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Will the porpoise go the dolphin way?

By Peter Beaudoin | China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-19 07:13

A series of recent water quality and food safety issues have raised public concern. The World Wide Fund for Nature has delved into the vulnerability of the long-term health of China's rivers and wide-ranging variety of species, which depend on clean and abundant freshwater sources for their survival.

The Ministry of Agriculture recently announced that only 1,000 finless porpoises were left in the Yangtze River, its tributaries and adjoining lakes. The endangered species has declined at a shocking rate of 13.7 percent a year in recent times. At this pace, the best scientific estimates say the Yangtze finless porpoise could become extinct in 10 to 15 years.

The porpoise has thrived in the main stream of the Yangtze River for about 300,000 years and is the only surviving freshwater subspecies of the narrow-ridged finless porpoise. But excessive exploitation of resources in the Yangtze River basin has pushed the mammal to the brink of extinction.

The Yangtze River basin is home to 400 million people, and the river is the engine that drives roughly 40 percent of the Chinese economy. In economics terms, the Yangtze River basin is thriving. But at what cost? Ecologically, the Yangtze is very unhealthy - if it was a human patient it would have been placed in the intensive care unit.

Close to 56 percent of China's freshwater fish catch comes from the Yangtze, but recent evidence suggests the river's declining health is having a serious impact on four species of carp that often grace the dinner tables of the nation. Alarmingly, fry from these "big four" have declined by up to 95 percent in recent years because of river-lake disconnection, pollution, illegal fishing and water infrastructure development. This means less food for not only fish and birds, but also human beings.

That the main breeding areas of the finless porpoise - Poyang and Dongting lakes - are also the main dredging grounds for sand, needed to fuel China's construction boom, has complicated matters further.

But there is a glimmer of hope. After dozens of porpoises were found dead in the Yangtze (including about 12 in Donting Lake) in the spring of 2012, the Hunan provincial government passed a regulation to protect the species. The regulation, for the first time, links assessment of local officials' annual performance with the safety of species.

The challenge is daunting because the Dongting Lake has only a small number of the porpoises.Scientists estimate that if the species' number drops below 200 in the Yangtze, it will be unable to survive.

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