Watery Grave for Yangtze River Fish

(Beijing)—Fishermen along the banks of the mighty Yangtze River have long spoken of emptier nets and longer waits for a catch.

On April 2, an unusual auction held in a downstream city in Jiangsu Province added weight to their bleak reports: A single, 325-gram saury fish, a graceful species once common in the river, was sold to the highest bidder for a shocking 59,000 yuan.

Popularly known as the “knife fish” in China, the saury used to be a dinner staple up and down the Yangtze. Today, the breed is so rare that only the wealthiest of diners can afford a single fish.

Scientists say overfishing in the river, infrastructure projects and an unrelenting deluge of pollution from cities and factories could soon wipe out the saury—and maybe all aquatic life on the Yangtze. Many species, from river dolphins to crabs, have already disappeared.

“At current rates of species reduction,” said Cao Wenxuan, a fisheries expert at the Chinese Academy of Science, “freshwater fish are expected to disappear completely within forty years.”

Fish stocks started to steadily plummet two decades ago. Cao Jianping, former director of a fish monitoring station in the Jiangsu city of Changshu, said he’s watched the saury decline from rare to nearly endangered.

According to statistics from the Freshwater Fisheries Research Centre (FFRC) at the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences, some 3,750 tons of saury were harvested in 1973. Anglers pulled in just 370 tons in 1983, and only 100 tons in 2002—the last year records were kept.

FFRC Resource Research Center Director Shi Weigang said: “The number of fish in the river may be just above zero now.”

And surviving fish have gotten a lot smaller. Veteran fisherman Chen Chusheng said he remembers typically catching 300-gram saury fish in the 1970s. Now, if one can be found, the standard weight is under 100 grams.

In addition to the steady trickle of toxins from innumerable shoreline sources, the river has seen plenty of major pollution disasters. In February, for example, a docked cargo ship near the Jiangsu city of Zhenjiang leaked carbolic acid into the Yangtze and sparked panic among area residents who feared their drinking water had been contaminated.

Wen Lida, a former director of the Changjiang Water Resources Committee, said the Yangtze is today the most polluted river in China. Industrial discharges alone grew by 13 billion tons from 1990 to 2011, he said.

Not only has waste dumping damaged the river’s fish, Shi said, but water control projects for urban areas and farm irrigation have taken a heavy toll, too. Habitats have been destroyed, leaving fewer places for fish to spawn. Infrastructure projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2008, have upset fish migration and breeding.

“Environmental issues on the Yangtze River such as water pollution and water diversion projects have damaged fish spawning areas,” Shi said.

FFRC Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute Deputy Director Chen Daqing has suggested roping off sections of the river and creating nature reserves to protect the few fish that remain.

Zhang Tongqing, deputy director of the Jiangsu Fresh Water Aquiculture Research Institute, said government agencies have for years been building more fish hatcheries along the Yangtze. But these efforts may be in vain, he said, as it may be impossible to bring fish stocks back to healthy levels.

Hatcheries and improved technology will not reverse the steady decline of fish and other life in the river, Zhang said. What’s really needed is a clean sweep of the mighty river.

“We believe addressing the core problem comes down to dealing with severe water pollution,” he said.

Gong Jing is a Caixin staff reporter.