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Freshwater Ecosystems Face Immediate Threats

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Written by Elizabeth Hendriks, Vice-president, freshwater

Across the globe, freshwater wildlife populations have declined 81 per cent over the past four decades. That's more than twice the population decline for land-based or ocean wildlife. In Canada, some of those freshwater species at risk include Atlantic salmon, white sturgeon, freshwater mussels, nooksack dace, the northern leopard frog, and seven of eight freshwater turtle species (including Blanding's, spotted and wood turtles).

The Living Planet Report 2016 released today shows that, globally, habitat loss is the number one threat to the wildlife in lakes, rivers and wetlands -- dismal news considering the International Union for Conservation of Nature's recent report estimates that global water requirements will increase by 40 per cent by 2030, only 14 years away. The global water crisis is real and data in the latest Living Planet Report reaffirms this. WWF-Canada's Watershed Reports show that eight of 19 watersheds in Canada have a "high" to "very high" threat of habitat loss, and six of 19 watersheds have a moderate threat of habitat loss.

Considering that Canada holds a global endowment of water, with 20 per cent of the world's freshwater supply, it's tempting to think of the global water crisis as someone else's problem. Canadians have always been told that we live in a water-wealthy country. But the idea that Canada has abundant water is a myth. Only one per cent of freshwater is replenished annually and the Watershed Reports to date show that we just don't know how healthy our waters are.

In fact, 10 out of 19 watersheds assessed to date can't be attributed an overall health score because the data isn't being made available or simply doesn't exist. The truth is that Canada has a water problem, and not understanding it is a key part.

Believe it or not, that's the case in even some of Canada's most densely populated and highly developed watersheds, including the Great Lakes. Given how important our freshwater ecosystems are to our economies -- not to mention our lives -- we simply can't afford to "not know" any longer.

At WWF-Canada, we are forging conservation partnerships with river communities, closing knowledge gaps around national freshwater health and threats, building capacity behind local water stewards to collect and disseminate freshwater data, and bringing the monitoring and management of this precious resource into the 21st Century. We are advocating for and supporting open source data and technology through recommendations to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Fisheries Act, as well as working toward making our own assessments and data open-source.

Canada is a country of thousands of rivers and lakes. The vastness and immensity of our freshwater ecosystems requires a collaborative and co-ordinated approach. Given the regional diversity and enormity of Canada, we recognize it is not a job for one group or one government.

To that end, WWF-Canada is partnering with others to bring scientific rigour to community-based monitoring (CBM), starting with the first-ever national discussion on CBM at the North American Lakes Management Society Symposium in Banff, Alta., in November. Citizen science has the potential to provide rigorous data and timely on-the-ground responses to climate-change impacts on freshwater ecosystems.

From there, WWF-Canada is developing regional networks with other environmental organizations that can be expanded into a national framework to ensure evidence-based decision-making can occur.

As a country, the decisions we make today will be reflected in the health of Canada's waters for decades to come. By creating immediate solutions to get the water data we need, WWF-Canada is helping to understand the health of Canada's freshwater ecosystems, guiding the country's direction in water management and protection of freshwater species.

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