RIVERDALE China recently welcomed a contingent from the United States, primarily biologists, as part of a conservation exchange between the two countries. Among those representing the United States was Rob Holm, project manager for the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery.
Holm's selection was a logical one. He has been a leader in the recovery program for the endangered pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River system and the Garrison Hatchery has been fully involved in propagation of the prehistoric paddlefish that roams the same water. The Chinese are facing a myriad of problems with their unique species of sturgeon and paddlefish.
"The Chinese sturgeon are huge, more like our white sturgeon. We're talking 1,000-pound fish," said Holm. "They have the only other species of paddlefish in the world and it is 10 times the size of ours. It is either extinct or nearly extinct. They haven't seen an individual adult paddlefish for about 10 years."
Submitted Photo - - Rob Holm, project manager for the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, was among the U.S. biologists who recently exchanged knowledge with biologists in China. This photo was taken at the Peak Tower on island Hong Kong. Mainland China can be seen across the waterway.
While pallid sturgeon and paddlefish are targeted for support in the United States, the Chinese are facing problems with dozens and dozens of fish. China's nearly 4,000-mile-long Yangtze River alone has 69 species of fish identified as endangered.
"Where do you start with something like that?" Holm said. "They have huge dams on the Yangtze and a lot more dams proposed. That means huge problems for their migratory species, similar to what we have with the pallid sturgeon here in the U.S. on the Missouri River."
More than 100 hydro-electric power producing dams are under consideration for construction on the Yangtze. The tailwaters of one dam is destined to become the headwaters for the next one in the system. Without any regulation, migratory fish species such as the sturgeon and paddlefish will likely disappear. A similar fate may be in store for a unique mammal too the finless porpoise.
Rivers in China have become an irreplaceable lifeline. They are used for transportation, irrigation, washing, sewage disposal, drinking, fishing and power production. Although Chinese researchers and others share a concern about the status of many species of fish, there may not be any workable solutions to maintaining many of them.
"They've got this huge population and the need for energy to keep it going," Holm said. "In the middle of nowhere there are power lines everywhere. They've got a lot of infrastructure. Energy and people are obviously a priority. A dam is due to take out the last spawning ground for the Chinese sturgeon."
According to Holm, Chinese biologists are well aware of the problems they are facing and where their environmental resources are going. At one of the meetings attended by Holm at a research institute, he provided some input in regard to the Chinese sturgeon. Holm suggested that an effort be made to capture some Chinese sturgeon that are seemingly on their way to extinction.
"I suggested they look at propagation and try to keep some alive, even if only in captivity," Holm said. "If they have the females available maybe they can do something 30 years down the road if the situation changes."
Holm learned that an effort to raise paddlefish in captivity ended in the death of the fish.
"They were feeding them rice cakes," Holm said. "They just weren't going to live."
In contrast, the Chinese have successfully produced American paddlefish as an aquaculture product.
"It was kind of crazy," Holm said. "I'm looking through a restaurant window in Shanghai and there's paddlefish swimming. They were ours!"
Here in the United States the Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead agency for migratory and endangered wildlife. In China, the system is different. Cities or provinces may initiate a recovery program on their own if they can muster up enough support. That is the case with the White Cloud Mountain minnow, a tiny fish whose existence is in jeopardy.
"The White Cloud Mountain Minnow Preserve was an elaborate facility for the protection of the minnow," said Holm. "It must have taken a lot of energy from the people of that city to decide what is important. Researchers have all the information but they don't know how to apply it back to a management plan. They understand the mechanisms of the fish, but how to actually change the streams to improve survival, they can't really get the two linked."
Recreational fishing appeared to be limited. Holm said he saw only two men with fishing poles during his 14-day visit. There are certain periods of the year when no fishing is allowed in an effort to protect spawning fish but, Holm said, "There's also starving people trying to make a living for their family. The majority of people over there are living in poverty, so they are fishing for whatever they catch. It's kind of survival mode."
Despite difficulties with a bulging population placing a huge demand on water, the Chinese have a good awareness of what is happening to their fish populations. Holm toured several preserves, areas set aside specifically to aid critical river habitat for troubled species.
"I think one of the reasons we were over there was to reassure party members that what their biologists were telling them was true," Holm said. "We gave them some insight as to what we thought the developing problems were and what we might do differently. They do have a lot of great technology. That's where the industrial revolution is taking place. I didn't see anything over there that said 'Made In America.'"
The biggest impression made on Holm was the number of people utilizing the land and resources and the poor air and water quality. He said it gives him a whole new perspective on Environmental Protection Agency initiatives in the United States.
"We don't have the population that they do, but we're looking at common problems with more and more demand on the environment," said Holm. "There is such a disparity though with people in poverty and those who are doing very, very well. There doesn't seem to be a middle class."
Holm said participants in the cooperative exchange made some excellent contacts half a world away and were in agreement to endeavor to maintain those relationships.
"We didn't want it to be just a two-week exchange," Holm said. "We'll be cooperating on some projects."