Ideas & Debate

Saving Africa’s forgotten freshwater fish species


Part of Kisumu City skyline as seen from the Kisumu Port in Lake Victoria. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

Africa’s wealth of freshwater fish should be impossible to forget. Thousands of species swim through our rivers, lakes and wetlands - and our cultures. Fishers across the continent haul in at least three million tonnes a year — or a quarter of the world’s wild freshwater fish catch — providing critical food for tens of millions of people and jobs for millions more.

They also play a vital role in the health of our freshwater ecosystems — our very life support systems. But we keep on ignoring them — at their peril and ours.

Right now, we are at a critical juncture for the future of the planet. 2021 is a momentous year to place nature on the path to recovery, with not only make-or-break decisions on climate change and biodiversity but also a post-Covid recovery which offers an opportunity to build back better. There is also increasing consensus about the urgent need to tackle major environmental crises, including deforestation, ocean pollution and the collapse in species populations.

But one challenge seems to have slipped past decision-makers across Africa: what to do about our increasingly threatened freshwater fish species? Out-of-sight below the water surface, they are invariably out-of-mind at the bottom of the political agenda. They need to be near the top.

Detailed in ‘The World’s Forgotten Fishes’, a new report by WWF and 15 other global conservation groups, freshwater fish species are dazzlingly diverse and now total 18,075 — accounting for over half of all the world’s fish species and a quarter of all vertebrate species on Earth.

Many of them live here in Africa, including an astonishing 1,600 cichlids, the cuckoo catfish that fools other fish into caring for its eggs, and the extraordinary elephantfishes, which communicate in the dark depths of the Congo river with electrical pulses.

Often relegated to the fringes of discussions about food security, wild freshwater fisheries provide millions of people across our continent, including vulnerable communities and indigenous people, particularly in landlocked countries, with their primary source of animal protein. The Africa Great Lakes fishery alone produces over one million tonnes each year, roughly double the size of the next biggest fishery on the west coast.

Uganda leads the way, hauling in 440,000 tonnes annually — the seventh largest catch in the world. Nigeria, Tanzania, Egypt, DR Congo, Malawi and Chad are all in the top 20 global producers. Despite its lengthy coastlines, at least 85 percent of Tanzania’s fish production comes from freshwater fisheries. Importantly, while Africa’s total catch comes a distant second to Asia’s, our annual catch per capita of 2.56kg is significantly higher than Asia’s 1.99kg. Yet freshwater fish and fisheries remain undervalued and overlooked across the continent.

And it’s not just food security. Fisheries also provide jobs and livelihoods for millions of people. Indeed, rivers, lakes and floodplains support even more fishers, processors and traders than marine sectors. Iconic freshwater fish — like the African tigerfish — are also the primary attraction for a major tourism business: recreational fishing.

In many areas, angling offers communities the opportunity to develop sustainable livelihoods. For example, in northeast Namibia, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of tourist lodge revenue comes from anglers hoping to hook a ‘tiger’ – revenue that is a major source of income for local communities.

Sadly, freshwater fishes are rapidly disappearing. More than 80 species have already been declared extinct, including six in Africa. But this is only the beginning. Today, around one-third of all freshwater fishes are threatened with extinction. Migratory populations have fallen by 76 percent since 1970, while the numbers of iconic mega-fish have crashed by a disastrous 94 per cent in the same period.

But there’s no mystery about the cause of this crisis: it’s down to us — from building on wetlands and floodplains, to our poorly planned hydropower dams to over-abstraction of water for agriculture, unsustainable fishing, pollution, invasive species, sand mining and climate change. And to our longstanding failure to value rivers, lakes and wetlands — the life support systems that all people and all life on land depend on — or the freshwater fishes that live in them, so they are almost never factored into development decisions.

Drastic change is needed, but there’s good news – we already have the solutions. African governments can champion efforts to secure an ambitious and comprehensive global biodiversity agreement later this year at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Kunming, China.

This new framework for nature must include measures to let rivers flow more naturally, protect and restore critical habitats and species, and reduce pollution levels, while controlling the spread of invasive non-native aquatic species and ending overfishing, destructive fishing and unsustainable sand mining.

But we don’t need to wait. We can start replicating existing solutions, such as a community conservation initiative in Lake Tanganyika that has boosted the catch of dagaa — one of a number of small fish species (also known as ‘poor man’s fish’ or ‘vitamin fish’) that play a giant role in the health and food security of many communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

And governments, donors and businesses can partner with and start investing in ambitious initiatives, like WWF’s Blue Heart of Africa initiative, which will enhance the health of our rivers, lakes and wetlands — and safeguard the fish within them.

By scaling up funding for proven solutions and efforts to secure a comprehensive New Deal for nature and people, we have a real chance to turn the tide— and bring life back to our dying rivers, lakes and wetlands.

It will also bring freshwater fish species back from the brink — securing food and jobs for tens of millions, safeguarding cultural icons, and enhancing the health of the freshwater ecosystems that underpin our well-being and prosperity.

Ms Ruhweza is WWF Regional Director for Africa