Freshwater fish play a surprisingly crucial role in feeding some of the world’s most vulnerable people, according to a study published Oct. 24 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It was eye-opening just how many people are deeply dependent on freshwater fisheries as sources of protein,” said Pete McIntyre, a lead co-author of the study and professor of zoology in the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Many people in poor nations do not get much animal protein to eat, and freshwater fish provide protein for the nutritional equivalent of 158 million people around the world.”
By creating a map of the world’s fisheries that documented where people catch freshwater fish at the highest rates and then linking it to data about fish biodiversity, ecosystem health, human nutrition and socioeconomics, McIntyre’s team hopes the study helps put freshwater fish on the radar for decision-makers around the globe.
“When making big decisions — for instance, when the World Bank is considering funding a dam project — we think the collateral damage done to freshwater fisheries should be explicitly listed as a quantifiable impact,” McIntyre said.
Freshwater fish provide the majority of the animal protein consumed in countries like Cambodia, Congo and Bangladesh, where large numbers of children under age five are considered underweight, the study found.
McIntyre and study co-lead Catherine Reidy Liermann of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with co-author Carmen Revenga of The Nature Conservancy, found that 90% of fish caught worldwide are harvested from rivers facing higher-than-average levels of environmental stress from chemical pollution, invasive species, land use change and other human factors.
The rivers where fish are most heavily exploited — for instance, in Asia and Africa — are also where the potential consequences for reduced fish biodiversity are highest, the study team found.
Originally, McIntyre, Reidy Liermann and Ravenga set out to gather a better accounting of the role that fish biodiversity plays in the number of fish capable of being caught from the world’s rivers.
“With population and climate change, human dependency on freshwater systems is increasing dramatically in many parts of the world,” Reidy Liermann said. “At the same time, freshwater species are being lost at faster rates than marine or terrestrial species. We wanted to explore the intersection of these trends. How do species diversity and fishery production relate? So, we built a model to find out.”
Ecological theory and experimental data from other studies suggest that diverse ecosystems are typically more productive than less-species-rich environments. The researchers expected to find that rivers with high fish biodiversity would also be more productive.
Using the best available data — national statistics from the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) — combined with powerful statistical methods, the researchers looked at the relationship among fish catches and fish diversity, ecosystem health threats and human nutritional needs.
To their surprise, McIntyre and his team learned that greater biodiversity does not provide a clear boost to fishery productivity. Rather, the study found that the link between fish catches and species richness is indirect: Catches increase with the size of the river and with human population density, while biodiversity also happens to increase with river size.
The finding actually contradicted earlier results McIntyre gathered, but he continued to improve his methods and said he is confident in the latest results.
“A few years ago, we thought we had a different take-home point,” he said. “We continued to refine the statistics and came to the conclusion that the global data don’t show strong evidence that declines in fish diversity will lead to lower fish catches in the future.”
However, McIntyre pointed out, “Although our study does not suggest that modest losses in fish species diversity is a pressing threat to fisheries, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of the importance of biodiversity.”
What is clear, the study authors said, is that society should safeguard freshwater ecosystems for the sake of both fish and people.