With a slick black back and no dorsal fin, the Yangtze finless porpoise is a unique freshwater porpoise endemic to the Yangtze River and its surrounding lakes. The Yangtze River is located in the middle range of China and flows for nearly 4,000 miles from the Tibet region to Shanghai. Averaging a length of 1.5 meters, Neophocaena asiaeorientalis ssp. asiaeorientalisis a subspecies of porpoise classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with a population that has diminished to just over 1,000 mature individuals. Just 30 years ago, more than 2,500 porpoises were estimated to be living in the Yangtze. This finless porpoise has also been listed under CITES Appendix I, meaning this species is threatened with extinction and commercial trade in wild-caught specimens of this species is illegal.
Usually, when discussing reasons why any particular animal has been listed as endangered, the answers involve humanity in one way or another. With the case of the Yangtze finless porpoise, a multitude of different human activities have been documented as potential threats. But the fact that so little is known about the ecology of this charismatic animal and how human activities affect their ecosystem makes it extremely difficult to direct conservation actions effectively.
With increases in human population and industrialization around the Yangtze River, a vast host of different perils to these mammals have been highlighted. From high boat traffic causing deadly collisions to increased sound pollution affecting a porpoise’s ability to communicate and forage for food to high levels of domestic, agricultural, and industrial pollution leading to health issues, the list of potential threats goes on and on. Degradation of the porpoise’s habitat through illegal fishing, sand dredging, land reclamation, and shipping are also thought to be substantial contributors. Not only can these actions destroy where the porpoises live, affecting their ability to feed, but they also can cause direct harm through entanglement in fishing gear.
When it comes to the dilemma of illegal fishing in such a critical habitat, a former illegal fisherman of the area Yang Falin has seen it all and is now doing everything in his power to help save these iconic aquatic mammals. Falin has fished in the Poyang Lake since he was a teenager and once made a living as a fisher, but in 2016 he decided to give up fishing and start working as a porpoise patroller for an environmental NGO called Finless Porpoise Protection Action Network (FPPAN). This patrol work began back in 2016, when Yang Falin and other illegal fishers took a group of employees from FPPAN out on Poyang Lake. Jiang Yi, a passionate young woman who founded FPPAN in her mid-twenties, ended up convincing several of the fishers to give up their unlawful and detrimental fishing practices and join FPPAN’s conservational effort. They would still get to enjoy their cherished lake while working to save these critically endangered porpoises in need of all the help possible.
Falin and other patrol workers drive repurposed fishing vessels in the northern part of Poyang Lake keeping a lookout for not only illegal fishers but also unlawful wastewater emissions that can come from nearby chemical plants. Falin and his team on patrol keep a written log of their findings as well as take plenty of photographs. They make sure to detail the time and place whenever they have a porpoise sighting. If they come across a dead porpoise, the team makes sure the body is transported to land and scientists get notified immediately.
The former illegal fishers see first-hand how fishing equipment is one of the most common causes of death for the porpoises. Things such as lines of sharp baited hooks can catch on their flesh and massive fishing nets that get strung between two boats leave no chance for any animal to escape, despite most of these practices being illegal by national laws in China. Falin mentioned how there’s an issue with reporting any unlawful fishing activity to the nearby fishing bureau because the officials are often too slow to react in time to stop the crimes. An official from the Jiujiang Fishing Bureau stated that this kind of enforcing can be complicated especially with their current labor shortage.
Although Yangtze finless porpoise numbers fell by half from 2006 to 2012, the rate of decline has slowed down since, which suggests that conservation efforts are indeed making a dent. Researchers have also claimed that credit can be given to clampdowns on polluting activities and growing environmental awareness among China’s emerging middle class. Chinese officials do not want a repeat of what happened with the Yangtze river dolphin or baiji, which in 2006, marked the extinction of the world’s first large vertebrate species in five decades. (Dolphins and porpoises are both members of the order Cetacea, along with whales; but where the two mainly differ is in their faces, fins, and body shapes.) The Yangtze river dolphin lived in the same habitat as the finless porpoise leading to concern that a similar outcome could happen for the porpoise.
Conservationists say that as one of the world’s few freshwater porpoise subspecies, the Yangtze finless porpoise is considered a natural barometer of the overall health of the Yangtze River, a vital body of water for China. There are currently reserves in place to help protect the porpoises and their ecosystem, but a report in 2012 by the Institute of Hydrobiology suggested making the porpoise reserve national-level and expanding it to include junction waters around the Yangtze. Fortunately, through the support of NGOs, charities, and individual donors there are now five porpoise patrol teams that cover a 200-kilometer range of water. And plenty of them are like Yang Falin, successful in making the switch from destruction to conservation.