An Interview with World Fish Migration Day's

Pao Fernández Garrido

January 5, 2021

Madrid-born Pao Fernández Garrido has a degree in Forestry Engineering and a Master’s in Ecosystems Restoration. She’s had a variety of roles in the forestry and fish research sectors, gaining extensive experience in dam removal, monitoring and designing of fishways. Pao has worked for the World Fish Migration Foundation since its inception. As its Project Coordinator, this year, she was tasked with organising a very different World Fish Migration Day event, which took place mostly online! We spoke with her about the challenges and benefits of this virtual format, and her thoughts about sustainable solutions for river repopulation and saving endangered fish species.

Great to speak with you again, Pao. So let's jump right into it. Due to the pandemic, this year's World Fish Migration Day saw celebrations taking place from May 16th to the finale on the 24th October. Can you please tell us about the event and share some of the main highlights?


Pao: The World Fish Migration Day is every two years and this one was planned for May 16th, but we postponed it because of Covid-19. And due to the restrictions, we were extremely flexible in order to allow everybody to host something, so some events were held in May and others in September and October. This year, to our surprise, we think we reached more people than in past years, even though we had fewer events and lots of cancellations. We had hoped for 1000 events and only got 361, but actually, because many of the events were online and had a bigger audience, we reached more people than before. It was more work for us, and we were more involved in these events, giving presentations and sharing our experience. For me it was particularly interesting because many of these events were webinars or virtual round tables, or maybe a film screening and then a virtual discussion.


In South America, the hub event was a 2-day webinar. Through interviews, I got the chance to show Brazilian people case studies and what is going on in South Korea, South Africa, Finland and Spain. It showed us the connection between the countries; how they are fighting and really making a huge effort to recover their fish and rivers. It was very positive and showed people they’re not alone in their efforts. Sometimes we think only about our region or our country and usually it is not easy to connect with other people, so it was a very rich experience in that respect. Of course, it was not as exciting as it would have been to be with other people on site, but it was tremendously interesting.



USA - World Fish Migration Day 2020

IMAGE: Florida Defenders of the Environment

On May 14th, we held an ‘official opening’ of the 6-month period of World Fish Migration Day. We organised a Global Swimways Webinar Marathon, a 24-hour webinar to celebrate the start of World Fish Migration Day 2020. It began in New Zealand and ended in Hawaii, with nine sessions covering all continents. Asia is so big that we had three different sessions. And over 2000 people attended: students, water and river authorities and researchers, and NGOs. This year they all had the opportunity to see what is going on in other parts of the world, and that the decline of river migration is not just in their home river but all over the globe. It was fantastic for international connection. We had 72 counties participating, including Venezuela and 10 countries in Africa that were all new to the celebration. All participants are in the same situation: we want to recover our rivers, which are in critical condition.




China - World Fish Migration Day 2020


And how about the International Eurofishion Song Contest?


Pao: It was amazing. We had more entries than we thought we would receive: a total of 40. The winner was from Kenya and he mixed English and Swahili. When we organised the contest, we did not expect such high-quality production and lyrics, or that the entries would be so professional. Each country portrays their own problems with their rivers in the songs, and in Kenya, for instance, the pollution is terrible.


We engaged more people than we thought. Toddlers, children, teenagers, adults and even seniors were involved! The finale was a two-and-a-half-hour online show and it was like real Eurovision. With this, we were reminded that it is important to engage people in a fun and positive way, because you don't really engage people by just showing the problems. We will now see if we can hold the Eurofishion Song Contest in the future, too, as it is a good way to attract other audiences. It was one of the highlights of World Fish Migration Day 2020.




Slovakia - World Fish Migration Day 2020


This year's Living Planet Index (LPI) for Migratory Freshwater Fish report, issued by the World Fish Migration Foundation and Zoological Society of London, found an average 93% decline in monitored migratory fish populations in Europe since 1970. Yet the global average stands at 76%. What are the reasons we are observing such a drastic decline in Europe and what more can be done to combat it?


Pao: Thanks to the AMBER project, we now know that we have the most fragmented rivers in the world, and that this has been the case for a long time. So it totally makes sense. It fits with the story, showing that it’s not only chemical pollution that can affect your fish population. You need to open the swimways for fish to complete their life cycles. Otherwise, it is impossible for them to survive and they will disappear. This is clearly what has happened. After four years of working on the importance of river fragmentation and trying to recover and reconnect, through World Fish Migration Day, Dam Removal Europe and the data from AMBER—and through our lobby of the European Commission—we’re getting somewhere. We and our partners are very happy that we are part of one of the EU biodiversity strategy’s achievements. In this EU biodiversity strategy, it states that we must now remove barriers from at least 25 thousand kilometres of rivers in Europe. This is a great start.


This would have been unthinkable just ten or five years ago. The governments were very focused on pollution, which is great, but even if your rivers are super transparent, clear and clean, if fish cannot complete their life cycle, they will disappear, and river fragmentation is the main reason for the decline we see in fish numbers. That is why we are so worried that this will happen in the future in Latin America, Africa and Asia; the declines we are already seeing in their numbers are from the last 30 years of fragmentation, because 60 years ago they barely had any dams. So, imagine the declines, the drastic declines, if they keep managing their rivers the way we have been doing for a century. It will be a catastrophe. We really need to start a conversation to avoid it on these continents.



Benin - World Fish Migration Day 2020

IMAGE: Credi Ong

In partnership with WWF-Romania and the “Danube Delta” National Institute for Research and Development (DDNI), seven hundred Russian sturgeons were released into the Danube one week before this year's World Fish Migration Day, while 11,000 baby belugas were released into the Danube by WWF Bulgaria to mark the event. Do you think we are going to see a ramping up of the restocking of rivers with critically endangered species in the coming years?


Pao: I am not a biologist; I’m an engineer, a fishway and dam removal engineer, so I think this question should be put to different people. But in my opinion, we are not going to solve the problem just by restocking. It can help to give us more time before the extinction of these species, but it is not going to solve the problem long-term.


The good thing about nature is that it is sustainable if you don’t get in the way. It does not cost you money and it does a better job than you do. That is what you want. You don't want to have to manipulate everything. It does not make any sense.


Spain's sturgeon is another example. It completely disappeared and the last one was seen in the South of Spain in 1992. And that is clearly because of dams. It is officially recognised in the Ministry for Environment that sturgeon disappeared because of fragmentation. Now, Catalonia is putting in so much effort to recover its extinct sturgeon. It is bringing sturgeon from other parts of Europe and trying to reintroduce it, but how far is it going to get if its swim ways are not recovered? Will they have to restock forever to keep sturgeon in their rivers? So, this is a real example of where restocking does not work.


Carlos García de Leaniz, Project Coordinator of AMBER, Professor and Chair in Aquatic Biosciences at Swansea University (Wales): Stocking does more harm than good! Spain hardly has any salmon left, and stocking has simply made the situation worse...


Kim Aarestrup, leading marine biologist, Professor at the Technical University of Denmark, AMBER project partner: I totally agree with Carlos. Stocking can be used as a genetic reservoir, but if you don't address the fundamental problems, stocking will end up damaging the population due to hatchery effects, potential inbreeding or outbreeding (depending on how you approach it). Stocking has been the go-to option for almost a century and has only made things worse. The major problem being it is used as a pacifier, to ignore or delay solving the problem. Stocking will give laymen the impression you are doing something, but in fact, you are not helping anything. It is completely equivalent to putting in a fish ladder instead of removing the weir, which has also led to multiple populations of fish going extinct. By the way, stocking is not just an aquatic problem, the same sort of thing happens with terrestrial animals, with the zoological gardens as prominent participants.


Eva García Vázquez, expert on the development and application of DNA-based methodology, Professor of Genetics at the University of Oviedo, Spain (AMBER project partner):

I can't help but agree with Kim there... It’s important to remember that a good bunch of scientific studies from North Spain, plus the current evidence of very small, declining populations here, will support it. Not ALL the current populations in North Spain come from stocking. Fortunately, there are still some native genomes out there...




RUSSIA - World Fish Migration Day 2020

IMAGE: Mikhail S. Chebanov

This edition of Sustain Europe has a special focus on the impact chemical and hydrocarbon pollution has on the aquatic environment. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with these threats to fish migration?


Pao: Again, from an engineer’s point of view, I think chemicals are also barriers. Not physical barriers, but chemical barriers.

If you imagine a fire on a street, how are you going to cross that street? Chemicals pose the same problem. It’s crucial to solve the chemical pollution issue to enable not only migratory fish, but all living creatures, to reach their destinations in a healthy condition. You can have a wonderful fish population, but if they are eating polluted food—food polluted with human medicines and hormones from those medicines, for example, as they’ve found from testing in Rome and Spain—how well are they going to be? And I know of the cases in Rome and Spain, but it must be in all of Europe. So my opinion is that it is very important that we don't forget about pollution and the chemical barriers. It might not seem so serious in the short term, but in the long term, it will affect the birds and other animals and then eventually us. Even if you don't really care about this situation, it will affect you sooner or later.


The pollution situation is especially important in the countries where they get food directly from their rivers. We don't usually eat fish from our rivers in Europe as they are not productive anymore, but in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, most of the protein they consume come directly from the fish of their rivers. It is crucial not to have chemicals in the rivers from mining and other industries. We might not see the real impact on human health for a few decades, but the cause of that impact is happening right now.


Kim: Chemical pollution comes in many forms. Yes, some will kill fish (like the Sandoz pollution in the Rhine), whereas others have sub-lethal effects (for example heavy metals, that will build up in fat tissue and affect reproductive potential). Then there is the whole suite of pesticides and their secondary products, where cocktail effects are problematic and largely undocumented. Finally, the human medication issue, where the release of estrogen or estrogen-mimicking compounds and antidepressants from wastewater ends in the aquatic environment. It is well documented that these have wide-ranging sub-lethal effects on fish.

So yes, there are definitely challenges with that. The difference is also that wastewater can be treated differently to take the waste products out, so the problem is relatively easily solved if you are serious about it (it comes at a cost of course). But if the fish already went extinct because of barriers, you don't need to worry about that.


Eva: That’s 100% true. It hits harder on human populations that depend on fish for food. We must remember that some pollutants bioaccumulate going up the trophic chain - many large fish are top predators. Humans that eat those fish ingest even more pollutants e.g. heavy metals than those eating the type of food from the same region. We could say that migratory fish coming from open seas may introduce some ocean pollutants in the river, but it is the other way around: most pollutants travel the rivers downstream to the sea. But it's also true that if there are no fish because rivers are blocked, the problem is solved.



Cambodia - World Fish Migration Day 2020

IMAGE: Chea Seila

What's on the horizon for World Fish Migration Day?


Pao: The ambition of World Fish Migration Day and our Foundation is rivers full of fish again in Europe. We have forgotten how our rivers were—for example, how productive German rivers were just a century ago with their wild salmon fisheries. What we want is for people to realise what a healthy river is, and how productive and important they are. And in other countries, where the catastrophe has not happened yet, to see Europe as an example of what can happen in the near future, perhaps in 50 years. So by looking at us, they can avoid the problems we’ve caused ourselves and do better. We are connecting people so they can see what can happen if you mismanage your river. We can offer solutions, but it’s best to avoid these issues in the first place, as it is very expensive to correct them.


For example, let me share a case people don't know about: the national catastrophe happening in South Korea right now. The government in South Korea built 16 dams on their 4 main rivers a decade ago. More than half of the country was against it and a monk named Moon-Su even burnt himself to death protesting against it. This isn’t known about worldwide and these dams were built only 10 years ago, but the toxic algae boom caused the death of millions of fish and make it impossible to drink the water. The government has now decided to fully remove 2 dams and partially remove another one, even though they were only built 10 years ago. Usually, you remove a dam after 60 or 100 years.


So, this is what we are trying to do with World Fish Migration Day. We’re saying, look what is happening around the world, this is not only happening in your region. Our mission is to see rivers full of fish, to have healthy rivers, and for people to know the importance of it and enjoy them. At this moment, we are very distant from our rivers. The second thing we’re trying to do is to highlight the many thousands of organisations that are doing this wonderful work. We are creating the biggest network of these organisations from around the world and showcasing their efforts.


This is what we aim for in the future: to connect people with their rivers, to avoid future problems and to share good practices and solutions.






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