Fisheries in China

Fisheries in China


J. Eason


How have Chinese freshwater fisheries been affected by China’s growth and industrialization during the 20th century?

This page will examine the effects of dams on freshwater fisheries, the effects of erosion (including runoff) on these fisheries and finally will examine the changes and effectiveness of fishery management in China’s rivers as a response to 20th century development. Freshwater fishing practices in China have changed greatly over the course of the twentieth century. China has to feed 22% of the world’s population with only 7% of the world’s arable land. Therefore, they needed to expand into fish farming quickly. 



China has been constructing some of the largest and most efficient dams on the planet in order to create efficient economic transportation throughout its river systems. Today,  China has more dams than any other country in the world and has also built the largest dam in history, the Three Gorges Dam. These projects are very beneficial for China’s economy and industry but these feats of engineering have been detrimental to Chinese freshwater fish species that call these rivers home.

It can take up to 20 years to build a single dam. These long term construction operations can be devastating on ecological systems because they persist for multiple generations of spawning cycles which can permanently alter behavior and distribution of fishes. Dam projects are so loud that it is uncomfortable for life to remain in these areas especially considering how sound carries so much further and louder in water.  Long lasting dam construction during the 20th century resulted in major disruptions to freshwater fisheries.

One dam in particular, the Gezhouba dam, completed in 1981, has been blamed by numerous scholars for many species of Chinese freshwater fish being threatened, three of which are all now listed as endangered by the Chinese government.

The Chinese paddlefish is one species that has directly felt the effects of these massive damming projects throughout the second half of the 20th century.  The spawning cycles of the Chinese paddlefish have been “severely impaired by the completion of the Gezhouba Dam, and since 1988, only 3 to 10 adults have been found below the dam annually”. Now this species is so rare that “detailed biological investigations are impossible”.

Another species that was directly affected by water control systems of the 20th century is the Dabry’s Sturgeon.  The existing population in the “Yangtze has sharply declined… due to overfishing, pollution and habitat alteration and destruction, especially since the construction of the Gezhouba Dam.” The loss of this fishery was particularly devastating because up and downriver of the dam, the population can be very rural and these populations depended on this harvest for food and livelihood. Dabry’s sturgeon populations have been declining for the last two decades. The species now rarely occurs in reaches below the Gezhouba Dam .

Another recently endangered species is the Chinese sturgeon. This is a migratory fish that originally spawned thousands of kilometers up river; however, “the construction of the Gezhou Dam has completely prevented their upstream spawning migration, and although a new spawning site formed below the dam, their breeding ground shrank from 600 km to only 7 km”. As additional dams began construction late in the 20th century, more and more barriers began to separate this species from their habitat and severely fragmented this important waterway. By the end of the twentieth century, the Three Gorges Dam was nearly complete that reduced “41% of the water flow below the dam, which will most likely destroy the only breeding ground”. Constructing these massive dams and other increases in human activity throughout the 20th century lead to increased erosion in the river systems which was harmful to fishes in many ways.

Chinese Sturgeon

Erosion and Runoff

Dam construction is a perfect example of a large scale human activity that causes erosion. Even more detrimental though, is the effect of erosion and large scale agriculture operations on aquaculture in that inhabit the affected bodies of water. The sedimentation of waterways can physically alter them very quickly. Increased sediment in the rivers manipulates the movement of rivers and streams as well as changes spawning grounds and surfaces. The annual sedimentation rate to precipitation shows intensive soil erosion in the 1930s and 1960s can be related to the Second World War and the Cultural Revolution.   This sediment can change the shape of rivers and lakes, yes, but these sediments and runoff also carry harmful chemicals and pollutants into the water as well.

Mao Zedong invested in agricultural production during the Cultural revolution and China focused on “agriculture first” in an attempt to recover from their unsuccessful Great Leap Forward. The Chinese were able to have much more success agriculturally with newly acquired fertilizer production capabilities from the US. Immediately after Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, the first commercial deal signed was for thirteen of the world’s largest most advanced ammonia complexes for producing nitrogen based chemical fertilizer.

When these chemical fertilizers were washed into rivers and lakes by rain storms, Chinese rivers became overly saturated with nutrients which resulted in cultural eutrophication that caused algal blooms. These blooms take most of the oxygen out of a water body and make it very challenging to support a fish population. Algal blooms in the Yangtze increased exponentially and by a factor of five from the 1960s to the end of the 1990s, mainly due to the increased amount of fertilizer application and effluent from cities in the river basin.

The substantial growth of the mining industry in the late 20th century put even more pressure on Chinese fisheries as rivers and lakes became more burdened with toxins and chemicals from anthropogenic erosion throughout the late twentieth century.


Changes in Practice and Policy

Throughout history, the Chinese have struggled to maintain nutrient rich soil and water for their agricultural systems. A response to this was filling rice paddies with fish so they would fertilize the waters and surrounding soils as they ate. This was a perfect response to the problem because they in turn created fish farms as well. They raised fish which raised the rice and raised rice which raised the fish. Today, this system is called aquaponics but the Chinese have been doing this for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In the first half of the twentieth century, China had a shortage of fertilizers for the amount of agriculture it needed to produce in order to feed their quickly growing population. The Chinese started using these aquaponics systems that seamlessly integrated agriculture with aquaculture without over-fertilizing the rivers. These kinds of systems did not produce enough nutrients for the demand necessary for the massive agricultural output needed to support the population of China. Once the Chinese had access to chemical fertilizers in the 1970s many shied away from this practice and switched to more productive nutrient sources.

Another change in fishery practice is the shift towards fish farming instead of wild harvests. China has to feed 22% of the world’s population with only 7% of the world’s arable land. Therefore, they needed to expand into fish farming quickly. 

Fish Farm in South West China

“In 1998, the share of aquaculture in total fishery production was 56 percent as compared to 26 percent in 1978” according to official statements from Wang Yianliang, the Deputy Director General of the Bureau of Fisheries. This massive shift to aquaculture was necessary because Chinese rivers were too polluted and fragmented to support fish populations sized to meet the demand for food and they needed to be able to control the environment these fish were farmed in to assure they were affected by pollution as little as possible.

Now, specific policies responding to human development’s effect on fisheries throughout the 20th century will be discussed.  One policy in response to dam construction is fueled by the concern of over salinization of the estuaries beneath these large dams which can affect local fisheries. Planning and engineering of dams has been instructed to change in order to smooth out the natural distribution of water below the dams both spatially and temporally.

Algal blooms have caused significant trouble and hardship on Chinese fisheries. A policy response to cultural eutrophication is the creation of a monitoring network that keeps track of these algal blooms. Since China established the National Red-tide Monitoring Network in 1998, the red-tide incidents have been monitored rigorously. This network enables fishermen to have knowledge of algal blooms and how to prepare for them.

A specific response to erosion has made a significant difference for the environment in many ways. Severe phases of deforestation throughout Chinese history have been the primary cause of Chinese erosion problems. To create more arable land, the Chinese were forced to take down their forests which resulted in severe erosion that made the arable land they thought they were creating almost useless. To combat this, China initiated massive reforestation efforts that serve many purposes. These trees and vegetation clean the air and keep the soil in place while also providing nutrients. They created the policy of “closing the hills and nurturing the forests” which permits some areas to be closed to logging. Anyone who violate these rules can be fined and all villagers are to be educated on the importance of erosion prevention and control.


In conclusion, Chinese fisheries throughout the twentieth century have changed significantly. Many wild populations have been reduced to threatened or endangered statues due to Chinese river systems being affected by dam construction and the coupling of erosion and pollution. To support a growing population, China transitioned to to fish farming late in the twentieth century because it was less affected by pollution in rivers, lakes, and streams and enabled them to produce more guaranteed fish. Many policies have been put in place to counter the negative effects of these massive development projects and erosion. China has failed to take the appropriate care of its inland water sources over the course of the twentieth century and has responded by successfully relying on aquaculture more than any other country in the world.

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