Sunday, May 16, 2021

Restoring the grace of China's "mother river"

Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu


Chengdu, 9 April (2021) - Zhou Tao was both shocked and enraged when an Australian contestant at a boat fishing championship in 2014 had asked him if there was still any fish left in the Yangtze River in China.

"I found the question ridiculous," said Zhou, who was then a member of the national boat fishing team. "The contestant didn't even visit the Yangtze River before!"

But after he came back and inquired about the situation, Zhou realized that the "mother river" was in dire need of protection.

This prompted Zhou to don the hat of a professional "fish protector" and help revive the Yangtze River that was "once full of fish and birds."

Currently, Zhou works as an environment protection staff in the county of Jiang'an, southwest China's Sichuan Province, frequently patrolling the 40-sq-km waters over the Yangtze, China's longest river.

The county of Jiang'an is situated near the Yangtze, and Zhou's hometown is right next to a wharf.

"I have always been very familiar with the water and the fish varieties inhabiting the Yangtze," Zhou said.

In April 2014, after completing an overseas boat fishing competition, Zhou returned to Jiang'an and visited several local fishermen. He was appalled by what he had learned.

"They told me that the number of fish was decreasing significantly due to illegal fishing," he recalled. "Many fishermen could not make a living by simply fishing."

Some fishermen used electricity while some used fishing jigs, the traditional equipment made of up to 100 sharp, closely connected steel hooks, to catch fish, Zhou said. "As the number of fish decreased, they had to resort to smaller fishing equipment, which led to a significant decline in smaller fish."

To tackle the grave situation, Zhou and his two friends set up a non-governmental working station to address the bad practice of "fishing with electricity" and help local authorities clamp down on illegal fishing.

After four years of efforts, the station won much praise, but its expenses were wearing Zhou out. In just four years, it incurred a cost of approximately 1.2 million yuan (183,240 U.S. dollars), much of which went from Zhou's pockets. The expenses of the station were eating up his savings as a result.

In May 2018, China launched a project to save the Yangtze sturgeons in the city of Yibin, which administers Jiang'an County. Zhou met an expert on sturgeon protection and was later introduced to the Changjiang Conservation Foundation. The foundation encouraged Zhou to help with the protection of the Yangtze sturgeons and other endangered fish species.

Dabry's sturgeon, also known as the Yangtze sturgeon, has lost its natural ability to reproduce since 2000 due to overfishing and crowded rivers, among others.

Chinese authorities have released Yangtze sturgeons into sections of the Yangtze in the city of Yibin to help them restore their population. But, in order to help them breed, illegal fishing must be stamped out.

Under the conservation initiative, Zhou's team employed four former fishermen to help with patrolling the Yangtze. "I love the Yangtze, and I wanted to do something more worthwhile," said Xiao Yunan, 48, one of the team members. "Fishing has been a family tradition, but I stopped doing it," Xiao added.

A patrol team was set up in July 2018 and Zhou led his team members to crack down on illegal fishing, rescue wild fish species, monitor Yangtze sturgeons and promote awareness of fish protection among the public.

The team currently has six members, and each member receives a monthly pay of 3,000 yuan. The team has rescued 439 Yangtze sturgeons and many other endangered fish species.

Authorities have also taken a variety of protection measures. A 10-year fishing moratorium and a ban on illegal sand mining along the Yangtze were imposed. Besides, the Yangtze River conservation law that took effect in March, prohibits fishing for productive purposes in the aquatic life conservation areas of the Yangtze basin.

The slew of river conservation measures has certainly brought results. Many local fishermen in Yibin have bid farewell to fishing and took up new jobs. The number of Yangtze sturgeons caught by mistake has also decreased significantly.

"It is our responsibility to protect our 'mother river' for the future generations," Zhou said.