In a collaborative effort between conservation organisations, IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Asian Species Action Partnership (ASAP), SHOAL and Mandai Nature, The Strategic Framework to Accelerate Urgent Conservation Action for ASAP Freshwater Fishes in Southeast Asia was developed to help guide efforts for the urgent conservation of 90 Critically Endangered Southeast Asian freshwater fish species found across 11 countries. This includes Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.
The comprehensive framework provides key information, in-depth analyses and actionable recommendations that would swiftly address population declines and facilitate the recovery of the highly threatened fish species to achieve immediate and long-term conservation impact. It serves as a vital resource for researchers, conservationists and policymakers to provide structured guidance in the prioritisation of research areas to bridge knowledge gaps, development of effective conservation programmes and implementation of management strategies and influencing policies. It also highlights funding opportunities through donor investments.
In tandem, ASAP and SHOAL are launching the SHOAL-ASAP Grant for Freshwater Fishes to fund the implementation and recommendations outlined in the framework to further drive action and tangible impact for Critically Endangered freshwater fish conservation in Southeast Asia. The open call for proposals starts from 10 July 2023. Donors interested in helping to make a difference can also contribute to this important cause.
Nerissa Chao, Director, IUCN SSC ASAP, said, “With most of the 90 Critically Endangered freshwater fishes in Southeast Asia limited to a single lake or river, it is imperative that greater action is taken to safeguard this unique and rich diversity. Collective efforts across Southeast Asia are urgently needed and are crucial to halt declines immediately. Alongside the launch of this strategic framework, we are excited to be launching a new dedicated grant programme targeting conservation action for Critically Endangered freshwater fishes in Southeast Asia.”
Accelerating efforts for the conservation of freshwater fish in Southeast Asia
The newly unveiled framework identifies the rapid loss and degradation of natural habitats as the primary threat to nearly all Critically Endangered freshwater fishes, with deforestation, conversion of wetlands, aquaculture and agriculture production, pollution, hydropower development reducing the extent of suitable habitat, causing habitat fragmentation and impacting water quality. Invasive species are also a significant threat to many of these species, primarily through competition for food and habitat, alteration of water quality and macrophyte cover, and via predation of eggs, larvae, juveniles, and mature individuals. Invasive species are of particular concern for endemic species in ancient lakes, and those with highly restricted ranges. Catalysing effective conservation action is further complicated by the absence of data for many of the species, making it challenging to understand and address their conservation needs.
To address these pressing concerns, the framework outlines eight urgent priorities that will lay the foundation for immediate action for the Critically Endangered freshwater fish species. These include identifying conservation measures and recommendations for local site-based efforts, large-scale internationally coordinated multi-species efforts, addressing issues around trade and fisheries, conducting field surveys and research, establishing ex situ breeding programmes, implementing solutions to combat invasive species, as well as strengthening networking and capacity of key stakeholders.
Many rivers and freshwater systems in the region are shared across borders, highlighting the need for cross-country cooperation to achieve meaningful conservation impact. One of the keys to conservation success is therefore the need for robust and effectively implemented policy action within the region. By fostering cooperation amongst stakeholders, Southeast Asia can work towards long-term sustainability and protection of its freshwater ecosystem and its inhabitants.
Mike Baltzer, Executive Director, SHOAL, said, “Staggeringly, one in three freshwater fish species globally are heading to extinction. Southeast Asia is the world’s hotspot for highly threatened species. Freshwater fish are vital to millions of people in the region, yet their conservation has been almost entirely neglected. Urgent attention is needed to prevent them from disappearing forever. This framework provides the direction and clarity required to focus and catalyse action to bring them back from the brink”.
Amongst the key priorities highlighted is also the opportunities for ex situ efforts to significantly contribute to the conservation of freshwater fishes. A preliminary list of 49 species such as the Betta chloropharynx and Betta cracens, have been identified as species with high potential for successful ex situ conservation. In addition, with ornamental fish trade as a potential underlying driver to the decline of wild freshwater fish populations, the framework recognises the potential of working with skilled home aquaria hobbyists to promote sustainable trade in freshwater fishes. Consumers can ultimately affect the demand and supply through their choices, supported by better regulation.
Dr Sonja Luz, CEO of Mandai Nature, added, “The urgent need for enhanced protection for the remarkably diverse freshwater fish species of Southeast Asia is evident. The lack of targeted conservation action requires a ramp up of support and funding for these overlooked species. While efforts are being made to tackle threats in the wild, zoos and aquaria must recognise the crucial roles they can play in strengthening ex situ conservation efforts. This includes establishing insurance populations through conservation breeding programmes to create a safety net and a future for these highly threatened wild populations.”
Freshwater fish species at high risks of extinction
Despite occupying less than one per cent of the Earth’s surface area, freshwater habitats are exceptionally biodiverse, hosting 51 per cent of all known fish species. The significance of these habitats extends far beyond their ecological value, with more than 200 million people relying on freshwater fish for sustenance, and at least 60 million as their primary means of income. As an industry, freshwater fisheries are valued at US$38 billion annually. Safeguarding the species and their habitats therefore has a profound direct impact on the livelihoods of humans including food security, income generation and access to clean water sources.
Yet, freshwater fish are one of the most highly threatened taxa globally, with one-third of freshwater fish species threatened with extinction. Southeast Asia, a known biodiversity hotspot, accounts for 5,645 described species, or 30 per cent of global freshwater fish species. In 2020, of the 16 fish species declared extinct, 15 were from Southeast Asia.