Yangtze Chinese fishing communities adapt to life on land

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Zhongba Island (China) (AFP)

Yang Zeqiang’s boat crosses the Yangtze carrying a few people and bags of grain – his new source of income after all fishing has been cut off along China’s longest river in the name of environmental protection.

As a boy, Yang remembers seeing his father and grandfather leave after dark to earn a living fishing in the Upper Yangtze River in southwest China.

“I grew up here on the Yangtze River, where my family has been fishing for generations,” said Yang, 52, who also fished for two decades until the ban.

“The fishing was tough, but it made me happy to fish and I miss it. ”

This year, Beijing implemented a ten-year harvest ban along the Yangtze River and its major lakes and tributaries, trying to reverse years of overfishing, rapid development and massive pollution.

The measurements mean a break from a centuries-old trade.

Yang and his neighbors in Zhongba – a small island near the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing – are adjusting to replace their lost income.

Yang turned his house into a guesthouse and playroom, and also bought a passenger ferry.

But he expects to make just 20,000 yuan ($ 3,000) this year, a quarter of what he earned when he fished – and the ferry is running at a loss unless it carries at least ten. people.

“I cannot live on these alone,” he told AFP.

In Sichuan Province, neighboring Zhongba Island, tens of thousands of fishing boats have been destroyed or dismantled by authorities, and more than 16,400 fishermen have lost their licenses.

Official red banners hung around the peaceful village of Yang remind locals: “Don’t fish for a living, be proud to protect the fish. ”

– ‘Nobody wants to hire us’ –

Most residents told AFP they understand the need to protect the depleted “mother river” as China realizes the environmental impact of decades of “growth first” development.

And while the overexploited Yangtze River basin once accounted for 60 percent of China’s total freshwater fishery production, it now accounts for less than one percent.

However, the late focus on conservation has affected nearly 300,000 fishing families.

“When we fished we could earn more,” said Zhao Zejin, 71, a fisherman for 40 years before the ban. “People’s lives were better. ”

He now sells bags of seeds, which he drags from the dock to Yang’s boat, staggering under the weight.

“After the fishing ban, the island’s fishermen were all looking for jobs,” said Yang’s neighbor Zhao Huaiping.

“We are old and no one wants to hire us. ”

– This is pollution –

Decades of development have severely damaged the world’s third longest river, which is clogged with toxic chemicals, plastic and garbage.

Waste from the Yangtze is the largest contributor to plastic waste in the world’s oceans, while the eleven large dams along the river have also hit migrating fish and ecosystems.

A WWF report this year said four Yangtze fish species are now extinct and 61 others are threatened.

The number of finless porpoises in the Yangtze has dropped to hundreds.

Changing weather conditions as a result of climate change have also led to severe flooding which has an impact on biodiversity.

Protecting the Yangtze – which irrigates an area responsible for 45% of the country’s GDP – is now a priority for Chinese leaders.

Conservation programs have sprung up along the river – including community-organized clean-ups and nature reserves, brakes on development, and closure of chemical factories along the river.

“Banning (fishing) alone will not turn the Yangtze into a healthy river,” said Sieren Ernst, CEO of the Climate Cost Project.

“I would like to see a comprehensive ecosystem management program for the entire Yangtze River basin that examines the total biological health of the region – including humans. ”

Sanctions have already been imposed for illegal fishing, including 13 fishermen convicted this month.

Officials promised vocational training for the fishermen, and Yang says the local government gave a one-time grant that covered half the price of his ferry.

He also advertises his hostel on their website.

But other hoped-for developments did not happen.

Only a winding, muddy track leads to the boat dock at Zhongba, and locals fear there isn’t enough to attract tourists – especially with local specialties on the menu.

“Many guests have asked to eat the Yangtze River fish,” Yang said.

“I have to tell them we can’t eat it – there’s nowhere to buy it and I can’t fish it. ”

Large investments also left Yang in debt, and he owes 100,000 RMB (over US $ 15,000).

“The fishing ban is a national policy,” he said with a sigh. “So there is no option for us. ”

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