In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Aquatic Conservation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Rivers and Streams
  • Lake Ecosystems
  • Freshwater Wetland Ecosystems
  • Coasts and Estuaries
  • High Seas
  • Biogeography and Biophysical Connectivity Between Realms
  • Sociopolitical Differences among Realms
  • Ecosystem-based Management
  • Sustainable Fisheries Management (Ecosystem Approach)
  • Aquatic Protected Areas
  • Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems (Habitat Focus)
  • Ex-Situ Conservation
  • Emerging Threats and Solutions in Aquatic Conservation

Ecology Aquatic Conservation
Jacob W. Brownscombe, Kim Birnie-Gauvin, Jill Brooks, Brittany Sullivan, Matt Ford, Shannon D. Bower, Joseph R. Bennett, Steven J. Cooke, Andrea J. Reid, Lana Dolgova, Ryan Pusiak, Bruce Laurich, Eric Denis Turenne, Aaron Zolderdo, Petra Szekeres, Andrew D. Moraga
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0181


Conservation biology—a “crisis-discipline” focused on protecting and restoring the earth’s biological diversity—has focused historically on terrestrial ecosystems and threats. This may be expected given that humans are a land-based species whose impact is superficially more evident on land than below the water’s surface. However, there is a pronounced need for knowledge of the status of aquatic ecosystems (i.e., marine, brackish, and freshwater) as they cover nearly three-quarters of the planet’s surface and account for 90 percent of its inhabitable volume. Alarmingly, aquatic ecosystems face mounting threats from humanity’s unabated use and unmanaged inputs. Aquatic conservation, as the name implies, is a subdiscipline of scholarly research and practice that is focused on applying conservation knowledge to address the growing challenges faced by aquatic ecosystems which include freshwater, brackish, and marine waters. While fundamentally rooted in aquatic ecology, aquatic conservation draws from other related natural sciences (e.g., genetics, physiology, evolutionary biology, oceanography, limnology) and social sciences (e.g., economics, political science, sociology, legal studies), making it a truly integrative approach to assessing, protecting, managing, and restoring aquatic ecosystems and species.

General Overviews

Dudgeon, et al. 2006 identified freshwater habitats as among the most threatened ecosystems on earth. This paper pinpointed the five major threats to freshwater biodiversity/species globally (overexploitation, water pollution, flow modification, destruction or degradation of habitat, and invasion by exotic species), which mirrored many of the threats identified by contemporaneous studies focused on marine and brackish ecosystems (e.g., Halpern, et al. 2007). Subsequently, William Sutherland and an international group of collaborators conducted their inaugural horizon scan for global conservation priorities (Sutherland, et al. 2009), placing significant focus on the future conservation research required for freshwater and marine ecosystems. During this same timeframe, several textbooks emerged that brought conservation science into the aquatic realm. In his comprehensive introduction to conservation biology, Van Dyke 2008 includes a chapter on “The Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems,” which broadly and accessibly presents the history and the challenges and solutions for conservation in freshwater, wetland, and marine habitats. Norse and Crowder 2005 compiles twenty-five chapters by forty-three leading marine scientists, including a foreword by conservation pioneer Michael Soulé, covering a wide range of topics such as species invasions, fisheries management, marine reserves, and ethical concerns. Bertness, et al. 2014 is a textbook on marine community ecology and conservation that outlines the historical advancement of the field. Helfman 2007 also synthesized the extensive but diffuse literature on fish diversity and conservation, addressing the major causes of and solutions to global fish and fisheries declines. Closs, et al. 2015 brings together contributions of international significance on the conservation of freshwater fishes. This reference identifies itself as “the first assessment of the global state of freshwater fish diversity” and focuses on topics where the basic theory is solid and where practical conservation problems are pressing (e.g., multiple stressor effects, adaptive management practices). Meanwhile, specialized textbooks have also surfaced, such as Coté and Reynolds 2006, which focuses on various aspects of coral reef conservation. An essential compliment to the growing number of aquatic conservation references and practice guides comes from the social sciences realm. Kate Walker-Springett and colleagues derived lessons that can be learned from highly relevant case studies, identifying how environmental psychology can support the management of aquatic environments (Walker-Springett, et al. 2016). As conservation is unquestionably a human pursuit, the human-dimensions of aquatic conservation must be considered if our practices and policies are to succeed.

  • Bertness, Mark D., John F Bruno, Brian R. Silliman, and John J. Stachowicz, eds. 2014. Marine community ecology and conservation. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    Written by leading researchers in the field of marine community ecology, this textbook offers a broad overview of what is known about the structure and organization of benthic communities. It is an important and informative read for all students of ecology, regardless of the habitats in which they work.

  • Closs, Gerard P., Martin Krkosek, and Julian D. Olden, eds. 2015. Conservation of freshwater fishes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book gathers contributions from global leaders in freshwater fish conservation. Spanning the patterns, challenges, and future of freshwater fish fauna, this publication provides a comprehensive assessment of the state, threats, and fate of this highly imperiled group of vertebrates. College students, graduates, researchers, and teachers interested in this subject will find this a fascinating and informative reference.

  • Coté, Isabelle M., and John D. Reynolds, eds. 2006. Coral reef conservation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Presents a multidisciplinary perspective on the coral reef crisis, its drivers, and possible solutions. It also considers the social and economic dimensions of coral collapse, clearly illustrating the ties between delicate ecological systems and the well-being of the people who depend upon them.

  • Dudgeon, David, Angela H. Arthington, and Mark O. Gessner, et al. 2006. Freshwater biodiversity: Importance, threats, status and conservation challenges. Biological Reviews 81:163–182.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1464793105006950

    Written by leading freshwater scientists, this paper explores the vulnerability of freshwater habitats to human activities. Also enumerates the major threats to global freshwater diversity through a well-supported and thought-provoking synthesis.

  • Halpern, Benjamin S., Kimberly A. Selkoe, Fiorenza Micheli, and Carrie V. Kappel. 2007. Evaluating and ranking the vulnerability of global marine ecosystems to anthropogenic threats. Conservation Biology 21:1301–1315.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2007.00752.x

    Develops a systematic approach to identifying threats to marine ecosystems. Expert opinion is used to identify the greatest marine threats as well as the marine habitats most imperiled.

  • Helfman, Gene S. 2007. Fish conservation: A guide to understanding and restoring global aquatic biodiversity and fishery resources. Washington, DC: Island.

    A clear and compelling analysis of the status of fish and fisheries worldwide produced singly by the highly committed conservation scientist Gene Helfman. This intelligible text proves useful and affordable for college and graduate students, as well as professionals in ichthyology.

  • Norse, Elliot A., and Larry B. Crowder, eds. 2005. Marine conservation biology: The science of maintaining the sea’s biodiversity. Washington, DC: Island.

    Produced by some of the world’s foremost marine experts, this is the first single volume to apply the thinking of conservation biology to the marine realm. It skillfully integrates complex topics from place-based management to human dimensions of marine ecosystems. As an intellectually and financially accessible reference, this source serves as an excellent guide for early-career researchers and practitioners alike.

  • Sutherland, William J., William M. Adams, Richard B. Aronson, et al. 2009. One hundred questions of importance to the conservation of global biological diversity. Conservation Biology 23:557–567.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01212.x

    Setting the stage for subsequent annual horizon scans for conservation issues of global importance, this paper led by highly influential conservation scientist William J. Sutherland sets out the top 100 questions likely to have the most impact on conservation science and policy.

  • Van Dyke, Fred. 2008. The conservation of aquatic systems. In Conservation biology: Foundations, concepts, applications. 2d ed. Edited by Fred Van Dyke and Jo Ebihara, 313–348. New York: Springer.

    Drawn from an elemental conservation biology textbook, this review chapter broadly overviews the guiding principles and practices of aquatic conservation and is well supported by cogent examples and concrete tips for addressing future conservation challenges in aquatic ecosystems.

  • Walker-Springett, Kate, Rebecca Jefferson, Kerstin Böck, et al. 2016. Ways forward for aquatic conservation: Applications of environmental psychology to support management objectives. Journal of Environmental Management 166:525–536.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2015.11.002

    A novel overview demonstrating how aquatic ecosystem management can be supported by environmental psychology.

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