Threatened Freshwater Fishes of Iraq, with Remarks on their Conservation Status

Laith Jawad1


1 Natural Sciences, Auckland War Memorial Museum, Tamaki Paenga Hira, The Domain, Private Bag 92018, Victoria Street West, Auckland 1142, New Zealand, E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it



The endangered and threatened freshwater fish fauna of Iraq exhibit problems resulting primarily from habitat modification by man. The evolutionary history of the fauna has left it especially sensitive to biotic interactions. In addition, many forms are of such restricted distribution that the entire taxon can face destruction by minor perturbations. Several aspects of the population decline of the threatened species are discussed. Freshwater fishes of Iraq are facing the same general kinds of ecological problems that are causing extinctions throughout the world. The interplay of economics with perceived value in society has led us into the numerous ecological problems facing us today. There is some evidence to suggest that society is making some preliminary effort to slow the rate of extermination. Perhaps this is happening because the conclusions of ecologists, philosophers, and theologians regarding the relationship of man and environment are to some extent being translated into legislation as well as into conventional wisdom.

Keywords: freshwater fishes, Iraq, threatened species, Cyprinidae, Nemachelidae, Tigris River, Euphrates River.




Fishes are the most species rich group of vertebrates exploited by humans. Since the time of Sumerians and Babylonians, they provide food and employment through commercial and traditional fisheries as well as recreation and enjoyment in sport fisheries and as ornamental species in aquaria and ponds (Saggs, 1962; Postgate, 1994). They are also used widely in science (Froese and Torres, 1999). Despite the economic value of these activities, freshwater fishes are probably the most threatened of all aquatic vertebrates. The threat is likely to worsen, as demand for food and conflicts over the use of freshwater fishes continue to increase (Andrew, 1990; Nyman, 1991; Beverton, 1992; Kaufman, 1992; Maitland, 1994; Maclean and Jones, 1995; Kottelat and Whitten, 1997; McAllister et al., 1997). Moyle and Leidy (1990) estimated that 20% of the world's freshwater fish fauna is extinct or in danger of extinction in the near future.

Cyprinidae is the second largest fish family in the world and one of the widest spread in freshwaters, encompassing all continents with the exceptions of South America and Australia. Their distribution range and the limited ability for these species to migrate make this family of obvious biogeographical interest since their distribution closely reflects the geographical evolution of the landscape (Durand et al., 2002). Most of the freshwater fishes of Iraq belong to this family (72% of the native species) (Coad, unpublished data). Although the members of this family are wide-ranging, they face multiple threats including habitat destruction and over fishing (Jawad, 2003).

In light of the apparent threat to freshwater fish fauna living in the Iraqi freshwater systems and the absence of adequate conservation measures, the present study aims to identify the threatened freshwater fish species of Iraq, to recognize the causative factors of their decline and to discuss and propose conservation measures.

Material and methods

A relevant literature on ichthyofauna of the Iraq freshwater systems was analysed. The valid nomenclature is provided according to CAS- Catalog of Fishes database (Eschmeyer, 2013). The IUCN methods, criteria and categories were used in the assessment of the threat level of Iraqi ichthyofauna (IUCN, 2001; Grädenfors et al., 1999).

Results and discussion

Groups of the threatened fishes of Iraq

Table 1 shows the threatened status of the twenty freshwater fish species of Iraq using IUCN Red List categories and criteria (IUCN, 1996). There are three IUCN categories recognized for the twenty freshwater fish species of Iraq. There are three species assigned to the regionally extinct in the wild category (RE), five species to the critically endangered criteria (CR), and twelve species for the vulnerable criteria (VU) (Table 1). The fish species in the three categories mentioned above conform to one or all the following states: (1) confined to a certain area; (2) fragmentation of the population; (3) dramatically reduced in population size; and (4) subject to heavy fishing all year round.


Table 1: IUCN Red List status of the threatened freshwater fishes of Iraq: RE – regionally extinct; CR – critically endangered; VU – vulnerable.




The distribution of threatened freshwater fishes of Iraq that deals with in the present work is in the Tigris-Euphrates River system of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (Figure 1). There are significant differences between the past and present time distributions. In the past, these species used to swarm the Tigris-Euphrates rivers system, Shatt al-Arab River, the marsh areas, and the natural and man-made lakes (Table 2). Some of the species occur only in the upper reaches of the Tigris River, while others are confined to its small tributaries or to the natural and man-made lakes (Table 2). There are several factors that are considered vital in the determination of the restriction of the fish species to a certain area, these are: (1) the preference of the species to the environmental conditions present in the area; (2) absent or fewer competitors; (3) absent or fewer enemies; and (4) pollution. Ten of the threatened species in question seem confined to the Greater and Lesser Zab rivers, the main two tributaries of Tigris River, while only two species, Barbus subquincunciatus and Barbus rajanorum have refuge at the man-made dam lakes of Dokan and Derbendikhan respectively. Other threatened species have retreated to other Tigris River tributaries at the eastern part of Iraq. The change in the distribution of these species started in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and since then an increased degradation and fragmentation is evident in their population (Maza, 2005).


Figure 1: Past and current distribution of the threatened freshwater fishes of Iraq. 1.Al-Qadisia Dam;2. Derbendikhan dam Lake; 3. Diyala River; 4. Diyala Dam Lake ; 5. Dokan Dam Lake; 6. Euphrates River; 7. Habbaniyah Lake; 8. Hammar Mars Area; 9. Khalis River; 10. Mosul Dam Lake; 11. Razzazah Lake; 12. Shatt al-Arab River; 13. Tharthar Lake; 14.Tigris River.


Table 2: Distribution of the threatened freshwater fishes of Iraq