CCA’s concerns over the ex-situ plan of transporting YR finless porpoises to aquariums

The CCA has stated its serious concerns in an open letter about the move of 14 Yangtze River (YR) finless porpoises from the safety of their reserves to Zuhai Chimelong Ocean Kingdom and Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World.  The proposed move will harm the welfare of the individual dolphins involved and have no conservation value at all.

On 27th July 2018, the Anhui Provincial Agriculture Committee Office sent a letter to the Anqing City Agriculture Committee requesting that 14 Yangtze River (YR) finless porpoises be removed from the Xijiang Reserve and the Swan Island Reserve and sent to Zhuhai Chimelong Ocean Kingdom and Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World aquarium.

On 18th July 2018, the Yangtze River Fisheries Administration, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, issued a notice to speed up the ex-situ conservation of YR finless porpoise work (hereinafter referred to as ‘the notice’).

The notice states that “given the state of the wild YR finless porpoises population and the practical needs for rescuing and conserving them”, the relocation of the cetaceans should proceed more quickly, in order to implement the MOA’s Saving Yangtze River Finless Porpoises Plan (2016-2025) and Eco-environmental Protection Plan of the Yangtze River economic belt.

Zhuhai Chimelong Investment and Development Co., Ltd, Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World and the Freshwater Fisheries Research Center (FFRC) of Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences (CAFS) submitted the application for artificial breeding of YR finless porpoises and a technical protocol for capturing and transporting them for ex-situ conservation (captive breeding). The application has been approved by the Yangtze River Fisheries Administration and Fishery Bureau of MOA.

Staff at the YR Finless Porpoises Rescue Alliance revealed that the fourteen porpoises have already been captured and placed in the reserves: “the animals have not yet been sent to the aquariums, the specifics are still in discussion, but the argumentation meeting has been held”.

The China Cetacean Alliance cannot find the text of the YR Finless Porpoise Rescue Alliance work plan (2017-2018), but there are some news reports that shed light on the Alliance’s goals and aims. They aim to promote the establishment of five reserves along the Yangtze River and establish the YR Finless Porpoise Rescue Network and Protocols. They have authored a popular science book about YR finless porpoises and claim it is being used regularly in primary and secondary schools along the Yangtze River.

They also aim to create a platform focused on YR finless porpoise ex-situ conservation, for information sharing and public participation, to encourage cooperative conservation efforts that they hope will halt the decline of, and stabilize, the porpoise population.

Xijiang Reserve and Swan Island Reserve

Xijiang Reserve, Anqing City, was founded in January 2014. Five YR finless porpoises were rescued and relocated there in April 2014, with one calf born there the following June.

A further eight YR finless porpoises were relocated there in November 2016 and six more in November 2017.

Today, eight of the 20 porpoises who have adapted to this reserve will be transported to the aquariums under the ex-situ conservation plan.

Five YR finless porpoises were introduced to Swan Island Reserve in 1990’s. Currently there are at least seventy porpoises in this self-sustaining population, with calves born every year. YR finless porpoises from Swan Island Reserve have also been sent to other reserves to help them thrive, including the Xijiang Reserve.

CCA’s concern about this ex-situ conservation plan

These two reserves provide valuable habitats for the wild YR finless porpoises. Not only do the YR finless porpoises help promote the protection of these sections of the Yangtze River, but other species, including humans, benefit from the improved natural environment.

The CCA is concerned that the two reserves will receive less protection if the number of YR finless porpoises held in them is reduced. This is especially concerning for the relatively new Xijiang Reserve, where one-third of the YR finless porpoises it holds will be sent to aquariums under this plan. If eventually the remaining porpoises are transferred to aquariums, will these river waters still be well-protected?

In addition, captive cetacean populations are rarely self-sustaining without taking wild individuals to add to the captive population’s genetic diversity — and these removals harm the genetic diversity and health of the targeted wild populations. There are examples of captive bottlenose dolphins, orcas and beluga whales successfully giving birth, but these species can rarely maintain populations in captivity through captive breeding alone.

All captive cetacean breeding programs to date, globally, have been for commercial purposes or for replenishing captive populations, not for release into the wild to replenish wild stocks. While calves born in semi-natural lagoon sanctuaries for wild cetaceans (such as the finless porpoise reserves on the Yangtze River) can be released back into protected habitat, cetaceans born in concrete tanks (as they will be at Chimelong and Haichang) almost certainly cannot be released back to the wild, as they will lack survival skills; therefore, there is no conservation value to breeding them in concrete tanks.

The Xijiang Reserve will have six out of 20 of its porpoises taken into captivity, meaning the porpoises remaining in the Reserve and the captive porpoises will be more likely to inbreed. The captive ones may even be deprived of natural mating and be subjected to artificial insemination in captivity. The artificial collection of sperm and artificial insemination can be stressful and intrusive, which affects the welfare of the animals.

The argument that this uniquely Chinese sub-species requires a public outreach effort in order to assist with recovery also does not make sense. Cetaceans in big commercial oceanariums like Chimelong and Haichang are not exhibited in enclosures that in any way mimic their natural habitat. They are held in barren concrete tanks. People do not learn to appreciate them as natural creatures – they see the animals as performing clowns and entertainers. Even if the YR finless porpoises are not made to perform, they will be held by facilities that are massive, loud, cartoon-like entertainment centers.

Perhaps more concerning is that the applications submitted by Zhuhai Chimelong Ocean Kingdom and Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World do not mention reintroduction to the wild of the porpoises. The notice only outlines requirements for how to obtain an artificial breeding license for YR finless porpoises, installation of the necessary physical facilities, and improvements to the training to relevant staff so they can provide ideal conditions for taming and breeding the porpoises after their arrival, but nothing about reintroduction of the original animals or their offspring.

Three organizations are mentioned as the technical supporting organizations. Zhuhai Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World and Freshwater Fisheries Research Center (FFRC) of Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences (CAFS).

Zhuhai Chimelong Ocean Kingdom and Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World are well known for purchasing and keeping cetaceans in captivity, housing at least 97 and 200 cetaceans in their parks respectively.

It is impossible to meet the physical, psychological and behavioral needs of cetaceans in captivity. Dolphins, belugas and orcas who are used for animal performance and close contact activities such as photo taking and swim-with programs are under a huge amount of stress.

Both facilities will not make their animal inventory public and usually the death of their animals is also kept secret. What is known for sure about these two oceanariums is that, after purchasing cetaceans from Japan and Russia, captive-born calves are and will never be released into the wild.

Zhuhai Chimelong Ocean Kingdom imported five Chinese white dolphins (three were seen during a recent CCA site visit), which are currently being held in what the park calls a popular science base. Nine Russian orcas Chimelong imported are still housed in what it calls an orca breeding base.

Shanghai Haichang Polar Ocean World can’t wait to make a fortune out of four newly imported orcas, continuously advertising about the upcoming animal performances on its Weibo and WeChat accounts. Sadly, both of these oceanariums seem better at trading wild-caught animals and putting on animal performances than pursuing conservation.

The MOA’s Saving Yangtze River Finless Porpoises Plan (2016-2025), which is emphasized in the notice, was drafted by the Institute of Hydrobiology, CAS. IHB-CAS is the most prominent institution studying and protecting the YR finless porpoise. If HB-CAS endorsed this ex-situ plan then it would be more credible from a scientific perspective and the animals would be in better hands. But IHB-CAS is not even mentioned in the notice and instead seems to have been replaced by the Freshwater Fisheries Research Center (FFRC) of Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences (CAFS).

We used the search engine terms “CAS + Neophocaena asiaeorientalis” and “CAFS +Neophocaena asiaeorientalis” to identify scientific studies from these two institutions, and got 635 and 76 “hits” respectively. In fact, CAFS personnel are not even the first or second author of the 76 studies with which the institution is associated.

Appeal from China Cetacean Alliance

The YR finless porpoise is an authentic native species of the Yangtze River. These animals’ lives have evolved to thrive in this habitat. The finless porpoise reserve system on the Yangtze River is the very best way to protect and recover this species. Breeding success in one of the reserves has been strong and those progeny are being born in natural habitat and learning from their mothers how to be wild porpoises – more reserves are needed, not removing these animals to concrete tanks in flashy oceanariums. No calves born in concrete tanks will ever learn how to be wild porpoises!

These animals are fighters. Give them a chance to breathe and their habitat a chance to heal and these fighters will surely have a different fate from the Baiji. We learned a hard lesson from the Baiji, so please protect the Yangtze River habitat, please be cautious when taking any step that may lead to damage to the wild population, and please do not neglect essentials by attending to trifles.

The China Cetacean Alliance earnestly requests the Yangtze River Fisheries Administration, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs to reconsider the ex-situ conservation plan of the YR finless porpoises, where they are transferred to oceanariums. We have strong faith that the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs will prioritize the conservation of wild YR finless porpoises and protection of their habitats in the Yangtze River.

Please consult the scientific community for further study and evidence-based advice. We have strong faith that under the guidance of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the cooperation of the scientific community and the public, we together can protect riverine habitat and set the stage for giving the YR finless porpoises and the citizens of the Yangtze River a brighter future.