Freshwater species in dramatic decline world-wide

Fifty-one per cent of freshwater species, from fish and frogs to river dolphins, are declining in numbers, according to the 1999 Living Planet Report released yesterday by the international conservation organisation WWF.

The report, an annual index on the state of the world’s natural wealth, presents the most reliable data available on forest area and populations of marine and freshwater species world-wide. It also examines consumption of critical resources in 151 countries and its consequences.

“This report is a graphic call to reduce these negative trends as the world enters the 21st century,” said Claude Martin, Director General of WWF. “The observed declines in populations of freshwater species is particularly alarming as they indicate the extent of deterioration in the quality of the world’s rivers, lakes and other wetlands.”

Freshwater amphibians are hard hit. The disappearance of the golden toad and other amphibians in Costa Rica has been attributed to climatic changes. Many losses have been recorded in national parks and nature reserves, indicating pervasive threats even in protected areas. In Australia, Panama and the US, about 20 frog species have been decimated by a previously unknown fungus. Deformities are also widespread, caused by pollutants such as pesticides and other factors, says WWF.

Excess amounts of pesticides, fertilisers and other agricultural chemicals are washed by rain into streams and rivers, causing pollution and subsequent damage to freshwater species. The report illustrates how fertiliser use has increased fivefold since the 1960s.

The report was produced by WWF in collaboration with the New Economic Foundation and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Other findings in the report include:

  • The total marine and inland fish caught reached a record level of 95 million tonnes in 1996, up 11 million tonnes from the annual average in the preceding five years.
  • Since 1970, the world has lost 10 per cent of its natural forests. This is equivalent to the loss every year of 150,000 square kilometres, an area larger than Bangladesh, Florida or Greece. In total, only half of the world’s original forest cover remains.


  • The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now greater than at any other time in the last 160,000 years and acts as the major cause of climate change. Emissions per person in North America are five times the world average.

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