Scientists Declare the Chinese Paddlefish Extinct

This Chinese paddlefish was caught illegally and killed in 2007; no visual sightings of the species have been recorded since (file image via Chinese state media)

Published Jan 3, 2020 9:53 PM by The Maritime Executive

Fisheries experts in China have determined that the Chinese paddlefish, also known as the Chinese swordfish or the elephant fish, has been extinct for at least a decade. 

The giant freshwater fish, a native of the Yangtze River, had been listed as critically endangered since 1996 and was last spotted alive in 2007. Overfishing and habitat destruction in the economically-thriving Yangtze drainage caused a rapid decline in its numbers. The Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences and the International Union for Conservation of Nature have determined that it is likely that the species no longer exists, and that it likely went extinct between 2005 and 2010. 

The Chinese paddlefish was a giant, measuring up to 10 feet in length and nearly 700 pounds at maturity. The species was likely doomed to extinction as early as 1993, the last year that there were enough known breeding pairs to sustain the population. Efforts at breeding the fish in captivity proved unsuccessful. 

According to the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences, the Chinese paddlefish was a living fossil - "one of only two extant members of a relict lineage that was most diverse and widespread 34-75 million years ago." Its smaller Western relative, the American paddlefish, survives today on the Mississippi River; the IUCN considers it vulnerable due to fishing pressures and competition from invasive species on its historical range. (The American paddlefish is also farmed in quantity in China.)

The loss of the Chinese paddlefish marks the third extinction on the Yangtze in recent decades: the Yangtze River dolphin was declared extinct in 2006 and the reeves shad in 2015. At least three other species - the Chinese sturgeon, the Yangtze turtle and the finless porpoise - may be next. In response, Beijing has enacted a 10-year ban on commercial fishing on the Yangtze, beginning this month and taking full effect early next year. The estimated 280,000 fishermen affected by the ban will be provided with retraining and financial assistance.