A Third of Fish Species in China River Extinct, Officials Say

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 19, 2007
More than 30 percent of fish species in the Yellow River have gone extinct, Chinese government officials reported this week.

"There used to be more than 150 species of fish living in the Yellow River, but one-third have disappeared for good," an unnamed Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) official told China's People's Daily newspaper.

The MOA official also reported that the Yellow River's fish catch has declined by about 40 percent and emphasized a human role—such as disruptive dams and pollution—in the environmental catastrophe.

"Overfishing, persistent dumping, and hydropower projects along the river have degraded the underwater ecological environment," he said.

The Chinese government estimates that 66 percent of the Yellow River's water is so polluted that it is undrinkable (related photo: pollution turns Yellow River red [October 23, 2006]).

Jennifer Turner, head of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., said that the river's fouled waters mirror a nationwide problem that threatens wildlife as well as human health.

"The Yellow River is the Mother River," Turner said, referring to the waterway's role as the cradle of northern Chinese civilization.

"If the Mother River is sick, that's a major indication of the whole problem of China's inability to protect water resources."

The national government considers some 70 percent of the country's rivers and lakes to be seriously polluted.

When the River Runs Dry

The Yellow River is China's second longest after the Yangtze, flowing for nearly 3,400 miles (5,500 kilometers) from the arid Qinghai-Tibet plateau to the Bo Hai inlet of the Yellow Sea (China map).

Along the way the river brings water to more than 155 million Chinese.

But the river has suffered from decreased flows in recent years. During extended droughts no water at all makes it to its lower reaches.

Chinese officials cite decreased rainfall as an explanation for drops in river-water levels and suggest that climate change could make the problem worse.

But human hands are also at work. Countless gallons are removed from the river to water the growing cities, vast farmlands, and booming factories that have exploded along its banks.

"The problem has been rapid development of the whole basin over the past 25 years," Turner said.

(Related news: "S. Korea Salmon Fest Highlights Dwindling Fish Population" [November 3, 2006].)

During 2006 river levels reached historic lows, a situation that only exacerbates the pollution problem.

"Dilution is a solution for pollution," Turner said. An influx of fresh water would help lessen the concentration of pollutants in the river.

"So the river's drying up has really been a double whammy for the fish populations."

Though the extinct fish species are lost forever, others may still be saved and the river's waters cleaned. Turner said that such improvements must begin with political changes.

"China's economic reforms were successful because they decentralized authority to local governments," she explained.

"But their motivation is economic development. A lot of the pollution problems are linked to corruption, and the central government hasn't really had the power to enforce environmental laws."

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