Challenges and Strategies to Save China's Freshwater Biodiversity

China has over 1,320 freshwater fish species, 877 of which are endemic. In recent decades, over-exploitation and landscape pressures have threatened them and led to a severe aquatic biodiversity crisis. In response, large-scale fishing bans or fishing closures have been promulgated to protect freshwater biodiversity in major Chinese rivers since the early 1980s. 

However, implementing fishing bans alone is not sufficient to solve the crisis because of shortcomings of the current bans and expanding human pressures in most Chinese river basins.  

Recently, Professor CHEN Yushun and his team from Institute of Hydrobiology (IHB) of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, along with international collaborators from United States presented the historical background and current challenges to the fishing bans, analyzed trends of landscape pressures by using the Yangtze River Basin as an example, and suggested management strategies. The results were published in Ambio.

Using the Yangtze River Basin as an example, the study first analyzed temporal trends and declines of freshwater mammals and fishes, and then discussed historical background, progress, and issues related to fishing bans in major Chinese river basins since the 1980s.  

In the past 20-30 years, hydropower generation increased 23 times, sand mining was maintained high, both total cargo volume and industry outputs increased 9 times, total urban population and total crop yields increased 1.5 and 1.4 times, respectively, in the Yangtze River basin.  

The study suggested six management programs/strategies to save China’s freshwater biodiversity crisis. First is to promulgate legislation and regulations that set specific goals and quantitative targets for dischargers and receiving waters. Second is to implement comprehensive and effective adaptive management plans accompanied by ecological monitoring and assessment programs and make the monitoring and assessment data available to the public. Third is to promote basin- and sub-basin-scale long-term (e.g., 10-15 years) fishing regulation and enforcement in natural water bodies rather than short-term seasonal bans. In the meantime, impacts from multiple anthropogenic pressures and stressors shall be qualified and all the pressures and stressors shall be regulated. The basin-scale ecological rehabilitation shall be initiated as well.  

These programs are applicable to other nations where people largely depend on fish as food while facing biodiversity crises and expanding anthropogenic pressures. For instance, developing countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America are experiencing similar economic development and rapid human population growth accompanied by ecological degradation of lakes and rivers. In doing so, China could take the lead in offering realistic examples of how developing countries can mitigate their fishery and aquatic biodiversity crises. 


Fig. 1 Fishing bans in major Chinese river basins since the 1980s. (Image by IHB) 

Fig. 2 Conceptual diagram illustrating the direct impacts of fishing and the indirect impacts of landscape pressures through habitat on freshwater biodiversity in Chinese rivers. (Image by IHB)