Freshwater Worlds Are Vanishing While Human Population Continues to Soar

March 12, 2021

On our weekend walks, my wife and I cross a footbridge over the East Branch of the Perkiomen Creek. It winds its way through Pennsylvania countryside to the Schuylkill River, which then empties into the Atlantic Ocean through the Delaware Bay.

The Perkiomen Creek is home to smallmouth bass, flathead catfish, rock bass, redbreast sunfish, and carp. Of course, none of these or any other fish on earth have any idea there are global storms raging due to heedless human disruptions of natural systems.

According to a recent report, issued by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and 15 organizations and alliances, fully one-third of all freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction. Some have already vanished forever. The Chinese paddlefish, which could grow to 23 feet and which survived for 200 million years, has recently been declared extinct. It’s one more distressing chapter in a long, sad story of human folly.

While fresh water only comprises 1% of water habitat, it is home to half of all fish species. Freshwater fish are a vital part of complex ecosystems, and many people depend on them for animal protein. With sustainable fishing practices and proper protection of freshwater habitats, fish can be a renewable natural resource that is much more ecofriendly to eat than other forms of animal protein. In general, the lower down the food chain we eat, the better for the planet and for ourselves.

Millions of waterways large and small are under extreme stress from all manner of human activity. The WWF report cites “habitat degradation, poorly planned hydropower, pollution, over-abstraction of water, unsustainable sand mining, the introduction of invasive non-native species, wildlife crime and, of course, climate.” But there can be no denying that rapid human population growth is making this dire situation worse with every passing year. We add 80 million people to our beleaguered planet annually. Each of us requires clean water to drink, food to survive, places to live, and some source of income. This adds to the already crushing burden we’re placing on natural systems. As the saying goes, we simply can’t grow on like this.

The fine organizations that sponsored the WWF report are doing vital work to address direct causes of overfishing and destruction of aquatic habitats. At Population Connection, we focus on one critical cause behind all of those causes: rapid population growth. There is no single magic way to stop the current tide of destruction. But population stabilization could dramatically relieve pressures on collapsing natural systems.

The fish that live and may continue to thrive in the Perkiomen Creek know nothing of threats to so many freshwater species. But we do. We know we must act differently. We know we must act now to stop this folly.

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