Running for 3900 miles from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea, the Yangtze River is the world’s third longest river (Stone 378). Apart from expressive biodiversity, there are bustling waterways, towering mountains, dense forests, and fertile wetlands. Moreover, the rich and complex terrains of the river have created the array of natural ecosystems that offer habitats for various animal species. One such species is a finless porpoise. Notably, the Yangtze River sustains many local communities; a large population living near the river relies on it for farming, fishing, and transportation. Unfortunately, these activities together with rapid urbanization and industrialization put a considerable strain on the river.
The finless porpoise, for instance, is now on the verge of extinction. Global warming has also significantly changed the habitat and ecosystems of the river endangering various species. Therefore, the Chinese government and other stakeholders must monitor and control human activities that are harmful to the Yangtze River, which will aid in the conservation of finless porpoise and other endangered species. This paper discusses the challenges associated with protecting the Yangtze’s finless porpoise from extinction, related conservation efforts in the past, and the possible solutions for the issues.
The Current State of Yangtze Finless Porpoise
The Yangtze River originates in the Tibetan Plateau’s glaciers (Hooper 1). It is navigable for over 2000 km and has a range of tributaries and lakes. The Yangtze region is home to one-third of China’s population. The country’s large cities, such as Chengdu, Wuhan, Shanghai, and Nanjing, are located in areas adjoining the banks of the Yangtze River or its tributaries (Liu 1473). Stone (378) reveals that the freshwater finless porpoise is only found in the Yangtze River and two adjoining lakes, Poyang and Dongting. It is the only member of the Phocoenidae family that does not have dorsal fins. Its average body mass is 71.8 kg, and it ranges in length from 1.4 to 2.27 meters.
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Porpoise feeds on small fishes, crustaceans, and cephalopods. Its average lifespan is 20-30 years. In 1996, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed these species as endangered. Indeed, according to Hooper (1), the number of these animals continues to decline by 5% each year. In the early 1990s, there were at least 2700 porpoises remaining in the river. Currently, there are only 1,000 finless porpoises left there (Beijing Review 21). At this rate, it is possible that the species will be extinct if measures to protect them are not taken quickly enough.
Intense human activity and global warming are the main causes of the declining numbers of finless porpoises in the Yangtze River (Liu 1473). First of all, the animals are subjected to unregulated fishing activities. Gill nets, for instance, entangle the porpoises and eventually drown them. Rolling hooks, though forbidden, are also used. These fishing methods have been blamed for the extinction of the baiji and may endanger the porpoises in the long run. Moreover, electrofishing is harmful since it is in nonselective. Though illegal, it has been used in the middle parts of the river where there is a large population of the porpoises.
Stone (378) adds that overfishing in the river causes a lack of food for the porpoises. The animals feed mainly on fish and shrimps. Statistics reveal that in 1954, the annual fish catch from the river was approximately 427,000 tons (Beijing Review 21). Today, the amount has declined to less than 100,000 tons per year. Still, whereas the Chinese government has imposed bans on fishing at specific times of the year, the fishermen seem to overfish during the unrestricted periods of time. Specifically, fish stock is depleted during the eight months that fishermen are allowed to conduct their business. The legal structure is also not strict enough to ensure that the fishermen do not break the law. Mei et al. (117) indicate that the porpoise has a high metabolism and therefore will be affected negatively if it does not eat for three days.
Furthermore, various industries dump approximately 20 billion tons of waste into the river annually (Beijing Review 21). Tang (42) discloses that the river is only a small body compared to the level of pollution it is exposed to. As a result, water quality has been suffering for the past few decades. Stone (378) continues to explain that in 1998 and 2004, five finless porpoises died because of high mercury concentrations in the river. Zhao et al. (3010) add that only 31% of water samples from the river and its tributaries are of first or second class quality. The rest of the river is of third class quality. In some places, the quality is extremely low.
In addition, high density of ships on the river creates acoustic pollution interfering with the animal’s ability to navigate, range, and forage (Beijing Review 21). It results in porpoises getting wounded and dying as they collide with the ships. Hooper (1) indicates that there are approximately one ship every 100 meters in the river causing noise pollution. Notably, the species has a less specific sensitivity to sound when compared to the other members of the Phocoenidae family. Noise pollution, therefore, interferes with their communication and capacity to forage (Liu 1473).
That is why such animals prefer the habitats near river banks or in the inaccessible to ships areas. Growing population near the Yangtze River also uses fishing boats, which, in turn, endanger the porpoises (Mei et al. 117). The inappropriate fishing methods, therefore, must be eliminated if the protection of finless porpoises is to become reality.
Moreover, large hydroelectric dams are located on the river. Zhao et al. (3010) disclose that China has a high demand for energy; therefore, the Three Gorges Dam has been constructed. It is the largest hydroelectric power station in the world. While it helps the economy to grow significantly, it interferes with the porpoises’ movement. At the same time, it changes the environmental conditions of the habitat. Stone (378) adds that dam construction does not only destroy the habitat of finless porpoises but also uses sediments that may have otherwise been used to form sandbars and islands, and the porpoises prefer living in the areas rich in sandbars and bends. At this point, Hooper (1) reveals that most finless porpoises try to escape from the areas of constructions or pollution in the river elsewhere; in the process, they may come in close contact with humans and get killed. At this point, Mei et al. (117) argue that if nothing is done to protect the species, they may become extinct within 15 years.
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Li, Zhu, Wu, and Huang (127) explain that agricultural development in China depends largely on the water supply of the Yangtze River. Dams have been built to grow crops, such as rice. Even with the advancement of agriculture, it is impossible not to have infrastructural development in any given area. However, such infrastructure prevents the porpoises from swimming freely towards the feeding grounds. Erosion, which the agricultural growth inevitably causes, also decreases the water quality in the Yangtze River. In particular, deforestation that is aimed at converting some areas to farmland together with insecticides and fertilizers used in farming leads to soil erosion and pollution (Mei et al. 123).
In addition, in other parts of the country, flood plains are known to transport vital resources for the porpoises downstream (Liu 1473). The authorities have, however, taken measures to protect people from the flood plains. Therefore, reservoirs, embankments, and dams have been built, which has, in turn, changed the habitat for the porpoises and their prey. In the central Yangtze River, significant floodplain lakes are not connected to the river due to flood control (Zhao et al. 3010). Thus, whereas agricultural activities and flood protection measures are economically viable and necessary, they must be implemented taking into account the finless porpoise species.
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Behavior and Morphology
Remarkably, some aspects of finless porpoises’ behavior have led to their status of endangered animals. The species has adapted to the river’s environment and characteristics in order to survive (Akamatsu et al. 146). Usually, the porpoises use their biosonar ability to navigate and forage in the river. However, because the visibility in the river is poor, the animals have been swimming for many kilometers without using their biosonar. Their eyes have also adapted to the dim light in the river. These are the exact reasons for frequent collisions between the animals and vessels.
In addition, they are not able to communicate effectively in the habitat. Furthermore, the porpoises naturally produce sound when swimming and navigating; it helps them to avoid risks and find prey with ease. Today, they do not make such sounds as they try to adapt to the polluted Yangtze River; in the process, they have fallen prey to many other species in the river and have been trapped in shallow waters or underwater debris (Mei et al. 121). Moreover, they may face respiratory issues as they get entangled in the floating debris.
Additionally, as porpoises try to adapt to the destroyed Yangtze River, the development of calves has become difficult (Zhao et al. 3010). Typically, calves can suckle their mothers for over 16 months. Therefore, separating them from the mother before such period ends may result in their not surviving on their own. Furthermore, the calves are not able to develop some of the behaviors that are essential for survival, such as diving, respiration, and movement in the river. It usually occurs because the infrastructural developments have taken so much space that the young specimens have limited space (Liu 1473).
In addition, genetic diversity has been affected negatively due to the changes in the distribution of the species. The reason for that is associated with the species no longer being able to move freely in the river due to intense human activity. A lack of genetic diversity leads to the increased level of diseases and general weakness in the animal population. The small fragmented populations of the porpoises may eventually become extinct (Zhao et al. 3010). It is, therefore, critical that the environmental conditions in the Yangtze River are improved.
Global Warming and Yangtze River
Nature as well poses a threat to the Yangtze River. Particularly, due to the global warming, the weather conditions in the river have become extreme (Liu 1473). In turn, the finless porpoises are not able to breed successfully or even survive. In 2008, for instance, unexpected low temperatures were registered in the region in February and March. The waters in Tian’ezhou Reserve froze. In the process, the finless porpoise tried to break the ice to get some air. Some injured themselves while other five died due to extreme conditions. In 2011, there was a drought in the middle and lower parts of the Yangtze River. Unfortunately, the disaster happened during the porpoises’ breeding season. Due to many lakes having been turned into grasslands, the species did not have fish to feed on and thus could not breed effectively (Mei et al. 117). Therefore, it is clear that the species will most likely become endangered owing to global warming.
Tang (42) asserts that glaciologists have warned that the Himalayan glaciers in Tibet are likely to retreat rapidly due to climatic changes. The glacier may melt at a quite fast rate: by 2035, the river may suffer from water scarcity. Interfering with the natural flow of water together with the seasonal monsoon rains will eventually alter the ecosystems in the region. The remaining finless porpoises may not survive in such conditions. Stone (378) adds that global warming is closely related to the increased demand for agricultural water. Accordingly, the river flow may be changed in the future. Still, extreme weather may prompt the authorities to design infrastructure for flood control. The need for low-carbon emission may also lead to the increased demand for hydroelectric power, which, in turn, fragments the Yangtze River. Ruan et al. (73) state that the need to establish inland water transport will increase.
Mei et al. (117) affirm that the distribution of various marine species is defined by two major aspects: the interactions between the available environmental conditions and ecological niches. The niche for porpoise is defined by water temperature and depth. It is also determined by the factors that affect their distribution and abundance, such as primary productivity. Predator avoidance and reproductive requirements affect their distribution as well. The global change in climate continues to affect the water depth and temperature and thus greatly impacts the distribution of porpoises.
Unfortunately, failure to accurately detect some of the climatic changes in various areas of the world hinders the ability to predict the rate at which some animals will become extinct. Moreover, the surveys conducted on the numbers of the species have not been reliable; the direct accounting methods that utilize subjective correlation factors are used to conduct these surveys. According to Hooper (1), it means that the Chinese government may not be able to introduce relevant policies to protect the porpoises due to a lack of accurate data.
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Past Conservation Attempts
Over the years, various proposals have been put forwards to enable the Chinese government in collaboration with the international environmental bodies to save the Yangtze finless porpoises. First of all, the environmentalists proposed developing a conservation program that incorporates the local community (Tang 42). It would not only save the porpoises but would also offer the community good environment. Furthermore, upgrading the animals to class one species has been regarded highly important since it will prompt the authorities to spend more funds for the porpoise preservation initiatives. Such proposals have not been accepted by the Chinese government yet. The regulations on the matter have not been strict enough as well allowing the community and individuals who breach the already established laws to avoid punishment for their crimes (Tang 43). At this point, it is clear that developing an appropriate policy is crucial.
The 1997 workshop in Hong Kong dedicated to developing a conservation action plan for the Yangtze finless porpoise proposed three measures (Hooper 1). The first one involved in-situ conservation with the natural refuges established on the river. The second measure was an ex-situ conservation utilizing semi-natural reserves to create protected breeding colonies. The third one was connected to intensifying the studies on breeding and creating captive colonies. The three measures had been proposed as regards conservation of the baiji in the Yangtze River. In the same year, another meeting was held at Bangladesh by the Asian River Dolphin Committee (Liu 1473).
It recommended another three measures. The first one proposed to establish a breeding population of the porpoise in a semi-natural reserve. The second one was concerned with establishing reserves near Poyang and Dongting lakes. The third measure presupposed that a captive breeding program would be ideal for the finless porpoises. After the meeting, the Chinese government approved a conservation action plan for cetaceans in the Yangtze River. The need to protect finless porpoises was emphasized there. The government and scientists have demanded the action plan ever since. However, Mei et al. (117) indicate that there has been an array of challenges in the process explaining why the finless porpoises are becoming extinct.
Stone (378) explains that the baiji and Yangtze finless porpoises have been protected in two major reserves since 1992. They are the Honghu Xinluo Baiji National Reserve and the Tian-e-Zhou Baiji Nature Reserve. Zhenjiang, Jianli, Chenglingji, Hukou, and Anqing were also considered in terms of conservation of the species after 1996. The areas of the Yangtze River and the lakes that have large populations of the porpoises have been covered by the reserves. Nevertheless, since the Yangtze River basin has the relatively high population of the Chinese people, it is difficult to preserve the porpoises; while the reserve management strives to lessen the effects of the human population, the harmful activities of people are ever increasing (Mei et al. 117).
For instance, the transportation through the areas near the reserves increased from 47.5 million tons in 2003 to 439.3 million tons in 2005 (“Survey on Porpoises” 21). In 2006, a survey revealed that there were over 19,830 shipping vessels between Yichang and Shanghai (Beijing Review 21). More importantly, though the rules to protect the finless porpoises are established, the enforcement efforts have not been effective. Accordingly, while the reserves have helped to slow the porpoise extinction, they are unable to address the issue of the harmful human activity.
Recommendations to Conserve Finless Porpoises
Tang (43) suggests that since the finless porpoises are not thriving in the Yangtze River, and since the conditions are unlikely to improve soon, the future prospects of the species are bleak. The dynamic points to the fact that drastic measures must be taken to help conserve the porpoises. The regulations of the issue, for instance, should be strict to ensure that various fishing activities do not occur near the reserves. Stone (378) asserts that considering the gravity of the matter, it is imperative that fishing should be forbidden in the river at all times. Boat traffic should also be regulated, and the speed of the ships limited (Liu 1473).
Moreover, the reserves should be located in the areas where the human activities do not interfere with the breeding and development of finless porpoises. Li et al. (130) indicate that a semi-natural reserve can be established near the Three Gorges Dam. Thus, the vessel traffic, fishing, and pollution issues can be addressed effectively in the area.
Furthermore, it is critical that new methods of population surveys are devised. The methods adopted by scientists in the past have not revealed the actual status of the finless porpoises making it difficult to invent effective measures to preserve the species (Hooper 1). Particularly, by failing to use acoustics in surveys, it is difficult to investigate population status: the porpoises do not have a dorsal fin and hence cannot be detected without the acoustics. Accordingly, developing improved methods that can identify individual porpoises is needed for the accurate population estimates. Akamatsu et al. (146) add that establishing the individual DNA profiles can enhance the breeding: it will help achieve high genetic diversity in the population (Zhao et al. 3010). Thus, there is a need for scientific research conducted to study physiology, behavior, and breeding and rearing biology of the finless porpoises.
Tang (43) opines that the only hope for the Yangtze finless porpoise is the industries, energy companies, farmers, and fishermen working together to save the species. They must devise the ways of achieving their specific goals making a less strong impact on the Yangtze River ecosystem at the same time. The river must be allowed to flow freely and in the process maintain a range of habitats and biodiversity. Stone (378) adds that since the global climatic change may be beyond the Chinese government’s control, it is critical that the degraded habitat should be preserved in every way possible.
Educating the consumers about the need to preserve the finless porpoise is pertinent. Some of the individuals living around the Yangtze River are unaware of the existence of the porpoises (Liu 1473). The fishermen may also not be aware of the harm their fishing methods cause to the species. Furthermore, the firms in the region may not be sufficiently educated on the need to cease dumping their waste into the river. Thus, educating the population living in the Yangtze River region on the matter must be done even before other measures are taken concerning the issue (Tang 43). Thus, other conservation measures, such as building reserves and regulating fishing, will be highly effective afterward.
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The Chinese government and other stakeholders must monitor and control the harmful human activities in the Yangtze River region in order to preserve the finless porpoise. The world’s third-longest river, the Yangtze River is characterized by various ecosystems biodiversity. As a result, it hosts the finless porpoises and many other animal species. Unfortunately, different human activities near and in the river together with rapid industrialization and urbanization threaten the existence of the porpoises. In particular, overfishing, use of inappropriate fishing methods, agricultural activities, flood protection measures, and transportation endanger the species to a great extent.
Moreover, global warming has significantly changed the habitat of finless porpoise. The species has also adapted to the poor visibility of the Yangtze River that makes it more vulnerable. The efforts made by the government in the past to preserve the species, such as regulating fishing and establishing reserves for the finless porpoise, did not bring much success. Therefore, ensuring that harmful human activities are controlled in the Yangtze River will help save the population of finless porpoise.