While it amazes us when new species of flora or fauna are discovered, it surely saddens us to know that yet another species has been declared extinct. Worsening conditions in our environment have seen the last of the Psephurus gladius, or the Chinese paddlefish, a resident of the Yangtze River since the age of the dinosaurs. It was one of the largest fresh-water fish that could grow to about 23 feet and weigh 1,000 pounds. The research paper done explained that the species was “one of only two extant members of a relict lineage that was most diverse and widespread 34-75 million years ago.” Yet, fossil evidence suggests that the paddlefish existed even earlier, about 200 million years ago.
The Chinese paddlefish was just one of only two living species of paddlefish – the other is the American paddlefish or Polyodon spathula. While the American paddlefish continues to roam the Mississippi River, its population is severely dwindling. While the now declared extinct species was initially found in other large-flowing rivers, its population deteriorated so rapidly, that by the 1950s, they were limited to the Yangtze River. The Chinese paddlefish was listed on the critically endangered species list by 1996.
While the Chinese government began improving conservation efforts to protect the prehistoric fish, by the early 2000s researchers were unable to find enough fish in the wild to study. But in 2003, a team from China’s fishery science academy were able to capture a paddlefish and attach an ultrasonic tracker to it. They released the paddlefish in the Nanxi River, an offshoot of the Yangtze River in Sichuan province. Eventually though the team lost the tracker’s signal, and this was the last sighting of the species in the wild.
After a 2-year survey covering the entire Yangtze River basin, the fish has been officially declared extinct. The Chinese were helped by the UK’s University of Kent, and the Czech Academy of Sciences to come out with an exhaustive database of the river’s fish species. The team surveyed the main arm of the Yangtze River, its tributaries, and the Poyang and Donting lakes. The survey identified 332 fish species living in the water, but not a single paddlefish was found.
The resulting paper declaring the extinction was based on an expert panel under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Shanghai. “We respect the evaluation model and experts from the IUCN, although we accept this result with a heavy heart,” said Wei Qiwei, the study’s co-author from the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences in Wuhan. Wei managed to rescue four of the giant fish species when they became trapped, but only one survived. This happened between 1984 through 1993. The surviving one was released back to the wild. “Paddlefish are huge,” he sais. “It is difficult to raise them in captivity.”
The Yangtze River was once home to 4,000 species of aquatic wildlife, but widespread pollution and diversion and damming projects significantly affected the river’s ecosystem. An environmental news agency blames the construction of the first dam on the Yangtze River, the Gezhouba Dam, as the main culprit in the deterioration of the paddlefish species. The dam caused the migratory route of most fish species to become blocked…isolating adult fish from swimming upstream to breed, and young fish from swimming downstream to feed. Add overfishing, pollution, and excessive water traffic.
While it is possible for a species declared extinct to survive elsewhere, the research team don’t think this will happen with the Chinese paddlefish. But researchers are now focusing their attention to other species in the Yangtze that need protection. They are prioritizing 2 species, the baiji, or the Yangtze River dolphin, and the reeves shad, which have been declared functionally extinct – reproduction is not as effective as it should be. The Chinese government are installing tougher conservation policies to ensure the plight of the paddlefish will not happen. A 10-year commercial fishing ban is in effect as of this month, and covers 332 conservation sites. China’s vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs explains that this is in place to address the decline of the river’s ecosystem.
While what happened to the Chinese paddlefish is unfortunate, it could have been saved from extinction if the government of China acted early on. But it is also alarming to note that about 1 million species of plants and animals around the world are at risk of being declared extinct soon, unless a concerted effort is done by those who are in power to save them from being extinct. It is really all up to us to save our planet.