Thursday, July 1, 2010

China's Finless Porpoise: dwindling population faces extinction in Yangtze River

China's Yangtze River has been described as the "Asian Amazon" and, as seems to befall many large rivers in growing nations, it has seen its share of perils from urban development, commercial use, and industrial pollution. Unfortunately, many of the river's inhabitants pay the price - including the river's dwindling population of freshwater cetaceans.

The Baiji - a freshwater river dolphin with an unusual, elongated jaw/beak that roamed the Yangtze for tens of thousands of years - was declared extinct in 2007, eliminated from the planet in a matter of a few decades.

And now another rare dolphin species is facing a similar fate. As reported in the BBC Earth News, a new study published in the Marine Biology journal, says that the river's remaining population of finless porpoises are headed for extinction. The finless porpoise (so named because it lacks a dorsal fin) lives in the Yangtze, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea; and according to the study, there are genetic differences between the various populations. This would indicate that there is no co-mingling between the groups and this can add to their inability to withstand adverse changes to one group's environment.

This type of isolation and loss of mixing of the DNA gene pool is also what threatens land animal populations, like some of the wolf packs in the north central United States.

With everything from human waste and industrial chemical pollution, boat traffic, and commercial fishing taking place in the Yangtze River, the rapidly declining freshwater population of the finless porpoise - numbering less than 1,000 when last estimated in 2006 - will not survive without strong action on the part of the Chinese government.

The only hope is for a fundamental change in attitude in China regarding its aquatic natural resources. And there is some evidence of that which could produce results, hopefully before it is all too late.

While a major producer of CO2 emissions and the greatest exporter of seafood of any country, China is also realizing the environmental impact its economic growth is having on itself. The country is making sizable investments in alternative energy and, according to the Seafood Choices operational arm of SeaWeb, China's seafood distributors are beginning to show some interest in sustainability. Seafood Choices is holding seminars with seafood exporters in advance of a Sustainable Seafood Forum to be held in China this November.

Whether all of this will produce changes that will come in time to save the finless porpoise remains questionable at best. It is unfortunate that humans seem to be a reactionary species, responding to a tragedy that might spell a better future for some but leaving victims - like the Biaji and the finless porpoise - as reminders of what we could have done if only for a little foresight.

Read about the finless porpoise in BBC Earth News.
Read about SeaWeb/Seafood Choices progress in China.

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