CHINA WEEKLY I June 2012
By Wang Yan
In Yueyang, Hunan Province, a campaign was launched in mid-April in an attempt to secure protection for the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise, a species of freshwater dolphin living exclusively in the Yangtze River and certain lakes its tributaries feed.
In less than a month, conservationists discovered the carcasses of a total of 12 finless porpoises on the shores of Lake Dongting in Hunan Province. The “darkest day” fell on April 14, according to Xu Yaping, chairman of the Yueyang Finless Porpoise Protection Association (YFPPA). “On that day alone, three dead porpoises, one of which was a female carrying an unborn calf, were spotted by local fishermen.”
Autopsies concluded that all 12 porpoises died “unnatural deaths,” though no cause of death was agreed upon. The stomach of at least one porpoise was found to be empty, leading many to speculate that overfishing had caused the animals to starve to death.
A dead Yangtze finless porpoise found by Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province, March, 2012
Nicknamed the “smiling angel” due to its unusual upturned mouth, the Yangtze finless porpoise was first listed as a Category Two wild animal under State protection, with the species expected to be upgraded to Category One, alongside the giant panda and the Amur tiger, in the next year. China’s population of finless porpoises has, despite its official status, continued to decline. According to research conducted in 2006, the total number of finless porpoises along the Yangtze River and their two known lake habitats, Dongting and Poyang, likely stands at less than 1,800, almost too few to sustain a population.
“Finless porpoise populations are declining at a rate of five percent annually,” said Wang Ding, deputy director of the Institute of Hydrobiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2010. “No more than 1,500 Yangtze finless porpoises are alive today. Without protection, they might become extinct within 15 years.”
According to Xu Yaping of the YFPPA, in 2008, it was found that of the 200 finless porpoises believed to be resident in Lake Dongting in 2005, only 80 were still alive. “This species is even more threatened than the giant panda in terms of numbers,” Xu told our reporter, adding that overfishing, environmental degradation and increased human activity in their habitats are all contributing to this decline.
Biologists believe China needs to step up protection of its indigenous species from the damage caused by the country’s unchecked industrial development. The Yangtze River dolphin, or the white porpoise, another indigenous Chinese species similar to the finless porpoise, was declared functionally extinct by Chinese scientists in 2006, the first known extinction of any species of cetacean which was entirely attributable to human factors.
The ecosystem of the Yangtze, the world’s third longest river, has long been under threat from industrial development and overfishing. Pollution, heavy boat traffic, unregulated dredging and habitat fragmentation caused by hydropower projects (see: NewsChina May 2011, Stemming the Tide) have all taken their toll on the river’s unique biodiversity.
In late April, our reporter witnessed numerous dredging vessels shuttling back and forth across Lake Dongting. According to a member of staff at the local fisheries department, the Institute of Hydrobiology (IHB) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) conducted a research project in January 2011, recording a total of 499 large sand transporting boats operating in less than 10 kilometers of waterway, activity which has destabilized the lake bed and decimated aquatic life.
However, with sand dredging contributing 1.2 billion yuan (US$185m) to the Yueyang government’s coffers each year, few local officials are making environmental protection a priority.
Cao Wenxuan, a fisheries biologist with the CAS, which defines “improper fishing” as a major threat to marine life, documented mass depletion of local fish stocks in his latest report on Yangtze River fisheries. Only 20 of Lake Dongting’s 120 former documented aquatic species are reportedly still present in its waters.
Local fishermen, keen to boost their catches, have employed a variety of legal and illegal methods including explosives, electric gaffs and baffler nets, which have further reduced key food stocks for the local finless porpoises.
Formerly abundant species such as the Chinese paddlefish and Chinese suckerfish are now increasingly rare in the Yangtze River. Black carp, grass carp, silver carp and crucian carp, formerly some of the most common Yangtze fish species, are also declining in numbers.
Since 2002, a yearly three-month fishing moratorium has been imposed along the Yangtze River. Yet researchers like Cao Wenxuan and Wang Ding are calling for a 10-year suspension to allow fish populations to recover from decades of overexploitation. “A 10-year fishing ban is not only good for the finless porpoise, but would also help protect fish resources in the whole river,” said Wang.
As a result of declining stocks, the Yangtze river’s fisheries are beginning to collapse. The total annual catch in Lake Dongting, for example, has fallen from a peak of 120,000 tons to less than 30,000 tons of fish a year. According to Cao Wenxuan, the annual catch along the Yangtze River in general has declined from 540,000 tons recorded in 1954 to an historic low of 100,000 tons in 2011. This in turn has pushed the price of freshwater fish to historic highs. In the 1970s, the Yangtze tapertail anchovy, a Chinese delicacy, retailed at 15 US cents per kilo (not adjusted for inflation). Due to overfishing, tapertail anchovies now sell for 6000 yuan (US$939) a kilogram on average, making them among China’s most valuable edible fish.
In 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture launched the Yangtze River Porpoise Protection Action Plan, under which seven natural reserves for river dolphin species were to be set up. The Yueyang East Lake Dongting Natural Reserve was one of them. Yet, despite a total amount of financial support of 3.5 million yuan (US$547,000) from the central government in 2005, the reserve itself has not to come into being, with all funding allegedly poured into the construction of one office building, a water monitoring station and a couple of patrol boats.
During a recent interview with NewsChina, Xu Yaping, chairman of the YFPPA, said that the best course of action is to incentivize local government intervention in protecting endangered species.
Xu believes a good example is the Tian’e Zhou (Swan Islet) Oxbow Nature Reserve, 30 square kilometers of open wetlands near the town of Shishou in Hubei Province, which in 1992 was designated as a national reserve for finless porpoises. Twenty years’ persistent efforts have seen a population of five finless porpoises in 1992 grow to 35 individuals in 2012.
Since the April reports saw the deaths of finless porpoises make national headlines, the Yueyang government seems to have been spurred into action. “The city officials asked us, an NGO, to directly report to the central government on this issue, which has never happened before,” Xu told NewsChina.
“Of course, negotiations and cooperation between the government and our NGO take time. We will do our best to help the government implement a final plan for the establishment of the [Dongting] reserve.”
When asked about how his organization might go about solving some of the major contributing factors to habitat loss, Xu responded: “We can offer our proposals to the government on the resettlement and retrain former Dongting fishermen.”
“Our job is to stop the finless porpoise meeting the same fate as the Yangtze River dolphin,” said He Daming, a local fisherman-turned-environmental campaigner in Yueyang and vice chairman of the YFPPA.
Fishermen use illegal electic charges to fish on the Yangtze
(Xu Zhihui also contributed reporting)