A fresh home for fish

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, November 30, 2021
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Several batches of tiny fish swam out of sight in a few seconds in the Yangtze River, in what was the first operation of its kind open to the public with the aim of raising awareness of protecting biodiversity. Between October 24 and November 7, some 300,000 fish of six rare species were released upstream on three consecutive Sundays in Yibin, Sichuan Province, including 50,000 Yangtze sturgeon, an endemic species in danger of extinction.   

Jointly organized by the Yangtze River Office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA), the Yibin Municipal government and China Three Gorges Corp. (CTG), a clean energy group, the event was a follow-up to the COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, Yunnan Province. "The release of fish is of great significance to the protection of biodiversity and the restoration of the Yangtze River ecosystems," Qu Huantao, head of the research and breeding center for rare fish under the Xiangjiaba hydropower plant in Yibin, told ChinAfrica. 

Critically endangered  

Located in southwest China, Yibin is the only nationally protected rare-fish reserve on the Yangtze River. This stretch is also a natural spawning ground for Yangtze sturgeon. This species lost its natural ability to reproduce in 2000 and was classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 

Fortunately, artificial breeding is helping to restore the population of the species. This year, the fish were released into the river after five to six months of captive rearing. According to Qu, the researchers will adopt various benchmarks (physical, chemical, sonar and satellite) to assess their living conditions in the wild environment. "The fry are 30 cm long. With this size, they are difficult to be attacked and they can live normally in the river." 

In fact, this activity is not new in China. In 1984, the CTG initiated release of Chinese sturgeon, a migratory fish, in Yichang, Hubei Province, the point separating the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River. "But the pollution and overfishing still threatened the sturgeon's reproduction," said Su Wei, a doctor working at the Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute. "The use of artificial breeding is a way to fill the gap in natural breeding," said Qu. based on this initiative, the construction of any hydropower plant in China is required to set up a fish research and breeding center to reduce its environmental impact. In total, the CTG has released more than 5 million Chinese sturgeons into the Yangtze River. 

In addition to sturgeons, other rare species have also been included in the list of planned releases. At the end of September, more than 10 million rare captive-bred fish were released by the GTC into the Yangtze River. 

According to Qu, other countries around the world are also conducting fish releases. "These measures are proven to be useful in restoring wild fish population. These are experiences that have inspired us greatly," he said. 

Comprehensive protection  

The Yangtze River is the longest in China and the third-longest in the world. It is one of the cradles of the Chinese civilization. In modern society, its economic role is increasingly important: river transport, fishing, construction of hydroelectric power stations, and so on. Its overexploitation has, however, endangered its ecological balance. Construction, overfishing and pollution pose threats to the entire ecosystem of the river. The Chinese Government has therefore made saving the waters of the Yangtze a national priority. 

Releasing fish is an effective measure. "Rare fish are part of the ecosystem. One missing species in the chain can lead to the collapse of the whole ecosystem," said Qu. 

In addition to this initiative, China has adopted multiple policies to protect the Yangtze River, including making laws and regulations. The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress passed a law to protect the Yangtze River on December 26, 2020. The law, the first to protect a waterway in the country, went into effect in March and attempts to ensure "green development" of the "blue river." 

In order to preserve the river's biodiversity, a 10-year fishing ban was imposed by MARA in early 2020. In less than a year, 231,000 fishermen operating on 111,000 boats had to put away their nets. Local governments are supporting them in retraining for other jobs, including truck drivers, fish farm managers and migrant workers in the big cities. Some of them are professionally committed to fish protection.  

That's the case of Liang Duogang, 44, who is now in charge of patrolling the Yibin section. He has been part of a protection team since July 2020. "I patrol the river daily by boat with my colleagues to intercept illegal fishing activities," he told ChinAfrica. 

His monthly salary is about 3,000 yuan ($470), which is much less than what he used to earn from fishing. Still, he is satisfied: "I have realized the importance of environmental protection. I hope that my descendants will see a greater diversity of fish." In his opinion, the fishing ban and the releases are useful. "I notice that the number of fish has increased considerably nowadays," he added. 

His observation is echoed by experts. "Biodiversity is gradually recovering in the Yangtze. The number of species has so far increased to 79 in the Jiangsu section of the river from 48 in early 2017," said Zhang Jianjun, Deputy Director of the Jiangsu provincial department of agriculture and rural affairs. This year, the Yangtze's apterous porpoises, also an endangered species, are slowly returning to the river. With the reduction of water pollution and the strengthening of protection measures, the number of finless porpoises in the Nanjing section has increased from 20 five years ago to more than 50 now.  

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