Why the Yangtze Finless Porpoise Is Endangered and What We Can Do

Freshwater Dolphins In Yangtze River Are Threatened To Vanish
China Photos / Getty Images

The critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise is one of the last freshwater species of porpoise left on Earth and the only mammal currently inhabiting China’s Yangtze River.

Once home to the Baiji dolphin, a close cousin of the Yangtze finless porpoise who was declared functionally extinct due to human activity in 2006, the Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia at nearly 4,000 miles long. This shy species of porpoise is an important indicator species for the health of the river ecosystem—which also supports the livelihoods of some 500 million people and contributes over 40% of China’s Gross Domestic Product.

Today, the number of remaining mature individuals is believed to be between 500 and 1,800, making the Yangtze finless porpoise even rarer than China’s giant panda in the wild.

In 2017, scientists used prediction models to project population trends and estimate an updated time to extinction for wild Yangtze finless porpoises throughout its current range. They found that the median predicted time to extinction was 25 to 33 years in the Yangtze River and 37 to 49 years overall. If something doesn’t change, the entire species could be wiped off the face of the planet by the year 2054.

Critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise
Huangdan2060 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Threats

The Yangtze River Basin protects some incredible levels of biodiversity, including habitats for other threatened species like snow leopards and giant pandas. It also sustains a large number of local communities that depend on the river for drinking water, agriculture, fishing, and transportation.

Unfortunately, factors like pollution, poorly planned infrastructure, and economic development are overwhelming the ecosystem where Yangtze finless porpoises once thrived.

Pollution and Climate Change

It’s no secret that China’s industrial sector has played an important role in its economy, and much of it culminates at the Yangtze River. The vital river has been experiencing major challenges due to climate change for decades, including flooding, the degradation of aquatic ecosystems and water quality, and drought.

Pollution from agriculture, chemical production, and other industrial processes like textile dyeing is continuing to threaten the ecosystem. Studies show that the Yangtze deposits a whopping 55% (or 1.5 million metric tons) of all river marine plastic pollution.

The Three Gorges Dam power plant, the world's largest capacity hydroelectric power station, is located just miles from the river. Despite promises to bring clean energy to China, the construction of the dam also brought along massive freighters to increase commercial shipping and a whole host of controversial issues.

Noise pollution from the powerful propellers and motors of passing boats and barges affects the species just as much, if not more, than traditional pollution.

Like many other cetaceans, Yangtze porpoises use echolocation, or natural sonar, to navigate their surroundings. Research on the morphology of the Yangtze finless porpoise shows that it has the capacity to hear from all directions, meaning it may have more difficulty discerning signals among the jumble of nearly constant noise. This artificial noise pollution can cause mothers to be separated from their young, disrupt foraging patterns, and make it difficult for them to navigate, communicate, or breed (Yangtze porpoises only breed once a year, so their population recovery is relatively slow).

Captive Yangtze Finless Porpoise Gives Birth To Second Cub In Wuhan
A newly born Yangtze finless porpoise (top) swims with his mother at the Hydrobiology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences on June 3, 2007 in Wuhan of Hubei Province, China. China Photos / Getty Images

Increased Economic Development

As China has taken off to new economic heights, rapid development and population growth put immense pressure on river habitats. According to the World Wildlife Fund, human population numbers in the Yangtze River Basin have more than doubled in the last 50 years, mainly in areas along the river itself.

Construction projects like hydrological engineering, when poorly planned, can interrupt the natural flow of porpoise ecosystems and degrade or completely destroy entire habitats or drive species out.

Massive dredging vessels harvesting sand from the bottom of the river (in a process sometimes referred to as sand mining) to replace it with concrete for the newest development can also destroy crustacean populations and riverbed vegetation that the porpoise relies upon for survival. Sand mining, which may occur both legally and illegally, is also notorious for blocking the passages between different bodies of water and for lowering the region’s water levels during the dry season.

Likewise, the more development the river experiences, the more boats and ships are setting out on its waters. Yangtze finless porpoises don’t just occur in the Yangtze River, but also in the water bodies that connect to it, including the Dongting and Poyang Lakes and the Tian'e-Zhou Oxbow Nature Reserve. Their habitats overlap almost exclusively with the main gillnetting areas of the river, so even if the animals themselves aren’t being targeted by fishers, porpoises can easily become accidentally entangled in fishing gear or struck by fishing vessels.

What We Can Do

We can learn from the tragic plight of the Baiji dolphin with whom the Yangtze finless porpoise once shared a habitat—and whose fate was determined mainly by the destruction of its food supply due to overfishing.

As the Baiji dolphin is also believed to be the first toothed whale species to be driven to extinction by human beings, it makes the race to save the species’ finless porpoise cousin seem all too urgent, resulting in even more studies to increase understanding of the issue.

Research on porpoise populations can highlight the need to establish a network of reintroduction refuges to preserve as many individuals as possible. In the 1990s, a group of about five porpoises was translocated to a “semi-natural” lake habitat at Tian'e-Zhou Oxbow Nature Reserve in central China's Hubei province—as of 2014, the population had grown to about 40 individuals.

Researchers are continuing to monitor and study the species to learn how best to protect it, while conservationists are working alongside local communities to protect and restore porpoise habitat as well as support legislation that gives them more security under the law. For example, while determining the distribution of the Yangtze finless porpoise historically relied on simple visual and counting methods, researchers are discovering newer and more sophisticated strategies, such as measuring environmental DNA in river water.

Whether it’s working with local fishermen to find alternative sources of income to stop overfishing and help develop sustainable economies, or rallying lawmakers to prioritize its protection, the Yangtze finless porpoise has plenty of organizations on its side.

In 2021, the species received a much-needed win when China's Ministry of Agriculture provided the Yangtze finless porpoise with a new classification as a National First Grade Key Protected Species. The designation, which is the strictest classification for wild animals available by law, allowed conservationists and the Ministry of Agriculture to enforce control over illegal fishing, regular inspections on protection work, and occupation of porpoise habitat, migration channels, or feeding areas. 

What You Can Do to Help the Yangtze Finless Porpoise