HUBEI, Central China — Chinese Sturgeons once numbered in the tens of thousands, swimming up and down the lengthy Yangtze River between their upstream spawning grounds and the sea, where they matured and can grow to majestic sizes of over 4 meters in length and 700 kilograms in weight.
Nowadays, one of their largest populations lives in the ponds of Mei Xinhua, a police officer-turned-fish farmer who has taken it upon himself to try and save the “King Fish of the Yangtze River.” By 2015, owing to human activity and pollution, there were fewer than 100 mature sturgeons left in nature, according to the Chinese government. There are no signs they still breed in the wild.
Mei’s farm is one of the Chinese Sturgeon’s last hopes, but an unlikely one. His ponds measure just seven by seven meters. The animals, who in the wild migrate thousands of kilometers, need only to swing their tails once to bump into the opposite bank. Over 2021, five sturgeons died and more fell ill, Mei says, due to polluted water and a lack of water, both the result of upstream dredging and construction work that affected his water source. At over 10 years of age, the fish were on the cusp of maturity.
Mei Xinhua poses for a photo in Yichang, Hubei province, Sept. 25, 2021. Wen Ruohan/The Paper
Mei himself, at 68 years old, isn’t in great shape either. He has raised the sturgeons at his own expense for 15 years, but can’t eat or sell them because they have been a nationally protected species in China since 1989. He has been unsuccessful when applying for government funding, and is heavily in debt. Much of his time is spent looking after the fish. If he dies while caring for his sturgeons, he says, that would be “a worthy death.”
Mei’s wife sees things differently: “The fish are the greatest achievement of his life? You’ve got to be kidding me! They’re more like his greatest tragedy.” However, she’s more worried than anything, saying “He’s nearly 70 years old, he’s just had heart surgery and is taking medication, and he stays up late patrolling the pond at night all by himself. He could keel over at any moment.”
Single-handedly, Mei takes care of 254 juvenile so-called first generation sturgeons, meaning they were grown from harvested wild eggs that were fertilized and hatched. This figure ranks his old and rundown fish farm as having the fourth biggest sturgeon population in the whole of China, ahead even of the nature reserve in Yichang, the city Mei lives outside of, and the Three Gorges Corporation’s Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute.
An aerial view of Mei Xinhua’s farm, September, 2021. Wen Ruohan/The Paper
Around the turn of the millennium, Mei was forced to relocate because the slowly filling reservoir behind the new Three Gorges Dam was going to submerge his old home. He moved to Zigui County, took early retirement from his police job, and rented a plot of land to build a fish farm. “At the time, the government put out the call for people to raise fish and encouraged migrants (displaced by the dam) to ‘get rich from the water,’” Mei says. “My brother and I both contracted cages in the river. Then later, the cages were brought on shore to control water pollution and I built the farm.” Living close to the Yangtze, Mei can hear the whistles of the ships, and see the Three Gorges Dam from his window.
At first, Mei raised koi, Siberian sturgeons, and other commercial fish species. After traveling around the country to survey the market, in 2005, he had a new idea. “I wanted to develop China’s own fish species,” he says. “The Chinese sturgeon is a rare and unique species with very good traits. If the policies were relaxed ... (they could be used for) leather, medicine, food …”
“But protection comes first,” he says.
In May 2006, Mei obtained a “Hubei province aquatic production license” from the Yichang Municipal Bureau of Fisheries, allowing him to produce species like the Chinese sturgeon.
At the time, Zigui County was preparing to build the Yangtze River Fish Resources Breeding and Releasing Base, and Mei wanted to take part in the project. Between 2006 and 2008, he submitted an application every year and acquired 2,000 Chinese sturgeon fry in three batches from the Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute, “which cost me more than 200,000 yuan at the time” (equal to $25,000 according to 2006 exchange rates). Eventually, the project didn’t fall to his farm, but he nevertheless began raising the fish.
Today, the 254 surviving sturgeons, which started out around 10 centimeters in length, have grown to between 1 and 2 meters. They feed on small black and brown pellets containing oil and protein, which have a slight fishy odor. “It costs more than 9,000 yuan (over $1,400) per ton,” Mei explains. He even specifically told the manufacturer not to include certain ingredients, such as copper sulfate. “We had a lot of problems before we found out the reason. Copper sulfate kills the Chinese sturgeons’ sperm and affects the development of their gonads. I was the one who discovered it.”
The fish have now reached sexual maturity and Mei could start breeding them. But that requires special facilities for which Mei does not have the funds. So his breeding plans are on hold.
Chinese sturgeons at Mei Xinhua’s farm, September, 2021. Wen Ruohan/The Paper
Big fish, little pond
Compared to the Yangtze, which can be hundreds of meters deep and a couple of kilometers wide, Mei’s fish ponds are small, stark, and simple — somewhat akin to “prison cages,” he says.
The farm has no fence, there are blind spots in the surveillance system, and the site is littered with broken water pipes. Water flows from up the hill directly into the pools where the sturgeons live — with no filters or pollution-detection equipment. The oxygenation pump makes a banging noise 24 hours a day.
The ponds are square like “pigsties,” Mei says. Chinese Sturgeon ponds are usually round to prevent the fish — which need to be constantly swimming — from getting scratched. Mei says that the square shaped ponds allowed him to make the most of the little space he has. Seven meters on each side, the ponds are less than two meters deep and contain up to 20 fish.
Wei Qiwei, chief scientist at the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences, explains that adult individuals can move three times their body length with one flick of their tail. “How can you build small ponds for them? If the water isn’t deep enough, the water pressure will be too low and the sturgeons won’t feel safe. In a situation like that, how can they grow big?” The snouts of several of Mei’s sturgeons have obvious injuries.
It’s not that Mei doesn’t want to build bigger ponds. He’s already sold his koi and other commercial fish, leaving him four or five empty ponds. Originally, he wanted to connect them to create a large pond. But money was tight and he was forced to shelve that idea, too.
Water security is also a serious problem. In 2016, heavy rain caused floods that completely destroyed the farm’s main feeder canal, filling the ponds with silt and causing the deaths of over 300 sturgeons. The next year, in a case that nearly drove Mei to suicide, 54 Chinese sturgeons died from poisoning. It remains unsolved.
Several construction projects upstream from Mei’s farm have washed down water polluted with mud, debris, and other waste, some of which Mei believes to be toxic. When, last year, wastewater from a dredging operation flowed into his ponds during the night, three sturgeons died.
Mei’s feeder canal is still not available after it was cut off for a Yangtze River ecological conservation project in August, Yichang, Hubei province, Sept. 26, 2021. Wen Ruohan/The Paper
In late August, the construction team for a Yangtze ecological conservation project cut off his feeder canal. Mei had warned county authorities two years earlier that the project — overseen by a subsidiary of the China Three Gorges Cooperation and carried out by a subsidiary of the China Railway Construction Corporation, both giant state-owned enterprises — might cause trouble for his endangered fish. But nobody intervened. When the water was cut off and he reported the situation twice, still nothing happened.
The following month, the area experienced extremely high temperatures. Around noon one day, Mei took a reading of the ground temperature at the farm, and found it was in excess of 40 degrees Celsius. Without any additional water to cool the sturgeons, two more died, Mei says.
The administrative committee of the Zigui Economic Development Zone, the county-level government body that oversees the ecological conservation project, maintains that, without proper monitoring data or other evidence, the sturgeons’ cause of death cannot be determined.
Regarding cutting off the canal, the committee said in a first reply to The Paper on Sept. 29 that it had signed an agreement with Mei for “canal alterations” before the project started, and that it was funding the construction of water pipes for Mei’s fish farm to “permanently solve the problem of water security at the Chinese Sturgeon farm.”
But Mei said the agreement was not about “canal alterations,” but about constructing a filter pool that could remove the construction debris from the water. The committee then seemed to contradict its earlier statement, acknowledging that the agreement was indeed about a filter pool. All in all, by January 2022, more than three months later, Mei said the feeder canal still had not been fixed and that he was still using emergency pumps at the farm.
Mei Xinhua inspects a dead Chinese sturgeon while waiting for fishery administration staff to finish the anatomy and registration process, Sept. 26, 2021. Wen Ruohan/The Paper
Heavily in debt
His years raising the sturgeons have left Mei nearly 20 million yuan in debt. Mei’s brother puts it poetically: “He’s out of ammunition and there’s no hope of reinforcements; the lamp is out of oil and has gone out.”
Almost everyone in Mei’s family, including his son, thinks it’s time for him to let go.
“The Chinese Sturgeon needs to be protected, but there’s no money in raising them,” his wife says. “They’re a nationally protected species — you can’t eat or sell them. So, where’s the sense in raising them for more than 10 years?”
Yi, Mei’s brother-in-law, says that Mei is the eldest of six brothers and sisters. All five of his siblings’ families have helped Mei take out and repay loans: “Him raising the Chinese sturgeons is a good thing!” Yi says. But he also thinks that Mei should hand over the fish to the state and call it a day.
Three of Mei’s siblings have even mortgaged their homes for him. His wife says that he had always been very close to his younger siblings, but that there had been a falling out in 2020: “Everyone’s afraid that he won’t be able to pay back the money; that it’ll all be gone. A lot of ugly words were exchanged!”
His wife didn’t intend to say too much, but she does have some complaints. “He’s helped protect the country’s precious resources, but who cares about his difficulties and debts?” she asks. “If he hands over the Chinese sturgeons, no matter how much debt he has, I’ll help him repay it. I could sell the house.”
Mei would ideally like to find a facility where the sturgeons could be kept. Otherwise, he won’t have peace of mind. Ideally, they would then hire him, he says. “Even after I’m not able to walk, I can still tell others what to do.”
At first, he planned to use the money from raising commercial fish to cover the cost of the sturgeons. Later, however, the sturgeons grew bigger and didn’t leave him any space to raise other fish.
Mei Xinhua on a night patrol, Sept. 24, 2021. Wen Ruohan/The Paper
Where are the subsidies?
Mei said that he has only been commended once for his work. He and other Chinese Sturgeon farmers were invited to a meeting in Wuhan in 2019 by the Hubei Province Agriculture Department, after 36 sturgeons were killed following a construction accident in Jingzhou, Hubei province. “The leaders said thank you to the farmers for enduring the hardship, and making important contributions to protect the Chinese Sturgeon,” Mei says.
That same year, Hubei announced a policy offering farmers a subsidy, to be distributed by local governments, of 1,000 yuan a year for each first-generation Chinese Sturgeon they possess. Mei was over the moon about the news: Having raised so many, he would be eligible for around 250,000 yuan a year in subsidies. So far, however, he has not yet received a dime. “Even the Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute run by the Three Gorges Corporation, which isn’t short on money, received the subsidy from Yichang,” Mei says.
An official at the Hubei Province Agriculture Department was surprised when told about Mei’s situation by The Paper on April 1, 2021. He said that it didn’t seem possible and immediately called the Yichang Agriculture Bureau. After confirming the details, the official said he lost his temper on the phone with the bureau, saying, “What a mess! A thousand yuan won’t solve any big problems, but it shows that you care about the fish. Fish need to eat! (Mei’s fish farm) doesn’t have the license (for breeding Chinese sturgeon), but the fish need protection!”
The next morning, a deputy director of the Yichang Agriculture Bureau brought two officials to Mei’s farm to discuss the situation.
Five months later, an official at the Yichang Agriculture Bureau told The Paper that Mei would not be eligible for subsidies if he didn’t apply for an “aquatic wild animal domestication and breeding license,” which regulations stipulate he needs for keeping Chinese sturgeons. “The city says that if I get it, they’ll give me 100,000 yuan,” Mei says. “But according to the province, it should be 250,000 yuan.”
In response, the Yichang official told The Paper that the province’s policy did not specify the 1,000 yuan amount, and moreover, that only lawful enterprises can receive the payouts. “If we give it to him, what happens if we’re audited by those higher up?” he asked.
Mei says he never applied for the permit because, when he started farming, the policies were less strict. At the time, the “Hubei province aquatic production license” he had applied to the Chinese Sturgeon. The license was valid until 2010.
When Mei later applied for the aquatic wild animal domestication and breeding license, he encountered a problem: the Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute, which provided him with the sturgeon fry, was unwilling to provide the certificate of origin needed for approval.
Without proof of the origin of this batch of Chinese Sturgeons, an official at the Zigui County government told the Paper that they won’t get involved, but, “if they’re Chinese Sturgeons, [we will] immediately put in place a protection plan for them.”
However, a report dated November 2020 provided by the same official to The Paper shows that the county’s fisheries department was well aware that Mei’s sturgeons had been registered and tagged during a nationwide survey in 2019.
Chinese sturgeons swim in the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute’s basement in Jingzhou, Hubei province, Sept. 19, 2021. Wen Ruohan/The Paper
On Sept. 29, 2021, Mei finally received a report issued by the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences stating that his fish were “consistent with the form of Chinese Sturgeon.” This solved the problem of proving that they were the right species, but Mei still failed to receive the funds. “They said that the money had already been divided up,” he says.
Last month, following reporting by The Paper, an official at the Yichang Agricultural Bureau said that Mei could, in mid February, collect subsidies for 2021 amounting to about 200,000 yuan. He has yet to receive it.
As of Feb. 16, Mei says that his license application is still awaiting approval.“If he can’t repay the loans, then I’ll have to repay them — I let him use my ID in these loans,” Mei’s son said, adding that he had to “help out” his father financially as much as he could, almost every year, to support the “hobby.”
“Not everyone is willing to spend 20 years doing the right thing,” he says. “But at the cost of the whole family, from my personal point of view, I’d rather there weren’t heroes like him.”
Reporter: Wen Ruohan.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Zhi Yu and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Chinese sturgeons swim at the Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute in Yichang, Hubei province, July 2011. Li Xinfeng/VCG)