Water for fish: Sustainable inland fisheries

Inland fisheries are being overlooked in policy, management and development decisions, undermining the vital food and livelihood benefits they provide to the poor – Conservation International and Co-chair of IUCN Species Survival Commission Freshwater Conservation Subcommittee lead a session at World Water Week.

A fisherman checking his net, Cambodia

Occurring in rivers, deltas, floodplains, lakes and reservoirs, inland fisheries are demonstrably important for over 60 countries, providing food, income, employment and nutrition. Inland fisheries employ over 16.8 million people worldwide, with almost half (43%) of the global inland fishery catch coming from 50 low-income countries. Inland fisheries contribute up to 20% of national GDP in developing countries, yet little attention is paid to the conservation of this valuable resource in water, land use planning and development decisions. 

Ian Harrison, Co-Chair of IUCN SSC Freshwater Conservation Subcommittee and Assistant to the Chair of the SSC Freshwater Fish Specialist Group, as well as the principal convenor of this session, says,  “The continued unsustainable management of freshwater systems affects local biodiversity. There is evidence that human activities such as overfishing, the construction of dams and industrial pollution alter freshwater systems and change the balance of fish populations. Unfortunately, this often leads to a reduction in fish yield and consequently, social and economic losses for the communities that depend on these freshwater systems as a source of food and income.”

Fisheries are often ignored in national land use planning policies and activities in favour of industries, such as agriculture, that are perceived as more economically valuable. The discussion held at World Water Week entitled “Water for Fish: Sustainable Inland Fisheries” included speakers from organisations such as Conservation International, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Water Management Institute. Attendees discussed approaches to help governments and development organisations improve river basin management and encourage the equitable sharing of water resources between industries and subsistence fish farmers. 

The impact of dams and aquaculture on freshwater biodiversity were key discussion points. Vittoria Elliott, Director of the Mekong Science Program at CI, and a member of IUCN’s Freshwater Fish Specialist Group, explained that dams for example are often seen as a resource to improve fish production, but they can have a converse impact on freshwater systems by altering river flow, changing fish habitat and blocking fish migration routes. Participants highlighted the need to ensure key decision makers see the sustainable management of inland fisheries as a development opportunity and not a limiting factor for economic and social development. Citizen engagement and ensuring the development of tools to help decision makers evaluate the impact of their decisions on inland fisheries are important steps forward. 

“Inland fisheries are most important to subsets of the population, who tend to be the poorest and have a disproportionate dependence on them,” explained Simon Funge-Smith, Senior Fishery Officer at FAO. “There is a historical precedent set in water management where water is allocated to people and agriculture and fish are a by-product. It’s assumed that fisheries will always be there, but they won’t if people don’t pay them more attention.”

A 2016 paper published by IUCN Freshwater Fish Specialists, supports the conclusions from this discussion forum. The paper highlights the importance of fish yield for human nutritional and economic wellbeing and the need to conserve freshwater biodiversity to ensure fish yield is maintained.

At the end of the discussion, it was clear that cooperation between fisheries and the water sectors is crucial to finding positive opportunities for all water users, and to raise awareness of livelihood and food security impacts in decisions on trade-offs. Progress is already being made by groups such as the grassroots research network InFish, which addresses the needs of inland fisheries. More work by a variety of cross-sectoral organisations is needed to push this topic up the political agenda. 

This text was adapted from a blog by CGIAR Research Program on Fish

IUCN representatives attended the session from SSC Freshwater Fish Specialist Group, SSC Freshwater Conservation Subcommittee, and WCPA Freshwater Specialist Group.

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