(July 29, 2011) For generations, the Yangtze’s famed “boat families” lived and died in their boat homes and earned a living from the fish bounty of the Yangtze River. But with the construction of the Gezhouba and Three Gorges dams, the Yangtze’s fish stocks went into decline and the “boat families” were forced to move ashore and look for work in factories under the government’s bizarrely named “Fisherman on Land” program. According to one fisherman, the fish stocks were harmed when the dams eliminated crucial spawning sites and the special water conditions that they needed to grow. Pollution, over-fishing, and land reclamation have also irreversibly undermined the habitat for these important commercial fish stocks. Read Probe International’s translation of this second investigative piece by China’s path-breaking Economic Observer newspaper.
Tough Times for Yangtze Fishing Collectives
Economic Observer: English Edition of the weekly Chinese newspaper, in-depth and independent
Published: July 15, 2011
Translated by Song Chunling and Probe International
Ding Wenxiang, a 64-year old fisherman from Hubei in southern China, was disappointed with his first fishing expedition on the Yangtze on July 1, following the lifting of the government’s annual April 1 to June 30 fishing ban.
Compared to 10 years ago, “there is almost nothing to fish,” Ding said, adding that the decline in fish stocks began after the Gezhouba and Three Gorges dams were built.
Since 2002, Ding – hailing from a professional fishing village in Jianli County — has been prohibited from working between April 1 and June 30 each year because of the government ban on fishing.
The Last Professional Fishermen
Ding is part of a group commonly referred to as a “boat family,” which describes individuals and families who live on their boats and do not own any property on land. There are 730 such families in Jianli. Before the reforms brought in by Deng Xiaoping the fishing village was transformed into a cooperative, and the fishermen were registered as non-agricultural workers.
Ding’s family has been fishing for three generations, but his five daughters and one son have moved off the water. Jiangli’s fishing cooperatives now consist mostly of old men, like Ding, with only 40 or 50 boats, far less than before.
Since the off-season fishing period for the Yangtze was introduced in 2002, life has become increasingly difficult, says Chen Changpeng, a 30-year-old who is a member of the cooperative. Chen says he stayed in the village because “nobody else will hire me since I didn’t have much of an education and don’t have any specific skill.” During the three months that the river is closed for fishing, Chen earns 30 or 40 yuan per day, taking on short-term work in factories.
“At first, we ignored the ban and carried on fishing as usual because we have no other livelihood. The Fisheries Department stopped us and dispersed our boats,” says Chen. Although the government paid a monthly allowance of 100 yuan per boat to tide them over during the three-month off-season, this compensation is insufficient considering that they used to earn 7,000 or 8,000 yuan per “boat family” over that period.
As a result, more young fishermen have left to work in factories. However, it is difficult for older fishermen like Ding to move off the river since they don’t own any land or homes and they are not entitled to the same welfare benefits as farmers. Ding, who suffers from rheumatism, is stuck on his boat.
Some better-off families from Ding’s cooperative have started renting houses, while bigger fishing villages elsewhere qualify for support from the government’s “Fishermen on land” program.
In the 1980s, 11 Yangtze River fishing villages were given houses on land, but Ding did not receive the same benefits because his cooperative was seen as too insignificant.
With fishermen like Ding getting older, “boat families” may soon disappear.
Falling fish numbers
Life has also got tougher for the fish. Jianli was one of the biggest freshwater fish producers in Hubei, but studies monitoring the quantity of roe suggest that the stocks of the four main freshwater fish – black carp, grass carp, big head carp and chub – may have fallen by 90 percent.
The spawning sites of the four main freshwater fish are also disappearing, says Zhao Yimin from the Administrative Committee of Yangtze River Fishery Resources, in the Ministry of Agriculture.
This is why, 10 years ago, the government introduced off-season periods for fishing.
These days, most of the fish that end up in the nets are young and small. Chen says that the numbers of fish caught peaked between 1996 and 1998, and recalls catching fish that weighed “nearly 50 kilograms.”
In an attempt to address this decline in the fish numbers, the controllers of the Three Gorges Dam allowed more water to flow through in June of 2011. They hoped this would encourage downstream fish to spawn. As part of the same effort to boost the fish population, two months earlier, a fish farm in Jianli County released six tons of fish into the river.
However, the four main freshwater fish need special conditions in order to breed: the right temperature, flow and water level.
Chen Jin, the vice president of the Changjiang River Scientific Research Institute, gives four reasons for the falling fish population: human activity including the construction of dams, the reclamation of farmland, over-fishing, and water pollution.
Human activities have destroyed the river’s natural environment. The construction of dams ruin natural fish spawning and breeding grounds since they disrupt the flood seasons and, thereby, water flows and levels as well, both of which are important to the breeding of the four main freshwater fish.
Since the fish grow in lakes but spawn in the river, reclaiming farmland has separated lakes from the river and made it harder for the four main freshwater fish to mature and survive.
The water quality has also deteriorated. Much of the Yangtze River suffers from eutrophication and, as a result, many fish die from the pollution that floats slowly down the river in the summer.
Read the first investigative piece on the demise of the Yangtze’s fisheries by the Economic Observer here.