The silent extinction of freshwater species

Earlier this year, the Chinese paddlefish was quietly declared extinct.

This species lived in harmony with nature for 200 million years. Imagine a species so resilient that they could survive not one, but multiple mass extinctions. The meteor impacts, volcanic eruptions and ice ages which slew the dinosaurs could not touch the Chinese paddlefish. Weathering the physical and metaphorical storm of extinction, this ancient fish swam onwards.

For all the hardship the species withstood—the fire and ice of a changing planet—we are the threat it could not withstand.

There’s something very poignant about knowing that humans are directly responsible for the eradication of another species. 200 million years of evolution—a period of time so vast I can barely comprehend it—snuffed out in an instant. Comparatively, our existence is a blip on the radar. All the Chinese Paddlefish needed was to be left alone. Now, it’s gone. Irreversibly, immutably gone.

The Chinese Paddlefish suffered a death by a thousand cuts. Little by little, we chipped away at its ability to survive. Populations first began to fall in the 1970s, with overfishing and habitat fragmentation providing the first blow. In 1981, the construction of the Gezhouba Dam blocked their access to the upper river for spawning, sounding the death knell for this ancient species.

It can be hard to relate to stories of extinction in far-flung countries—but closer to home, the story is much the same. 40% of rivers in England and Wales are polluted with sewage. How can we expect nature to thrive in water we wouldn’t want to swim in? As it currently stands, just 14% of our waterbodies are in good ecological health. On top of sewage releases, agricultural pollution, water abstraction, barrier construction and land-use change have taken their toll. Our rivers are drowning in the perfect storm of river degradation.

This is reflected in the animals who call rivers home; populations of freshwater species are declining faster than those in any other habitat. Freshwater megafauna bear the brunt of these declines, with populations declining by 88% from 1970 to 2012. While terrestrial and marine animals are beginning to receive the attention they rightfully deserve, many equally important freshwater species are fading away before our very eyes. In terms of conservation, fish are a much harder sell than the charismatic panda bear—but the role they play in our ecosystems is vital.

In the eye of the storm, grassroots organisations fight to prevent the onslaught on our rivers. They stand strong against the tide of pollution; they raise new habitats from the ground, returning nature to places it has long since touched; they dismantle barriers to migration, allowing fish to follow ancient spawning routes; they rewild our rivers, coaxing them back to a more natural state. They envision a future where every river is clean, healthy, and bursting with life—but to make this a reality, they need our help.

We can all be custodians of our rivers. Anglers, swimmers and kayakers can act as eyes on the ground; farmers can nip agricultural pollution in the bud; entire families can become citizen scientists, helping to develop our knowledge base. We can all use our voices to speak up and demand better for nature. We hold immeasurable power to shape the future of our planet; all we need to do is summon the courage to use it.

As late as 2005, the extinction of the Chinese Paddlefish could have been prevented. With this knowledge, we gain something incredible; the chance to step in now, before it’s too late.


How you can help

Get involved with your local Rivers Trust. The Rivers Trust is an incredible, grassroots organisation which fights to protect and improve our rivers. They have local Trusts covering the majority of the country, so there’s bound to be one in your area. Taking a day a month to volunteer could make a world of difference for your local river. You can also donate or fundraise.

Gain an understanding of the threat facing our rivers. Many people are unaware that sewage is legally released into rivers on a daily basis. If we all equip ourselves with knowledge of the threats facing our rivers, we can become better advocates for them. The WWF have some fantastic resources for this.

Speak out for rivers. Local groups are forming across the country, providing a platform for people to demand better for their rivers. Have you noticed pollution in your local river? Find a way to join up with other people in your area, and start shouting about it.

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