The IUCN has declared the Chinese paddlefish extinct and the Yangtze sturgeon extinct in the wild, in its latest update to the Red List of Threatened Species, published last week.
Both species had been categorised as critically endangered since 1996, and fishing of the paddlefish was made illegal in 1983. According to an article by WWF’s China office, the last time a paddlefish was seen in the wild was in 2003, near Yibin in Sichuan province. A study in 2019 suggested the species had gone extinct some time between 2005 and 2010.
In many ways then, the declarations are not surprising. The two species are, however, iconic in Chinese conservation circles. The Yangtze sturgeon, which could grow up to eight metres in length, was an ancient species known in Chinese as the “king of freshwater fish.” A Sohu article described the declaration as “sorrowful”.
With up to 60% of the Yangtze’s fish species endangered or extinct, the river’s health is of serious concern. In 2020, China implemented a decade-long ban on fishing in the river in an attempt to boost species’ populations. For the paddlefish and sturgeon, the ban is too little too late.
“The extinction of the species in the wild is an alarm bell for all of us,” said deputy general secretary of WWF China, Zhou Fei. “We need a systematic plan and means of implementation in order to address the long-term threats [to other species]… We need more organisations and society as a whole to participate and support efforts.”
The reasons for the decline of fish species in the Yangtze are multiple, including overfishing and pollution. Hydropower dams, such as the Gezhouba Dam, and the resulting disruption of water flows and migratory routes have been cited as a major cause.
Read more about the endangered fish species of the Yangtze River on China Dialogue.