There are many examples where habitats and ecosystems have suffered greater damage than usual during COVID-19. For example, ‘in India, sand mining, an emerging threat to freshwater ecosystems (Koehnken et al., 2020), increased due to reduced enforcement mechanisms (Kannan, 2020)’. And in the Amazon, ‘deforestation rates increased by 55% from January to April 2020, compared with the same period in 2019 (Brown, 2020) due to reduced enforcement (Schwartz et al., 2020). This is intensifying pressures on the already vulnerable freshwater ecosystems of the region (Castello et al., 2013).’
Overexploitation of freshwater fishes is another major driver of freshwater biodiversity loss (Reid et al., 2019 and references therein).
Over the short-term, impacts of COVID-19 are likely to affect different areas in different ways, with some fish species benefitting, and others being compromised. But over the long-term, ‘the impacts of COVID-19 can be expected to amplify exploitation and unsustainable fishing practices.’
‘Job losses in urban areas and the return of migrant workers to their rural homes (Mukhra et al., 2020) will increase fishing effort and may lead to fishing practices that will impact negatively on imperilled fishes, such as the Critically Endangered hump-backed mahseer (Tor remadevii; Pinder et al., 2020). This is coupled with evidence of increased illegal fishing activities because of reduced surveillance and enforcement activities.’
‘Increased effort and exploitation have also been documented in many recreational fisheries around the world as many people have sought outdoor spaces while under lockdown and many countries have incentivized recreational fishing as a socially-distanced activity (e.g., free fishing days). Many areas are seeing an increase in the sales of fishing licenses relative to the same periods in 2019, including Texas, USA (39% increase; CBS Local, 2020), Vermont, USA (resident license have increased 50%, Gribkoff and Trombly, 2020), England (increase of 120% in rod licenses; Cuff, 2020), among many other fisheries worldwide. In some areas, restrictions have affected international travel for recreational fishing and related tourism (Gössling et al., 2020), which is likely to reduce local income and compromise co-management agreements aimed at maintaining high abundances of large-bodied freshwater fishes for recreational anglers. Examples include conservancies for tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) in Namibia (Cooke et al., 2016), Arapaima spp. in Guyana (Lynch et al., 2016b), and mahseer (Tor spp.) in India (Pinder and Raghavan, 2013).’
The paper concludes that in ‘one to two years from now, we anticipate freshwater biodiversity at the global scale will be in a similar or improved condition relative to if the pandemic had not occurred. Improvements to freshwater habitat quality resulting from the global ‘pause’ in economic development and declines in human disturbance, adapted fishing activities, and reduced pollution all have the potential to benefit fish populations (Rutz et al., 2020). However, the relatively short-time scale of the lock-down period means freshwater fishes are unlikely to exhibit substantial long-term changes.’
But over a longer time-scale – five years or more – ‘the future state of freshwater fisheries is very likely to be worse than if the pandemic had not occurred.’ It is likely that an ‘eagerness to return to economic growth may lead to a rebounding period that ultimately accelerates and compounds threats to freshwater fishes existing prior to the pandemic. This dynamic may play out to a greater extent in developing regions because of increased prevalence of food insecurity caused by the pandemic.’
In light of the World’s Forgotten Fishes report released by Shoal, WWF and other leading conservation organisations, it is now crucial to ramp up the messaging to encourage policymakers to show ambitious leadership in saving the threatened freshwaters around the world.