The Chinese paddlefish, an ancient freshwater species that outlived the dinosaurs, has been officially declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, highlighting the risks for wildlife amid a worsening river ecosystem.
The conservation organization that monitors the status of threatened species declared that all the 26 remaining species of sturgeon in the world are now at risk of extinction due to human activities and climate change, according to a statement released Thursday. IUCN also upgraded the status of Yangtze sturgeon, another representative species in the Yangtze River, from critically endangered to extinct in the wild.
“The world’s failure to safeguard sturgeon species is an indictment of governments across the globe, who are failing to sustainably manage their rivers and live up to their commitments to conserve these iconic fish and halt the global loss of nature,” said Arne Ludwig, chair of the IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group.
With a sword-like rostrum, the adult Chinese paddlefish reached up to 7 meters in length and was one of the world’s largest fish. Living primarily in the Yangtze River Basin, it was around for at least 200 million years and last seen in 2003.
Sturgeons are migratory fish and are under threat of poaching and loss of migratory routes due to dam construction across the globe. In China, overfishing and infrastructural constructions have fragmented habitats and prevented the fish from reaching spawning grounds, becoming the primary cause of the extinction of the Chinese paddlefish, according to a 2020 study.
The study published in the academic journal Science of The Total Environment had estimated that the Chinese paddlefish was likely to be extinct between 2005 and 2010.
Wei Qiwei, chief scientist at the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences who led and co-authored the 2020 study, told Sixth Tone that the extinction of the Chinese paddlefish has sounded an alarm for the Yangtze sturgeon and the critically endangered Chinese sturgeon. They are the two remaining sturgeon species native to the Yangtze.
“We have a race against time,” Wei said in a phone interview.
Wei had previously told domestic media that the construction of the Gezhouba Dam, part of the gigantic Three Gorges Dam, was one of the primary reasons behind the extinction of paddlefish. He said the construction cut off the route that the fish relied on to migrate from the middle reaches of the Yangtze to spawn upward in the Jinsha River.
“If not for the Gezhouba Dam, the paddlefish wouldn’t have gone extinct so early,” Wei told Sixth Tone.
Dams, overfishing, pollution, and other human activities have plagued the Yangtze River for decades. China introduced a raft of measures to protect the river and its aquatic species, including the ban of spring fishing as early as 2003, though it has failed to save some iconic species from extinction, such as the baiji, a freshwater dolphin.
In 2020, China introduced the landmark Yangtze River Protection Law to safeguard its mainstream, tributaries, and connecting lakes from human activities. Meanwhile, conservation groups have called for better governance to restore river connectivity and protect sturgeon habitats in key rivers, and experts like Wei said there were many challenges, including securing finances and a lack of a dedicated authority to oversee conservation efforts.
“The biggest issue now is about implementation,” said Wei.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: The last Chinese paddlefish was seen alive in 2003. Photo by Qi Weiwei from @WWF世界自然基金会 on Weibo)