Freshwater biodiversity research and conservation lag far behind terrestrial and marine efforts, say researchers from 88 scientific institutions worldwide

Freshwater biodiversity research and conservation lag far behind terrestrial and marine efforts, according to researchers from 88 scientific institutions around the world.

An agenda for prioritising research and conservation into freshwater biodiversity has been written up by 95 researchers from 38 countries. Professor Sonja Jähnig of the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) and Humboldt University in Berlin, who is spearheading the agenda, said: “Biodiversity loss in freshwater is a global crisis that is literally hidden beneath the water’s surface”.

Freshwater biodiversity encompasses the genes, populations, species, communities, and ecosystems of all inland waters. It provides essential services that are vital to human well-being. Despite its importance, Ms Jähnig says: “At present, freshwater biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate. The data bear this out very clearly”.

Freshwater animal populations have declined by more than 80%

The latest Living Planet Report documents an average decline in populations of 84% – in only the last 50 years – for 3,741 populations studied, representing 944 freshwater vertebrate species. This is the steepest decline in the three major realms of land, oceans and freshwater. “Despite the ongoing, unprecedented decline, international and intergovernmental science-policy platforms, funding agencies and major non-profit initiatives still fail to give freshwater biodiversity the priority it deserves,” said Dr. Alain Maasri, also at the IGB, who is a lead author on the study.

Inland waters significantly underrepresented in environmental funding

A recent report (Moralis, D. 2021. Environmental funding by European foundations, volume 5 ed. Centre, EF. European Foundation Centre) on environmental funding by 127 European foundations shows that inland waters accounted for only 1.75% of the €745million approved for environmental work in 2018, and that freshwaters ranked second-last among the 13 thematic categories used to assess funding distribution. Often, inland waters are subsumed within terrestrial habitats, and then not adequately addressed in funding plans.

New agenda aims to advance biodiversity research and environmental policy

Ms Jähnig said: “The agenda is intended to provide the impetus for a stronger global commitment to research and conservation of freshwater biodiversity; however, concrete actions must always be developed at local, regional and national levels”.

The authors of the Agenda identified 15 priority needs and grouped these into five major areas: data infrastructure, monitoring, ecology, management, and social ecology, against which international freshwater biodiversity research should be developed in a targeted manner. The authors also identified three major challenges – knowledge gaps, miscommunication, and inadequate policies – that need to be overcome.

Close knowledge gaps, communicate better and show political courage

Alain Maasri said: “It‘s not about pointing fingers at policy makers or other stakeholders. It is up to all of us – including us researchers – to set priorities and work better together”.

There are major gaps in knowledge and there is unequal access to information, for example about the interactions between organisms and the environment. Monitoring could also be improved with the help of automated image and video analysis, artificial intelligence, remote sensing technologies and the engagement of citizen scientists. Other disciplines and non-freshwater specialists should also be involved.

Communication difficulties exist in coordinating existing monitoring programs, in linking them across sites, and in mobilising and making existing data available. These must be accompanied by digitization of data from regional and national monitoring agencies, museum collections and research institutions.

The authors hope for more political support in the case of conflicting goals between ecological, economic and social interests through the involvement of local communities and experts. This also implies the inclusion of traditional and indigenous ecological knowledge.

In summary, Ms Jähnig said: “Above all, lakes, rivers, ponds and wetlands should be explicitly recognised as important habitats and ecosystems in their own right by policymakers and funding organisations, and in management and restoration programs”.

On the genesis of the international agenda:

The Agenda was initiated during an international workshop of the Alliance for Freshwater Life in Berlin in November 2018. The Agenda reflects the collective opinion of the authors and is based on intense discussions and the exchange of knowledge and ideas since the workshop. The authors are researchers from 38 countries, of which 18 (47%) are considered countries of the Global South. Of the 96 authors, 28 (29%) are affiliated with universities and research institutes in countries of the Global South, and 16 (17%) indicate that they are currently working with indigenous peoples on the management and conservation of freshwater biodiversity. The authors are therefore convinced that the proposed agenda, with its 15 priorities, reflects a representative diversity of opinion.

The 15 priorities:

Data infrastructure – 1. Establish a comprehensive overview of data, 2. Effectively mobilize and digitize existing data, 3. Develop accessible databases according to the principles of discoverability, accessibility, interoperability and reusability (FAIR data principles).

Monitoring – 4. Coordinate existing monitoring programs and establish new ones, 5. Identify and address biodiversity knowledge gaps, 6. Develop innovative methods for biodiversity monitoring.

Ecology – 7. Understand mechanistic relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem services, 8. Examineng biodiversity responses to various stressors, 9. Examine ecological and evolutionary responses of organisms, communities and ecosystems to global change.

Management – 10. Evaluation of restoration activities, 11. Development of management strategies consistent with Nature Futures scenarios, 12. Development of landscape perspectives for management and ecologically sound dam construction and operation concepts.

Social ecology – 13. Incorporate social science into biodiversity research, 14. Development of methods for assessing trade-offs among ecological, economic and social needs, 15. Systematic development of citizen science and participatory research.

Maasri, A., Jähnig, S.C., Adamescu, M.C., Adrian, R., Baigun, C., Baird, D.J., et al. (2021). A global agenda for advancing freshwater biodiversity research. In: Ecology Letters, 00, 1–9. DOI: (Licence: CC-BY-NC 4.0).