.

Mangroves in Los Túneles on Isabela Island, Galapagos, Ecuador. Since 1985 an area of 137 sq km of Sundarbans mangrove forest in West Bengal has been destroyed. This has had a direct impact on one crore of people living there.

Photo: Antonio Busiello/WWF-US.


The Dual Challenge of Tackling Climate Change and Arresting Biodiversity Loss

The report states that the continuous warming of the Earth is a significant concern. “The Earth has warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times. About 50% of warm water corals have already been lost due to a variety of causes. A warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius will result in the loss of 70% to 90% of corals, and a 2 degrees Celsius warming will result in a loss of more than 99%.”

The effect of global warming is visible on the corals in Lakshadweep in India. The reef has experienced at least two coral mass mortalities since 1998. The ocean-warming events that trigger these mortalities are becoming more intense and frequent.

In the report’s first chapter, Sir Robert Watson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research writes that we are living through both climate and biodiversity crises.

He writes, “Forests, grasslands, wetlands, mangrove swamps and seas take care of our basic needs like food, medicine, energy etc. These are directly related to the weather, air quality, and quantity and quality of freshwater on Earth.”

“The major direct driving forces to the degradation of terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems are changes in land and sea use, the over-exploitation of plants and animals, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.”
Sir Robert Watson, Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research

“These direct drivers of biodiversity loss, and the degradation of ecosystems and their services, stem from the increasing demands for energy, food and other materials because of rapid economic growth, increases in population, international trade, and choices of technology, especially over the last 50 years,” he writes.

World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report reveals a 69% decline in wildlife populations.

Painted storks in a river in Karnataka. Free-flowing rivers support extraordinary aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity.

Photo: Subharnab Majumdar/Flickr.

“Biodiversity loss and climate change are not only environmental issues, but they are also economic, development, security, social, moral and ethical issues. They must be addressed together with the 17 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs),” asserts Watson.

Ravi Singh, Secretary General & CEO of WWF India, echoes similar views.

“Climate change in India will impact areas like health, water resources, agriculture, natural ecosystems and the food chain. We need an all-inclusive collective approach for a more sustainable path.”
Ravi Singh, Secretary General & CEO of WWF India

Building a Nature-Positive Society

The report is important because solutions form the core of this report – it discusses themes such as decarbonisation, arresting forest fragmentation, restoring ecological connections, planting mangroves and appreciating indigenous practices as the ways forward to create a nature-positive society.

The report argues that achieving net-zero goals for nature is certainly not enough. “We need nature or net-positive goals to restore nature and not simply halt its loss,” reads the report.

It highlights the need for more natural forests, more fish in the ocean and river systems and more pollinators in our farmlands. A nature-positive future will bring countless benefits to human and economic well-being, including to our climate, food and water security.

The report discusses decarbonisation in all sectors as a solution. The report’s authors call on policymakers to transform economies to properly assess natural resources.

India is also taking many steps to decarbonise its economy. Under the Paris Treaty, India has to reduce emissions intensity by 30-35% of its GDP by 2030 from 2005. The Government of India has notified the National Green Hydrogen Policy.

India plans to manufacture 5 million tonnes of green hydrogen by 2030. The Indian government had announced that the country will reduce its contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to zero by 2070.

Arresting the fragmentation of forests is also analysed as a possible solution. According to the report, land-use change is still the most significant current threat to nature. It is destroying or fragmenting the natural habitats of many plant and animal species on land, in freshwater and in the sea. Connecting the forests with each other can be a solution.

“Protecting and restoring ecological connections across lands and waters through ecological corridors, linkage areas, and wildlife crossing structures is rapidly emerging around the world and an effective way to combat habitat fragmentation and to enhance climate resilience,” says the report.

Two-thirds of the critical contact areas or corridors connecting these protected areas are not protected.

One of the solutions included in the report is to plant mangroves to protect communities living near the ocean. Mangroves are major nature-based solutions to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Indigenous or traditional knowledge can also be a solution to these challenges. Andrea Reid of the University of British Columbia’s Center for Indigenous Fisheries said in the report that conservation efforts are failing by keeping people away from nature. “Fishing enables the monitoring of waterways, provides a vehicle for knowledge and language transfer and embodies Indigenous legal traditions,” she adds.

(This story was originally published at Mongabay. It has been re-published here with permission.)

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Topics:  Wildlife   Climate Change   WWF 

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