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How shrinking biodiversity of fish impacts our diet

The decline of wild fish species in the Peruvian Amazon could lead to major nutritional shortages, finds a new study

Globally, a third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction, and 80 are already known to be extinct, says the World Wildlife Fund. (Harris Vo, Unsplash)
Globally, a third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction, and 80 are already known to be extinct, says the World Wildlife Fund. (Harris Vo, Unsplash)

While dozens of wild fish species are commonly consumed in the Peruvian Amazon, the people there could suffer major nutritional shortages if ongoing losses in fish biodiversity continue, as per the findings of a new study.

Furthermore, the increasing use of aquaculture and other substitutes may not compensate.

The research has implications far beyond the Amazon since the diversity and abundance of wild-harvested foods are declining in rivers and lakes globally, as well as on land. Some 2 billion people globally depend on non-cultivated foods; inland fisheries alone employ some 60 million people and provide the primary source of protein for some 200 million. The study appears this week in the journal Science Advances.

The authors studied the vast, rural Loreto department of the Peruvian Amazon, where most of the 800,000 inhabitants eat fish at least once a day, or an average of about 52 kilograms (115 pounds) per year. This is their primary source not only of protein but fatty acids and essential trace minerals including iron, zinc and calcium. Unfortunately, it is not enough; a quarter of all children are malnourished or stunted, and more than a fifth of women of child-bearing age is iron deficient.

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Threats to Amazon fisheries, long a mainstay for both indigenous people and modern development, are legion: new hydropower dams that pen in big migratory fish (some travel thousands of miles from Andes headwaters to the Atlantic estuary and back); soil erosion into rivers from deforestation; toxic runoff from gold mines; and over-exploitation by fishermen themselves, who are struggling to feed fast-growing populations. In Loreto, catch tonnages are stagnating; some large migratory species are already on the decline, and others may be on the way. It is the same elsewhere; globally, a third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction, and 80 are already known to be extinct, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Different species of animals and plants contain different ratios of nutrients, so biodiversity is key to adequate human nutrition, noted the researchers. "If fish decline, the quality of the diet will decline," said the study's senior co-author, Shahid Naeem, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability. "Things are definitely declining now, and they could be on the path to crashing eventually."

To study the region's fish, the study's lead author, then-Columbia PhD. student Sebastian Heilpern made numerous shopping trips to the bustling Belen retail market in the provincial capital of Iquitos. He also visited the city's Amazon River docks, where wholesale commerce begins at 3:30 in the morning. He and another student bought multiple specimens of as many different species as they could find, and ended up with 56 of the region's 60-some main food species. These included modest-size scale fish known locally as ractacara and yulilla; saucer-shaped palometa (related to piranha); and giant catfish extending six feet or more. (The researchers settled for chunks of the biggest ones.)

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The fish were flown on ice to a government lab in Lima, where each species was analyzed for protein, fatty acids and trace minerals. The researchers then plotted the nutritional value of each species against its probability of surviving various kinds of ongoing environmental degradation. From this, they drew up multiple scenarios of how people's future diet would be affected as various species dropped out of the mix.

Overall, the biomass of fish caught has remained stable in recent years. However, large migratory species, the most vulnerable to human activities, comprise a shrinking portion, and as they disappear, they are being replaced by smaller local species. Most fish contain about the same amount of protein, so this has not affected the protein supply. And, the researchers found, many smaller fish in fact contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, so their takeover may actually increase those supplies. On the other hand, as species compositions lean more to smaller fish, supplies of iron, zinc are already going down, and will continue to decline, they said.

"Like any other complex system, you see a tradeoff," said Heilpern. "Some things are going up while other things are going down. But that only lasts up to a point." Exactly which species will fill the gaps left when others decline is difficult to predict -- but the researchers project that the overall nutritional value of the catch will nosedive around the point where 40 of the 60 food species become scarce or extinct. "You have a tipping point, where the species that remain can be really lousy," said Heilpern.

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