China’s longest river is running out of fish

Catching what’s left in China’s Yangtze River.
Catching what’s left in China’s Yangtze River.
Image: AP Photo / Color China Photo
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Overfishing, pollution and infrastructure projects are quickly depleting the amount of fish in China’s Yangtze River, according to Chinese environmental officials. The consequences are environmental and economic–without enough fish the river’s eco-system could collapse, threatening industry and agriculture around the river basin that account for roughly 30-40% of China’s GDP, according to the WWF.

According to a report on April 1, Zhao Yimin, head of the fishery resource office with China’s ministry of agriculture told Global Times,”The ecological balance of the river has already collapsed.” Zhao said, noting that further exploitation could mean a recovery for the river may be too late.

Since 2003, Chinese authorities have imposed an annual three-month moratorium on fishing in attempt to prevent this fate. Cao Wenxuan, a fisheries expert at the Chinese Academy of Science, says that only a 10-year moratorium would be enough to reverse damage caused by toxins dumped into the river by local residents and factories, and infrastructure projects like the Three Gorges Dam (pdf), which change the temperature and disrupt the ecology of the river. ”At current rates of species reduction… freshwater fish are expected to disappear completely within 40 years,” Cao told Caixin last year.

Environmentalists and locals have long feared that the 4,000 mile (6,400 kilometers) river, China’s longest, has been over-fished and over-polluted through the years of China’s industrialization–just another item on the country’s long list of environmental problems that include water shortages, disappearing riversdead animals, and air pollution. In 2011, fish harvests totaled 50,000 tons (45,300 tonnes) compared to over 400,000 tons in the 1950s and about 100,000 tons in the 1990s, according to China’s ministry of agriculture.

The Yangtze spans 19 provinces, including some of China’s largest cities like Shanghai, Chengdu and Chongqing, and the Yangtze river basin accounts for up to 60% of all fish eaten in China and half of the country’s crop production. But the economic cost of the river’s destruction doesn’t only affect China. Economic activity generated by the Yangtze river basin made up 3% of global GDP in 2010 and could contribute 8% to global economic output by 2050, according to a study last year by Frontier Economics.