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Yangtze Finless Porpoise: The World's Only Freshwater Porpoise

A finless porpoise in clear, shallow water, hovering over a sandy bottom
Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis has adapted to life in the freshwater habitat of China's Yangtze River. MGJN KUMARA / Shutterstock

The Yangtze River, known as the longest river in Asia, is not only a vital waterway but also a critical habitat for various species. One such species is the Yangtze finless porpoise, the world's one and only species of freshwater porpoise.

Part of the cetacean family, these creatures face numerous threats in their river habitats, making their conservation a matter of utmost urgency. Read on to explore the Yangtze finless porpoise's unique characteristics, the challenges it faces and the efforts being made to ensure its survival.

Yangtze Finless Porpoises: Extraordinary Freshwater Cetaceans

The Yangtze finless porpoise — also known as the narrow-ridged finless porpoise, scientifically known as Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis — is a remarkable species that has adapted to life in freshwater habitats, playing a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of the Yangtze River ecosystem.

As the only freshwater porpoise in the world, the Yangtze finless porpoise has captured the attention of scientists and conservationists alike.

Unique Characteristics of the Yangtze Finless Porpoise

The finless porpoise, as its name suggests, lacks a dorsal fin, distinguishing it from its marine (ocean-dwelling) relatives. Instead, it possesses a narrow ridge along its back, covered in wartlike tubercles.

With a streamlined body, the porpoise can reach lengths of up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) and weigh up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms). Its bulbous head and lack of a beak further contribute to its distinctive appearance.

Yangtze Finless Porpoise: Habitat and Distribution

The Yangtze finless porpoise is primarily found in the Yangtze River, which stretches more than 3,900 miles (6,300 kilometers) through China. However, its distribution has become increasingly fragmented due to various factors.

The porpoise is now confined to specific sections of the river, such as the areas between Ezhou and Nanjing, and from Yichang to Jingzhour. It is also found in Poyang and Dongting Lakes, which are connected to the Yangtze River.

Population Decline: A Race Against Time

Despite its significance as a unique freshwater cetacean, the river dolphins faces a bleak future. The species has experienced a rapid decline in population over the past few decades.

In 1991, the population was estimated to be over 2,500 individuals, but by 2006, it had plummeted to just 1,800. By 2012 the population had decreased even further, with researchers recording only 505 individuals in the main part of the river.

These alarming figures have led to the classification of the Yangtze finless porpoise as "critically endangered" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Threats to the Yangtze Finless Porpoise

There isn't a singular threat, but rather a combination of factors contributing to the rapid decline of the Yangtze finless porpoise population.

One of the primary threats is reckless fishing practices. These freshwater cetaceans often become entangled in fishing gear, such as gillnets, leading to injury or death. Water development projects and vessel strikes further threaten the survival of the Yangtze finless porpoise.

Three of the most significant risks threats to the species' habitat are noise from increased shipping traffic, dredging of the river, and plain, old environmental pollution.

The Tragic Tale of the Baiji Dolphin

The fate of the Yangtze finless porpoise serves as a stark reminder of the tragic loss of its close relative, the Baiji dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer). Once inhabiting the Yangtze River, the Baiji dolphin was declared functionally extinct in 2006, becoming the first dolphin species to be wiped out entirely due to human activity.

The extinction of the Baiji dolphin serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the urgent need to protect the remaining populations of the Yangtze finless porpoise before the entire species goes extinct.

Conservation Measures: A Glimmer of Hope

Despite the dire situation, there is hope for the Yangtze finless porpoise. Efforts are being made to protect and conserve this critically endangered species.

One significant development is the enactment of the Yangtze River Conservation Law in 2021, which banned fishing in the Yangtze River (including in its tributaries) for a period of 10 years. This measure aims to allow the porpoise populations to recover and stabilize.

Reserves and Captive Breeding Programs

The establishment of reserves has played a crucial role in the conservation of the Yangtze finless porpoise. Seven natural reserves and two semi-natural reserves have been created to safeguard the remaining populations.

These reserves provide protected areas where the porpoises can thrive and reproduce.

Another critical aspect of conservation efforts is captive breeding programs. Since 1996, the Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has successfully cared for a limited number of finless porpoises.

Some of these porpoises, caught or rescued from the Yangtze River, were reintroduced into a semi-natural reserve called Tian'e-Zhou, where they have successfully bred. These programs offer hope for the future of the species by ensuring biodiversity and providing opportunities for reintroduction into the wild.

Restoring Habitat Connectivity

Restoring habitat connectivity is a crucial step towards preserving the Yangtze finless porpoise. The fragmentation of their habitats has significantly impacted their ability to move between different sections of the river, hindering their access to food sources and breeding grounds.

Efforts are underway to reconnect floodplain lakes with the main stem of the Yangtze River, allowing for the migration of species and the restoration of seasonal flows. This not only benefits the porpoises but also contributes to the overall health of the ecosystem.

Education and Awareness

Education initiatives, such as workshops and outreach programs, play a vital role in the conservation of the Yangtze finless porpoise.

Raising public awareness about the plight of these unique creatures and the importance of their conservation can encourage local communities, fishers and stakeholders to engage in sustainable practices that support the long-term survival of the species.

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: Yangtze Finless Porpoise: The World's Only Freshwater Porpoise

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