On my last visit to China in April 2016, I went on a night patrol with Dongting Lake Waterkeeper DaMing He, aka Brother Ming, on Dongting Lake, a large, shallow lake in northeastern Hunan Province that is the birthplace of the dragon boat race, and home to the endangered finless porpoise. Brother Ming is a fisherman by trade who began patrolling the lake after watching a steep decline in fish and finless porpoises populations. He is now a passionate advocate of sustainable fishing, working to protect the wellbeing of the lake and his livelihood.
Fishing is now banned on the whole of East Dongting Lake from early March to the end of June. The purchase and selling of prohibited fishing gear and catches are also strictly forbidden.
For Brother Ming, who has 30-plus years of fishing experience, taking us out on a pitch-black night patrol seemed like nothing much more than a walk in a park. It is a common routine amongst Chinese Waterkeepers, because most illegal fishing is done under the cover of darkness. With the eye of an owl, Brother Ming quickly spotted something unusual on the lake’s surface. As we got closer, Brother Ming explained it was a bamboo stick secured to the bottom of the lake with lines of roller hooks attached. The use of roller hooks is a common, albeit illegal, long-line fishing technique used by fishermen to catch large bottom-feeding fish such as carp, herring and catfish. Unlike fishing with a net, these roller hooks spear the fish. Once a fish is caught, it cannot escape nor can it survive if released, as the damages are usually too severe.
When Brother Ming pulled up the line, we saw thousands of hooks hanging across a very long line, too long for us to see with a flashlight. As deadly as these hooks are to fish, they are also very dangerous to the endangered finless porpoise. Brother Ming contacted the local fishery department by cell phone immediately after spotting the line. The fishery officers responded within the hour.
Brother Ming then boarded the fishery officers’ boat and went off in search of other illegal lines. In the process, the fisherman who set up the traps were captured and arrested. Many bottom feeders such as catfish were loaded into the boat. They were at least 4 feet in length, wounded or dead, with some of them ready to spawn.
Upon returning from patrol, I sat and watched sunrise over this beautiful landscape of Dongting Lake, thankful for the 290+ organizations across the globe fighting for swimmable, drinkable and fishable water.