Cry me a river

China bans fishing in the Yangtze for 10 years to rejuvenate fish stocks


Fishermen: no longer welcome

In 1994 China’s post office launched a Rmb2.1 stamp featuring various types of paddlefish. The stamps were meant to celebrate the rare freshwater species, which was said to be as ancient as the dinosaurs. Growing to seven metres in length and up to 992 pounds, the giant fish was used in ancient times as a special sacrifice to the gods by emperors. And in 2003 the paddlefish once again featured in a stamp collection, this time one that highlighted China’s critically endangered species. But despite the warnings, this living fossil could not escape the final fate of extinction, as declared in late December by the Science of the Total Environment, a top-tier Chinese academic journal.

Scientists now believe the Yangtze River native died out possibly before 2005, and no later than 2010, based on a basin-wide survey between 2017 and 2018. In the 1970s it’s estimated over 25 tonnes of paddlefish were caught annually in China. This excessive fishing, alongside “habitat fragmentation”, was cited as one of the main culprits causing an irretrievable decline in their population, according to research led by the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences in Wuhan.

The extinction has led to a change of policy. Surveillance drones and patrol boats have been deployed along the Yangtze since the start of the month as part of the government’s unprecedented 10-year moratorium on fishing in its longest river. The comprehensive ban – cutting through 10 provinces and regions from Tibet to Shanghai – will be expanded to all major tributaries of the river as well as connected lakes no later than the beginning of 2021.

China had introduced a more moderate initiative back in 2003, where the prohibition on fishing ran for three to four months every spring. That seasonal ban, however, failed to arrest the dwindling fish stocks.

“As soon as it ended every year, it was a bonanza for the fishermen,” Cao Wenxuan, a marine biologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Hydrobiology, told the South China Morning Post. He noted that there were far fewer fish compared to decades ago and those being caught weighed much less than before. Total fishing catches along the Yangtze, Xinhua estimated, had plunged 77% to 100,000 metric tonnes between 1954 and 2018. In fact, the river now produces just 0.32% of China’s total freshwater aquatic products.

It is hoped that the new ban will enable some fish to reproduce over two to three generations. Meanwhile, although the Chinese government has promised to provide welfare and vocational training for the almost 280,000 fishermen put out of a job by the ban, that remedy is deemed far from making up for the losses suffered by former fishing industry workers, The Economist reports.

Roughly 110,000 households that relinquished a boat received a one-off compensation of Rmb200,000 ($29,084). Even when the seasonal ban was in place, fishermen could make over Rmb100,000 a year from catching sought-after species such as carp or loach.

Following the ban, some fishermen have been forced to move onshore and sell vegetables in wet markets, or simply join the moratorium observation team as river patrollers (a recent HSBC-made film that follows its two decades of environmental conservation work on the Yangtze, profiled an individual on the delta’s Honghu Lake who described his switch to a government ‘policing’ role as akin to switching from a ‘poacher to a gamekeeper’).

It remains to be seen whether the ban will yield results. After all, overfishing was not the only damaging factor. In fact, some researchers believe pollution and damming should take a bigger share of the blame for the extinction of Chinese paddlefish. The construction of the Gezhouba Dam in Hubei province in 1981, for instance, split the paddlefish population, and trapped the ones below the hydropower station from swimming upstream to tributaries where they could spawn, suggested Live Science, an international website.

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