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UPDATED: May 21, 2012 NO. 21 MAY 24, 2012
Critically Endangered
The recent death of Yangtze River finless porpoises have spurred calls for urgent protection measures
By Wang Hairong

SMILEY FACE: A finless porpoise swims in the Wuhan White Fin Dolphin Zoo in central China's Hubei Province (CHENG MIN)

Li Tianhuai, a fishery official in Yueyang, suspected that the finless porpoises were killed by pesticides sprayed at the lakefront to exterminate blood flukes, a parasite that causes infections among people in spring.

Organizations sprayed the area with pesticides and rainwater might have washed the chemicals into the lake, jeopardizing the porpoises, Li said. He added that after such pesticides were sprayed in 2004, six finless porpoises were found dead within a month.

But the Animal Husbandry and Fishery Bureau of Hunan Province said that the Wuhan Institute of Hydrobiology examined two of the three finless porpoise bodies it received on April 17, and found one finless porpoise was killed by a propeller, while the cause of death of the other could not be determined.

Wei Baoyu, a project leader of the WWF in Hunan, said the major factors endangering the Yangtze porpoises are scarce food resources, river traffic, water pollution, and dredging activities that destroy their habitats and their breeding grounds.

He Daming, a member of the Yueyang Finless Porpoise Protection Association and a fisherman for more than three decades, said that finless porpoises' food resources have been depleted by overfishing, especially from unsustainable fishing methods such as electrofishing. These illegal fishing methods, according to him, not only deprive finless porpoises of food, but may also hurt finless porpoises and harm their reproductive ability.

Wei warned that the plight of finless porpoises might serve as a barometer of the Yangtze ecosystem's health. Their deaths could forebode an ecological disaster, for if the system cannot support the porpoises, soon it may not support other species such as human beings.

Official statistics show that every year more than 7,000 fishing boats from nine provinces fish in the Dongting Lake. Now, more than 10,000 fishermen make a living there, 2.5 times the amount in the 1950s, with many using unsustainable fishing methods.

Lu Yiwei, head of a fishery management station under the Yueyang City Animal Husbandry and Fishery Bureau, said that the Dongting Lake's fishery resources are diminishing at a speed of 10-15 percent every five years. Fishermen can no longer catch as many fish as before, and as a result, their income has decreased nearly 75 percent since the 1990s.

Protective measures

The finless porpoise is currently classified as a second-level protected animal in China. In 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture promulgated an action plan on protecting the species. So far, six nature reserves have been set up on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River to boost their population.

In 2005, the Ministry of Agriculture earmarked 3.5 million yuan ($554,800) for the establishment of a municipal-level finless porpoise reserve in Yueyang.

Nonetheless, Xu published an article in February 2012 claiming that Yueyang's finless porpoise reserve existed "only on paper."

According to Yueyang's fishery authorities, the nature reserve's administration bought law enforcement vessels and office equipment in 2007 with funding from the Central Government, but the local government has failed to pay counterpart funds as required, so the nature reserve has not begun official operation.

After the recent deaths, the nature reserve in Yueyang and Yueyang Finless Porpoise Protection Association led by Xu decided to pool their conservation efforts.

At present, the nature reserve is understaffed, while Xu's organization is ill-equipped despite many volunteers. Local fishery authorities have agreed to loan equipment such as a speedboat to volunteers and subsidize their patrolling missions.

The Yueyang Municipal Government also decided to allocate 500,000 yuan ($79,260) this year to enhance finless porpoise protection, and planned to include further conservation funding in its budget starting next year.

In the meantime, the Hunan Animal Husbandry and Fishery Bureau said that it planned to designate specific areas in the Dongting Lake for finless porpoise off-site conservation.

Wang Kexiong, a researcher with the Institute of Hydrology under Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that finless porpoises should be protected in three ways: conservation in its natural habitat, off-site conservation and artificial reproduction. In light of the serious environmental deterioration of finless porpoises' natural habitat, experts prefer the latter two means of conservation.

Email us at: wanghairong@bjreview.com

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