Chinese Paddlefish Officially Declared Extinct

The Chinese paddlefish, a species closely related to sturgeons, has officially been declared extinct by the global organization that monitors endangered species.

A July 21 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Sturgeon Specialist Group (IUCN SSG) confirmed that the Chinese paddlefish, last sighted in the wild in 2003, had died out.

The report, a comprehensive investigation of the state of world's sturgeon and paddlefish populations, also said that all 26 remaining species of both types of fish are now threatened with extinction, with two thirds of these species classified as critically endangered.

The Chinese paddlefish had been protected in China since the 1980s, due to a population decline after the 1970s due to overfishing and habitat fragmentation. The 1981 construction of the Gezhouba Dam is also thought to have been one of the major drivers of the decline in Chinese paddlefish populations.

chinese paddlefish
Stock image of a Chinese paddlefish swimming with an open mouth. The IUCN report confirms that the Chinese paddlefish is officially extinct. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Native to the Yangtze River, this giant fish could grow to up to 23 feet long, yet no specimens were found during a basin-wide capture mission in 2006. A 2019 study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment reported the Chinese paddlefish as being extinct, but this new IUCN SSG report comes as the official declaration of the species' final demise.

The ancient fish is thought to have been around since the Lower Jurassic period, around 200 million years ago.

"There's something to be said about humanity, when a species that's outlived the dinosaurs is pushed to the brink of extinction by humans who have, in comparison, existed for a mere blip in time," Beate Striebel-Greiter, who leads the global sturgeon initiative at environmental group WWF, said in a statement.

As well as the announcement of the extinction of the Chinese paddlefish, the report confirms the extinction of the Yangtze sturgeon in the wild, and the extinction of the ship sturgeon in the Danube River.

The local ship sturgeon extinction in the Danube is a rare case of a species' disappearance from European Union territory, especially as the ship sturgeon was protected under the EU Habitats Directive. Ship sturgeon now are only found in the Ural River in Russia and Kazakhstan, with sparse populations across Georgia and Iran.

According to the report, poaching of sturgeon to illegally trade wild caught caviar and meat is one of the leading causes of their demise: one in three caviar and meat products sold in the lower Danube region was sold illegally.

"The loss of the ship sturgeon from the Danube demonstrates the urgency to implement the Pan-European Action Plan for sturgeon, including measures to ensure upstream and downstream migration," said Striebel-Greiter. "There are no excuses for the current lack of action and no one else to blame: if governments across Europe and EU institutions do not act now to restore river connectivity and protect and restore sturgeon habitats in key rivers, the extinction of more sturgeon species will be on their hands."

ship sturgeon
A ship sturgeon. The ship sturgeon is now locally extinct in the Danube River. WWF Austria / Hannes Greber

The report calls for action to prevent the further extinction of the other critically endangered sturgeon and paddlefish species described by researchers.

"We call on countries to stop turning a blind eye to the extinction of sturgeon and implement the solutions they know can help save these iconic species," said Striebel-Greiter. "We have a choice: thriving healthy rivers that nourish and sustain communities around the world or stick with today's failed policies—leaving us with empty rivers that benefit neither people or nature."

The report shows some successes in conserving a couple of sturgeon species, however. The previously assumed-extinct Adriatic sturgeon has recently been documented in Italy after decades of restocking. Additionally, North American conservation efforts in the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada, have helped to increase some sturgeon populations, including the white sturgeon.

"These successes show that we can reverse the declines in sturgeon species as long as institutions and governments prioritize their conservation and join forces with communities and conservationists to tackle the threats to them and their rivers," said World Sturgeon Conservation Society (WSCS) president Paolo Bronzi in a statement. "By saving sturgeon, we will save so much more—because enhancing the health of sturgeon rivers benefits all the people and nature that rely on them."