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    Can Shanghai’s New Law Save the Endangered Chinese Sturgeon?

    The new legislation is the authorities’ latest attempt to preserve the ancient fish species, but experts see the need for more regional collaboration.

    Shanghai is enacting a law to protect the critically endangered Chinese sturgeon, marking the first time a provincial-level region has passed legislation to safeguard a single species.

    The regulation, which goes into effect Saturday, bans the production, sale, transport, and advertisement of Chinese sturgeon, and prohibits people from consuming the fish or related products. It also calls for greater regional protection of the species and suggests that conservation officials could face criminal charges if found to be negligent in their duties.

    Chinese sturgeon are said to have lived in the Yangtze River for as long as 140 million years, even outliving most species from the time of the dinosaurs, according to Zhuang Ping, director of the East China Sea Fisheries Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences. However, the sturgeon expert said the large fish is now on the verge of extinction.

    The Chinese sturgeon is listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is protected under China’s national wildlife law. But human activities such as dam building, pollution, and climate change have resulted in the drastic decline of its wild population — from thousands in the 1980s to hundreds in the 2010s.

    “Due to increased development in the Yangtze River estuary of Shanghai, the ecological environment has changed significantly, resulting in a shortage of food resources (for Chinese sturgeon),” Zhuang told Sixth Tone, adding that a dam has also blocked the species’ spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the Yangtze.

    After spawning, young sturgeon migrate to the ocean to mature, and Shanghai, where the river meets the sea, is a critical passage for the migratory fish. But Zhuang estimated that there are only a handful of Chinese sturgeon — no more than 10 — laying eggs every year.

    “The scale of the spawning area has been greatly reduced,” Zhuang said. “They don’t spawn continuously every year, which is a very bad sign.”

    In December 2019, scientists at the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute declared that the near extinction of the giant Chinese paddlefish was the result of overfishing and fragmentation of their habitat, and called for urgent action. This was on top of the central government’s 10-year fishing ban on the Yangtze River, which started this year, and a 15-year plan to save the Chinese sturgeon that was announced in 2015.

    In recent years, authorities have tried to release artificially bred Chinese sturgeon for the purpose of repopulation. However, researchers studying the species have found that the artificial breeding program has not reduced the wild population’s risk of extinction, as there were no “obvious” gains from adding artificially propagated Chinese sturgeon in with the natural population of the Yangtze.

    “Protecting Chinese sturgeon is about protecting not only the fish species, but also the overall environment that sustains their survival,” Zhuang said. “Shanghai took the lead. But cooperation is also needed from the upper reaches and coastal regions to save the species from extinction.”

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: Artificially bred Chinese sturgeon are set to be released into the Yangtze River near Yichang, Hubei province, April 13, 2020. Xinhua)