10-year Yangtze fishing ban in full swing, shows China’s determination in ecological restoration
Healing mother river
Published: Apr 14, 2021 07:13 PM
Xiling Gorge, located in Yichang, Central China's Hubei Province, is the longest of the Three Gorges. Photo: VCG

A picturesque section of Yangtze river in Yichang, Central China's Hubei Province. Photo: VCG

The surface of the Yangtze, China's longest river, is still bustling, but the fishing boats have gradually disappeared. When the 10-year fishing ban began to be implemented along the Yangtze River, the "mother river" of the Chinese nation ushered in a historic opportunity for ecological restoration.

On January 1, 2021, a 10-year fishing moratorium in all-natural waterways along the Yangtze River came into effect, with some 231,000 fishermen surrendering nearly 111,000 boats in a dozen provincial-level regions. This "fish in and people out" movement eyes to not only restore the fish population in the river but also create a new life for the fishermen who head ashore.

Fisheries officials and experts told the Global Times that the 10-year fishing moratorium on the Yangtze River reflects China's commitment to prioritizing ecological protection. The comprehensive and sustainable implementation of this policy is also a campaign that requires determination and great effort for the benefit of future generations.

'Antidote' to the crunch

There were many people in Yichang, Central China's Hubei Province, who spent the past weekend full of anticipation and hope, as they bid farewell to 10,000 Chinese sturgeons jumping into the Yangtze River, leaving their familiar captive breeding environments, swimming from Yichang to the middle and lower reaches, eventually entering the ocean and returning to the Yangtze again to spawn after 10 years. 

"This was the first release since the 10-year fishing ban was applied in these pivotal waters of the Yangtze River. We all know that the Yangtze River is sick. A long-term fishing ban and release initiative may be the antidote," a Yichang resident told the Global Times.

Since January 1, 2021, productive fishing of natural fishery resources was prohibited within the main stream and important tributaries of the Yangtze River, China's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced in December 2019. 

On March 1, the Yangtze River Protection Law came into effect, further promoting the implementation of the 10-year fishing ban policy at the legislative level.

"After considering for many years, the government finally made up its mind on banning fishing, indicating that the most critical time has come to protect the ecology of the Yangtze River," Wang Yamin, an expert on fishery resource protection at Shandong University, told the Global Times.

The Yangtze River is one of the rivers with the richest aquatic biodiversity in the world, supporting approximately 424 species of fish, 183 of which are endemic. However, because of over-fishing and water pollution, the environment of aquatic organisms in the Yangtze River has continually deteriorated.

In the past several years, the resources of previously common domestic fish in the Yangtze River have fallen to less than one-tenth compared to 30 or 40 years ago. Rare species, such as the Yangtze River dolphin have yet to be seen since 2004. The Chinese sturgeon and Yangtze finless porpoise were also on the verge of extinction.

"The reproductive cycle of fish in the Yangtze River is about three to four years, compared to previous three-month closed fishing season, a 10-year closed fishing period can allow them to reproduce for about three generations, which may lead to a significant increase of these species," Wang said.

Former fisherman Chen Hualin provides garbage and sewage recycling services to cargo ships waiting to pass through the gate of the dam.  Photo: Li Hao/GT

Former fisherman Chen Hualin provides garbage and sewage recycling services to cargo ships waiting to pass through the gate of a dam on April 12. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Full-scale action

"The ban is 10-year 'people's war' on overfishing," Mo Hongyuan, deputy chief of the Yichang Fishery Supervision Detachment told the Global Times.

However, Mo noted that Yichang used to be hardest hit by overfishing because it's located at the junction of the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River and the heart of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir area. These factors combined and the rich fish resources on top made it a magnet for illegal fishing.

In 2018, Yichang took the lead as the Chinese sturgeon nature reserve by installing 14 high-definition cameras along the main stem of the Yangtze River to enable 24-hour no-take monitoring of key waters.

Currently, Yichang has further arranged for 16 million yuan ($2.44 million) to plan for the deployment of more than 100 monitoring probes along the 232 kilometer Yangtze River Yichang section, while deploying a scientific research team to carry out big data storage and algorithm analysis of the navigation trajectory of vessels and personnel movement on the river, Mo introduced.

"Previously, many fishermen secretly caught fish at night during the fishing ban season. Once caught, they would throw their nets into the water so we would have no evidence to regulate. Now, we have established an intelligent supervision system that supports evidence retrieval, facilitating smooth law enforcement," Mo said.

In addition to Yichang, the Global Times found that various cities along the Yangtze River have stepped up efforts to carry out the fishing ban. For example, in the river's upper reaches, the public security department of Guizhou Province has deployed police helicopters and drones to conduct regular high-altitude inspections of areas with a high incidence of illegal fishing. 

This year, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai has gradually completed the work of clearing up illegal vessels along the river, carrying out closed management of all tidal flats and sluices, and strengthened comprehensive management of personnel to cut off the shore-based service chains that facilitate illegal fishing, an official of Shanghai Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, surnamed Zeng, told the Global Times.

"All the people on the Yangtze River were in action," said Zou Li, chief of the fishery administration section of the Yichang Agriculture and Rural Affairs Bureau.

Zou told the Global Times that as many fishermen were not well educated, they do not understand the great impact of illegal fishing methods such as killing fish by explosion, with poison, or with electricity. After strengthening the publicity of the project, more people are becoming environmentally conscious. Some citizens even spontaneously created slogans and videos to publicize the fishing ban on the internet. 

In 2020, Liu Chenglin, who had spent 23 years on fishing boats, put away his nets and joined the anti-fishing patrol organized by the Yichang fisheries department.

Liu told the Global Times that all the members of the team are fishermen who quit fishing, "We know exactly where incidences of illegal fishing could happen and which fish in the market are wild in the Yangtze River. I think our work is a 'feeding back' of the Yangtze River using the skills we have learned from her."

"More and more enterprises, organizations, and individuals are joining the campaign to ban fishing. We want to see more fish, to see that the endangered Yangtze finless porpoise is once again appearing in group. We hope our mother river is gradually regaining its former vitality," Chen Weikang, secretary-general of the Straw Circle, an NGO that has long been committed to protecting the finless porpoise, told the Global Times. 

Residents and volunteers release Chinese sturgeons into the Yangtze River in Yichang, Central China's Hubei Province on April 10. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Residents and volunteers release Chinese sturgeons into the Yangtze River in Yichang, Central China's Hubei Province on April 10. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Striving for long-term welfare

Li Chunmei, secretary of the village committee of Baishuigang Village in Yidu, Central China's Hubei Province, happily said that the villagers are adapting well after returning ashore from fishing. But Li will never forget the day when the fishing boats were towed ashore. Dozens of fishermen, with tears in their eyes, touched the fishing boat that had accompanied them for decades.

Li told the Global Times that at first, faced with a fishing ban for such a long time, villagers had been overwhelmed with anxiety. "Having been fishermen all their lives, they didn't know what they could do after they went ashore," she revealed. 

Fortunately, the local authorities have actively assisted fishermen in their resettlement. In addition to giving those who surrender their fishing boats and gears a one-off financial compensation of over 200,000 yuan ($30,562), the authorities have also developed and implemented a series of resettlement policies, including assistance with employment, and the introduction of full coverage pension insurance, and monthly living allowances.

Baishuigang Village also built a "Fishermen's Post house" to display the fishing boats and tools donated by local people.

"Now many fishermen go to work in the industrial park not far away. When they have free time they can come to the post for a look around." Li said. 

At Poyang Lake in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, Zhang Baosheng, a fisherman in his fifties now runs a restaurant featuring traditional fishermen cuisine.  

"In the past, we had dwindling incomes from fishing. After giving up fishing, I took out rural social insurance, alongside the subsidy from the government. When business is good, I can earn over 100,000 yuan ($15,264) a year," Zhang said.

Former fisherman Chen Hualin bought a bigger cleaning ship with the help of local authorities after handing in his fishing boat and set up a cleaning company, which provides garbage and  sewage recycling services for cargo ships waiting to pass through the dam in Yichang. He disposes up to 180 tons of waste per month with a monthly income of over 70,000 yuan ($10,700).

"I'm still working on the Yangtze, but not to hurt but to protect her. I feel very fulfilled," Chen told the Global Times.

Statistics showed that as of January 31, 2021, China had fully funded 25.167 billion yuan ($3.84 billion) in compensation and subsidies to those who have withdrawn from fishing. In the key waters, 129,743 people have been transferred to other industries (accounting for 99.76% of the base number waiting to be transferred to other industries), and 171,626 people have been guaranteed social security.

"A lot of research and effort went in before the ban, because we cannot just look at the decade ahead, but must prepare for the long haul," Wang said, adding that it is a courageous decision for China to exchange the economic gains of the Yangtze River fisheries for ecological restoration, and the well-being of the people alongside the river.

In the next stage, normalizing the illegal fishing crackdown, further rolling out a slew of measures to take care of the fishermen's welfare, and strengthening scientific research and monitoring of ecological restoration in the Yangtze River Basin will be the focus of our work, Wang said.