The Ministry of Agriculture instructed the government of Jiangsu Province on July 11 to organize a panel of experts to study a controversial proposal to open a shipping route through a dolphin nature reserve.
The province's Maritime Affairs Bureau (MAB) submitted a report to the provincial government in January supporting the construction of shipping route between the Yangtze River's main course and the northern branch of its Changzhou tributary to meet increased demand for shipping transportation.
This would cross Zhenjiang Dolphin Nature Reserve, home to a species of dolphin called baiji or white-flag dolphin classified as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, meaning it is thought to face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.
On July 5, an MAB official said the southern branch of the Changzhou tributary, the current major shipping route, is on the crossing spot of the Yangtze River and Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. Heavy transportation pressure and its narrow and curving course often cause collisions -- eight with grave casualties and losses last year alone.
This section has become a bottleneck for transportation on the Yangtze River and Grand Canal, but the northern branch is wider and could improve transportation efficiency.
"This would speed up the extinction of the baiji," said Hua Yuanyu, a professor at Nanjing Normal University's School of Life Sciences.
According to Hua, if the route opens it will affect the dolphins greatly. They use sonar for echolocation and communication, which would be confused by shipping. Their major cause of mortality now is getting caught in fishing gear.
The population of baiji is less than 100 and they are classified in China as a "Protected Animal of the First Order."
Hua said protecting the river's ecology would bring more long-term benefits, whereas a new shipping route would soon become jammed again with rapid development.
He said shipping management should be improved by limiting small boats, particularly those without safety equipment, to lessen transportation pressure.
Fan Xiangguo, director of the Ministry of Agriculture's Fishery Bureau, said on Monday that further research and observation of the baiji was needed.
The Jiangsu government has asked for opinions on the issue from the provincial economy and trade commission, ocean and fishery bureau and safety supervision bureau, but their positions are as yet unknown.
A new shipping route cannot be established unless the provincial government revokes the status of Zhenjiang Dolphin Nature Reserve, said Liu Wei, chief of Jiangsu Ocean and Fishery Bureau's Resources and Environment Department.
Zhenjiang's municipal government said it hoped to use other measures such as dredging the southern branch and enhancing shipping management instead of opening a route through the nature reserve.
The baiji, Lipotes vexillifer, is a species unique to China and the most endangered species of dolphin in the world.
(Legal Daily, translated by Li Shen for China.org.cn, July 14, 2005)