Research agenda for aquatic biodiversity conservation in the context of climate change
At the global scale, conservation research does not always influence conservation action. Partly because of this, more and more species are becoming extinct. In the context of the uncertain consequences of climate change, this gap between research and action can widen. As such, we need to further explore the research agenda for climate change and conservation, particularly in aquatic systems.
We do conservation research in order to provide a reasonable or optimum environment for species to thrive for generations. There are many natural and anthropogenic threats to biodiversity, such as volcanic eruptions, gradual or abrupt climate change, pollution or land use change. Over the millennium our climate has fluctuated, something that is regarded as a normal phenomenon. However, over the last few decades, and especially since the industrial revolution, the climate has been changing more rapidly. Predictions state that it will continue to do so in coming decades, creating unprecedented impacts on nature and society. These impacts will however be location, ecosystem, time and species specific.
Aquatic systems support 32,500 species of fish which are sensitive to the impacts of climate change. Climate change will leave some places with a shorter dry season rainfall which will lower the water levels in aquatic habitats. Higher temperature and hot spells will result in more evaporation and less dissolved oxygen content in water; species which are less adapted to these conditions will be most affected.
The animal species that live in aquatic environments vary widely: ranging from herbivore to carnivore; different sizes; varying tolerance to changes in water temperature, level and oxygen content. Some remain local while other migrate; some prefer fast or slow flowing, clear or turbid water.
While there is clearly a great amount of diversity in aquatic systems, we currently have scarce scientific knowledge about how different aquatic species will be affected by climate change. The IUCN redlist of threatened species is an excellent initiative for setting conservation goals and prioritising action. However, in many countries, numerous species (1571 out of total 7300 species assessed by the IUCN) are classified as data deficient and a meaningful conservation policy cannot therefore be made for them. Thus, sufficient data for these species, including how they are impacted by climate change now and in the future need to be produced to better understand these complexities.
Fish species are becoming increasingly extinct with time. Why it is happening? Don’t we know that if we overexploit, pollute, and degrade habitats and change their
environmental conditions, that species may become extinct? Perhaps yes, we know. Why then, do extinctions happen and continue to happen? I think it is because of institutional and governance weakness. Most of the threats to biodiversity happen as a consequence of many years of mismanagement or threats. For example, in some countries dams are constructed in the upstream areas to support irrigation for agriculture harming the aquatic biodiversity. In contrast, many of the key policy making and implementing bodies, such as governments, are usually in power for 4 – 5 years. They may be reluctant to make the long-term policy changes which are very much necessary, but are not always popular decisions to make.
Taken together, biodiversity conservation in the context of climate change needs research and cooperation across multiple disciplines such as biology, social science, physical science, chemical science, economics, politics, and across local, national and international scales and time scales.