They were 14 hours and more than 7,000 miles from home on a river very different from the Mississippi — China’s Yangtze River. But Brian Ickes and Yao Yin, research ecologists with the U.S. Geological Survey, were looking at monitoring equipment so familiar they could have built it themselves.
But, this is not as surprising as it might seem. Three months earlier, Ickes, Yin and their colleagues at the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, shared the specifications for building standardized sampling gear with Chinese scientists visiting the United States as part of a technical exchange in July and August 2009.
The gear built in China is exactly the same as the scientific sampling equipment used on the Upper Mississippi River System over the past 20 years as part of the USGS Long Term Resources Monitoring Program, the largest river monitoring and research program in North America.
This fall, the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute invited Ickes and Yin to spend more than two weeks in China sharing their river monitoring expertise — including how to deploy the new equipment for surveying fish and other aquatic animals — with Institute staff and faculty and students from Chinese universities.
Their trip was part of an ongoing exchange between USGS and the Chinese government, initiated by The Nature Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership, to help China further develop its aquatic monitoring systems.
Human Use Taking Toll on Fish Populations
Like the Mississippi River, the Yangtze has been heavily impacted by human use. Fish populations have declined due to overharvesting for food and hydropower dams, which prevent fish from moving upstream to spawn.
“China has implemented fishing bans, artificial propagation programs and other measures in recent years to help fish like the Chinese sturgeon recover,” said Yao Yin, “but good monitoring systems are needed to collect quantitative data to guide their efforts in the long and challenging fight to restore the health of the Yangtze.”
During the trip, Ickes and Yin spent time in the Yangtze and two of its tributary streams — the Jinsha and Chishui rivers — showing their Chinese counterparts how to catch fish and other aquatic animals using two different hoop nets.
“We shared basic information with them about how to use the equipment,” said Ickes. “These are details that we take for granted because we work with this equipment so much. But for them it was new and will, I think, make a big difference in the monitoring results they are able to get in the future.”
Expanding Work on Yangtze to Yellow River
From the Yangtze, Ickes and Yin traveled with their hosts to the upper reaches of the Yellow River, China’s second longest river after the Yangtze. Its fish populations are also declining largely due to dams that prevent fish from spawning and reproducing. The government would like to expand its monitoring efforts on the Yellow River and wanted to show Ickes and Yin their facilities and get some guidance from them.
The group visited a new fish hatchery on the Yellow River where fisheries managers are trying to propagate fish species native to the river in order to conserve them.
Fisheries managers collect adult fish from the river and truck them more than 240 miles to their hatchery. Their goal is to spawn the adults, hatch their fry and stock the juvenile fish back to the river, compensating for the loss of natural spawning areas.
“By the time they get the adults to the fish hatchery, they are pretty stressed and some are diseased and dying,” commented Ickes. “They said they lose about 50 percent of the adults in the transport process.”
Although fish propagation is not his specialty, Ickes has learned about it from his colleagues at the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center and was able to share some methods that USGS uses to reduce stress and deal with fungus and other diseases contracted during transport.
$1.9 Million Grant Will Support Continued Collaboration
When asked what they thought they had accomplished on the trip, both Yin and Ickes felt that one of their biggest achievements was providing hands-on training to their Chinese counterparts, in their own rivers, using the resources they have available to them.
“I also feel that we were able to establish a stronger relationship with them built on trust and mutual respect,” said Yin. “This will be important as we continue to work together in the future and share information between our respective rivers.”
Both Yin and Ickes hope the working relationship between USGS and the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute will continue. Recent news of a $1.9 million grant from China’s Ministry of Science and Technology to support fisheries research for ecosystem restoration of the Yangtze and other major Chinese rivers makes that more likely.
Duan Xinbin, an Institute researcher who participated in the trip to the U.S. in July and August, wrote the grant upon his return to China and recently learned that it was funded. He incorporated ideas gained during the scientific and technical exchange into the grant, and the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center is one of two USGS centers listed as technical collaborators.
“This is great news,” said Yin. “We have a lot to share with other river systems and much to learn from them. It’s important to continue to build on the strong foundation we’ve laid on the Yangtze.”
“International exchanges are difficult,” said Ickes. “There’s a lot of red tape to cut through. The collaborative partnership we’ve established with Duan Xinbin and his colleagues would not have been possible without the Great Rivers Partnership. I think we will see real benefits to great rivers in both countries in the years to come.”