by Jake Cohen
It may be hard to hear, but the fish in the Yangtze River are burbling a collective cheer. Once again, they've been granted a reprieve from the nets and rods of their would-be captors.
The cease-fire is only temporary. But an annual spring fishing ban along China's longest river gives crucial fish populations an important chance to recover.
"The fishing ban is a great step in the right direction," says Sun Xiaoming, The Nature Conservancy's Yangtze River project assistant. "But we think that even the current ban may not be long enough for these fish stocks to reach the population size they need to be healthy."
The Conservancy is working with various partners to study the fishing ban's effectiveness and build consensus for a new ban that will keep the Yangtze healthy for fish and the people who depend on them.
China is home to the world's leading fishing industry. While much of that activity occurs in the seas that surround the country, freshwater fishing has remained an integral part of the country's economy. Carp species such as silver and bighead carp are currently a worry for scientists and others in the Great Lakes, but in China, they compose a crucial part of the ecosystem, providing livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people.
Carp and other freshwater species are also key to Chinese diets. It has been estimated that fish provide nearly a third of the country's protein needs, and much of that food comes from rivers like the Yangtze.
So when the Yangtze's fish populations started suffering calamitous declines in the 1980s, Chinese officials became concerned.
The fishing ban traces its origins back to 2003 when the government intervened to reverse the trend. Chinese authorities implemented a three-month ban — from April through June — along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze.
The ban prohibits any fishing activity along a 600-mile stretch of the river. While it temporarily halts economic activity for anglers along the Yangtze, the ban aims to preserve the lifeblood of their industry. And while the ban can't revive extinct species that fell victim to pollution and dam construction — like the unfortunate Baiji or Yangtze River dolphin — it alleviates one of the greatest threats to the Yangtze's aquatic life.
After seven years of bans, fish stocks have made a partial recovery. But numbers are still below their historical averages up and down the Yangtze.
After an extensive study, the Conservancy has recommended that the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture extend the fishing season ban.
The research — which was conducted in tandem with the Yangtze Fishery Resources Management Committee (YFRMC) — found that even incremental extensions of the ban could push fish populations closer to healthy levels and improve the prognosis of a much relied upon river. Conservancy scientists are optimistic that the longer ban will go into effect sometime this year.
Long-term projects such as the Conservation Blueprint and a guide to the fish of the Yangtze River give the Conservancy a better idea of the river's ecological makeup. That information comes in handy in determining the targets and scope of protective measures.
"We'll continue working with the Yangtze Fishery Resources Management Committee to measure the effectiveness of the new fishing ban regulations," Xiaoming says. "That way we can get a clear idea whether we need to extend the ban even further to protect this critical freshwater resource."
Jake Cohen is a conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy.September 15, 2011