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New Yangtze River dam could doom more endangered species

Eight Chinese environmentalists and scientists have composed a letter warning that a new dam under consideration for the Yangtze River could lead to the extinction of several endangered species.

The letter contends that Xiaonanhia Dam, which would be 30 kilometers upstream from the city of Chongqing, will negatively impact the river’s only fish reserve. Spanning 400 kilometers in the upper Yangtze, the reserve is home to 180 fish species, including the Endangered Chinese sturgeon, and the Critically Endangered Chinese paddlefish, as well as the finless porpoise.

“The negative impacts of overdevelopment of hydropower would destroy the river’s diverse aquatic life,” the letter says. It was written in time to reach Chinese officials as they take the project under review. The letter argues that the Xiaonanhai Dam will block migration routes for fish, turn rapids into stagnant ponds, and endanger important spawning grounds.

The strange and elusive Chinese sturgeon Acipenser sinensis is considered a living fossil, dating from the time of the dinosaurs. Despite intense efforts by the Chinese government and conservationists the species still appears in decline due to the large-scale environmental degradation of the Yangtze River. Photo by: John Leung.

“When a dam is built you effectively change everything from the point of view of a river fish,” David Dudgeon, professor of freshwater ecology at the University of Hong Kong, told Reuters regarding the controversy surrounding the new dam. “The water temperature and the oxygen content, movement and current speed change. You prevent them accessing breeding sites, and alter the characteristics of the river bottom.”

The Yangtze River has already experienced a grave loss. In 2006, the baiji, a river dolphin, was declared “functionally extinct” by a group of international scientists. The construction of dams along the Yangtze is thought to have contributed to the baiji’s extinction by constricting its habitat; in addition the baiji suffered from hunting, fishing by-catch, electrocution by illegal electric fishing, collisions with boats, and pollution.

Dudgeon holds out little hope for the river’s iconic fish species. “My guess is that the paddlefish and the Yangtze sturgeon are on the way to extinction already but there are other species that the reserve may be critically important for,” he told Reuters. “The (Xiaonanhai) dam would probably finish off some of the more vulnerable species — the last nail in the coffin.”

Proponents of the dam contend that it will provide cheap and clean energy to the city of Chongqing.

One of the world’s largest builders of hydroelectric power, Chinese officials maintain that the many dams along the Yangtze are vital power sources that do not contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

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