At 5 a.m., just as the sun rises over Baguazhou, an island on the Yangtze River in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, cargo ships slowly plow downstream. Their frequent sirens startle the birds in the woodlands lining the sleepy banks into sudden flight.
It’s also when Tao Xueyou starts the first of his six daily patrols along a three-kilometer stretch of Baguazhou’s coast.
Often, Tao crouches amid the undergrowth, waiting for errant fishers to show up. When they do, Tao springs out to stop them. He gives them a warning and orders them to pack up and leave, citing the new 10-year ban on fishing in these waters.
Once a fisherman himself, the same ban forced Tao to become a fishing warden.
On Jan. 1, 2020, commercial fishing was banned in 332 natural reserves and aquaculture resource protection zones along the Yangtze River. Exactly one year later, the same 10-year fishing ban was extended to the Yangtze River’s main stem and major tributaries.
Tao Xueyou starts the first of his six daily patrols along a three-kilometer stretch of Baguazhou’s coast, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, 2021. Courtesy of NJU Xinjizhe
Data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in February showed that 111,000 fishing vessels were grounded as part of the ban, affecting 231,000 fishers, including the four fishing families who call Baguazhou home.
Of the four, only Tao relied solely on fishing for a living. Out of work following the ban and with no land on which to farm, he was appointed a fishing warden by the Qixia District agriculture bureau.
Tao started fishing straight after graduating from junior high school over 30 years ago. He still vividly recalls those days: starting work at 2 a.m., the ferry trips across the river to sell his catch, and the time two decades ago, when he caught a yellowcheek that weighed 25-30 kilograms.
Since then, however, he’s observed the yellowcheeks getting smaller and smaller until now, when they are practically extinct. “The water resources have dried up and the ecosystem is out of balance — banning fishing is the right move,” he says.
Though it’s only been about two years since the ban was implemented, the pool outside his house, connected to the Yangtze, already “has so many fish.”
However, Tao expresses some concerns. In the past, fishing was prohibited in Baguazhou for only four months every year. A 10-year ban is “a little excessive,” he says.
To him, the diktat is more like a task that has to be accepted. Though he’s a fishing warden, there are still some questions he struggles to answer: Is the fishing ban absolutely necessary? And is 10 years too long?
Along the Yangtze River — known as “Mother River” in China, which cuts through 11 different regions with a combined population of nearly 600 million people — Tao isn’t alone in asking the same questions.
A sign promoting the ban on fishing is seen in Baguazhou, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, 2021. Courtesy of NJU Xinjizhe
Behind the ban
On Jan. 6, 2019, four central government ministries jointly published the “Implementation Plan for a Fishing Moratorium in Key Waters of the Yangtze River Basin and Establishing a Compensation System.”
The plan confirmed that starting in 2020, certain key areas of the river would enter a 10-year period of recuperation. Among the prime factors for this decision was the steep decline in fish population.
This decline first became apparent when shortages in commercial fish species, like the yellowcheek, were reported.
According to the Yangtze River Fishery Resources Management Committee, in 1954, 430,000 tons of fish were caught. From 1955-1971, the average annual catch dipped to 260,000 tons. Since then, the decline only continued.
By the 1980s, the annual average catch hovered around 200,000 tons, roughly halving in the 1990s. By 2011, it dipped to below 100,000 tons.
In a 2019 interview, Cao Wenxuan, an ichthyologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that when artificially breeding fish, it is necessary to continuously replenish wild fish egg resources for breeding and rearing.
And the Yangtze River is an indispensable gene bank for the four major carp species — black, grass, silver and bighead carp. “If we don’t do a good job protecting them, then we’ll end up in a situation where there will be no fish to eat,” Cao had said.
The trend is not limited to just commercial fish; flagship species such as the Yangtze finless porpoise, Chinese sturgeon, and Chinese paddlefish are also suffering from population decline.
According to a Yangtze River Basin Fishery Supervision and Administration Office report, no breeding activity was spotted in 2019 for the white sturgeon, baiji dolphin, or Chinese sturgeon. Moreover, Chinese paddlefish have not been sighted for 17 years.
“The numbers of flagship species directly reflect the health of the Yangtze ecosystem,” says a PhD student in environmental science and engineering at Nanjing University, who leads a team researching the Yangtze.
He underscores that, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Chinese paddlefish and baiji dolphin are “critically endangered (possibly extinct),” while the Chinese sturgeon is deemed “critically endangered.” “Various data show that the genetic diversity of fish in the Yangtze has now entered a period of rapid decline,” he says.
To protect aquatic life, China began implementing comprehensive fishing moratoriums across 10 provinces and cities within the Yangtze River Basin area starting in 2003.
Around the Gezhouba Dam, in the central Hubei province, all fishing activity was banned in waters above the dam every year from Feb. 1 to April 30, and downstream from April 30 to June 30. In 2016, the ban’s duration was unified and extended from March 1 to June 30 every year.
In a 2020 interview, however, Li Yanliang, director of the National Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Association, stated that a four-month fishing ban each year “cannot fundamentally alter the decline of fishing resources in the Yangtze.”
Incidentally, calls for a 10-year ban on fishing in the Yangtze River Basin began as early as 2006.
The Yangtze’s four major carp species, for example, only reach sexual maturity when they are around four years old. Only a comprehensive ban spanning several years will allow such species to reproduce two or three generations, eventually spawning a noticeable population recovery.
Two finless porpoises swim in the Yangtze River near Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Sept. 2, 2021. IC
The bigger picture
Fisherman-turned-warden Tao Xueyou often wonders why only fishers bear the brunt of the responsibility for aquatic conservation. He says: “The dam we built blocked migration routes — the fish downstream can’t go up, and the fish upstream can’t go down. Won’t that affect fish survival? Why only target us fishers?”
Tao isn’t completely wrong. Dam constructions, pollution in the Yangtze River Basin, river-based transport, and the development of shoreline resources have all contributed to damaging the original river ecosystem.
In 2017, Xie Ping’s research at the Institute of Hydrobiology in the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed that hydraulic engineering had blocked the migration routes of many fish species, reduced survival space, and dealt a devastating blow to dolphins and some rare and endangered fish in the Yangtze River and its tributaries.
For example, the construction of water control gates at the junctions of rivers and lakes since about 1950, combined with overfishing, led to the decline of the baiji dolphin and the finless porpoise. Meanwhile, the construction of the Gezhouba Dam resulted in the decline of three sturgeon species and the Chinese high-fin banded shark.
However, managing the Yangtze’s ecology isn’t only about “targeting fishers” as Tao Xueyou speculates. Projects related to pollution control, sand excavation management, and waterway planning are also on the agenda to protect and restore the Yangtze.
Reflecting the multi-pronged approach, the General Office of the State Council stated in 2018 that it was necessary to “enhance coordination in various plans for hydropower, waterways, ports, sand excavation, water intake, sewage discharge, and shoreline utilization, and strengthen standardized management of the development and utilization of water areas.”
However, compared with the fishing ban, comprehensive controls can take much longer to achieve results — and cost more in the process.
Take pollution management for instance. Starting with the 11th Five-Year Plan in 2006, China already rolled out nationwide limits on the release of major pollutants in an effort to reduce chemical oxygen demand (COD) and sulfur dioxide emissions.
Incidentally, pollution from chemical plants along the river drew widespread attention only after the Ecological and Environmental Protection Plan for the Yangtze River Economic Belt was released in 2017.
“Factories manufacturing chemical products are inherently dangerous — it is easy for explosions and leaks to occur,” says the Nanjing University professor guiding the Yangtze research team.
“It’s why 20 or 30 years ago, people built chemical plants along the river. If there were ever a leak, the waters of the Yangtze would wash it away.”
Relying on the Yangtze, countless chemical plants have flourished and become an important part of the national economy. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2015, there were 12,158 chemical enterprises above designated size — those with annual revenue of 20 million yuan or more — along the Yangtze River Economic Belt, accounting for 46% of the country’s total.
With a market value of 4.7 trillion yuan ($736 billion), these enterprises accounted for
41% of the national total. At the same time, wastewater from chemical plants along the Yangtze also accounted for more than 40% of the country’s total discharged wastewater.
According to the region’s Ecological and Environmental Protection Plan, the intensity of COD, ammoniacal nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds in the Yangtze River Economic Belt were 1.5-2 times the national average.
A plan to address the issue, however, is easier said than done, particularly considering the vast swathe the economic belt cuts.
A decade ago, professor Zhou Quanxiong at the Institute of Industrial Economics at Jinan University, stated in a paper: “Reducing enterprise pollution not only involves large investment and long periods but the operating costs of pollutant disposal facilities after they are installed are high.”
The paper also underscored that when GDP is the primary indicator of a local government’s performance, authorities might get lax in enforcing the law and punishing violators. “Short-term economic considerations often lead local governments to become ‘allies’ of polluting enterprises,” says Zhou.
The construction of dams still remains a contentious issue in managing the Yangtze’s ecology. In 2013, Zhao Yimin, then-director of the Office of the Yangtze River Fishery Resources Management Committee, said in an interview: “We can’t change the construction of hydroelectric dams, all we can do is call for a ban on fishing in the Yangtze for 10 years.”
Though the planning and construction of large hydropower projects must involve the fishery department in accordance with China’s laws, their “opinions” cannot be enforced.
Zhao says: “Faced against the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Transportation as well as large water and electricity enterprises, the local fishery departments and Yangtze River Fishery Resources Management Committee seem very weak.”
In contrast, enforcing the Yangtze fishing ban has met lesser resistance and had a smaller impact on the manufacturing industry, making it an indispensable measure to manage the river.
The complexities involved in restoring the Yangtze’s ecology mandates an approach that combines tackling environmental pollution, removing old dykes, controlling waterway transportation, and supervising resource development.
The 10-year fishing ban is just one small step.
Members of the Nanjing University research team draw water samples from the Nanjing stretch of the Yangtze River, Jiangsu province, 2021. Courtesy of NJU Xinjizhe
According to the professor leading the Nanjing University research team, the Yangzte faces two crises: increasing pollution, and decreasing biodiversity. The latter is easy to overlook. For a long time, he says, “We couldn’t see what fish were in the Yangtze – our knowledge of the area is a blank slate.”
Since 2018, the team has visited the Yangtze to test the biodiversity of fish species and other aquatic animals using environmental DNA techniques. The project helps detect the number of aquatic species in the river and provides data for use in managing its ecology.
Towards the end of each month, the research team sets out on the Nanjing stretch of the river.
Their boat is filled with multiple machines and devices, including funnels, sampling bottles, filter membranes, and negative pressure filtration apparatus. It leaves little room for the team, and the boat can carry only 4-5 people at a time.
The work is painstaking. After one researcher, working out on the deck, transfers water from the river’s depths into a sampling bottle, another inside the cabin filters the sample through a funnel. The team then takes the filter membranes rich in organic environmental DNA — small individual organisms and residues of larger organisms — back to Nanjing to be analyzed.
Students analyze water samples at a lab in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. Courtesy of NJU Xinjizhe
The team repeats this sampling work in the Nanjing stretch every month, collecting samples from nine points across the river. In addition, they collect complete biological data every three months from the section of the Yangtze between Jiangsu province and Shanghai. The team analyzes almost 300 samples monthly.
“From the environmental monitoring data of the Yangtze, the abundance of fish species has improved massively since the fishing ban policy was enacted,” says the student leader.
Compared to 2018 data on the Jiangsu stretch of the river, when 46 fish species were identified, this number now stands at 71 species, representing a 54% increase. This includes Tetraodontiformes, an order of fish not found in the 2018 surveys.
Tao Xueyou may not realize it, but the research, data, and theories on biodiversity are closely related to his livelihood.
But at the moment, his day-to-day work is more important than thinking about the long-term “10-year plan.” He diligently completes his patrols and stops people from trying to fish on the river, all the while thinking about how he can earn more money.
Compared with his income from fishing — anywhere between 50,000 and 80,000 yuan annually — the 2,000 yuan ($300) a month he makes now as a warden has left him struggling financially, despite government subsidies.
A fishing boat moored outside Tao’s house, Jiangsu province, 2021. Courtesy of NJU Xinjizhe
Outside Tao’s house is a small fishing boat. When the 10-year fishing ban was rolled out, authorities took away his fishing license and gear, leaving only the boat as a grim reminder of his former livelihood.
Now, the vessel hasn’t been used in months and is filled with puddles of green rainwater. It’s almost as if Tao’s fishing boat is waiting patiently for the day when it can return to the river, and a bountiful catch will once again fill its holds.
This article was written by Chang Yuzhong, Wang Xiaoxuan, and Xue Jingwen, who are students at Nanjing University (advised by Zheng Jiawen).
A version of this article was originally published by NJU Xinjizhe. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Li Yijuan, Xue Yongle, and Apurva.
(Header image: A woman takes a walk along the Yangtze River in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Oct. 30, 2021. He Youbao/IC)