Apr 232014

As paddlefish snagging season nears its end in Missouri, we pay tribute to the its closest cousin, the Chinese paddlefish, (Psephurus gladius), which is likely now extinct.

In the not-too-long-ago but far-away genre of story telling is the tale of the Chinese paddlefish. Once there was another paddlefish species, which lived in the big rivers of China. The Chinese paddlefish, which was a fish eater, not a plankton filter feeder like the American species, grew to more than 20 feet long in the Yangtze River.  According to the National Geographic website, “Their enormous bulk and plentiful flesh made them a popular target for fishermen and a welcome addition to dinner tables, including those of ancient Chinese emperors..”

The largest freshwater fish in the world, this genuine ‘river monster’ was also called ‘elephant fish’ for its trunk-like snout.  Like our Polyodon spathula, the Chinese paddlefish was a river roamer, swimming the long and broad reaches of major streams, but returning to specific environments for spawning.
Psephurus_gladius Psephurus gladius, 1868, Nouvelles Archives du Muséum d’histoire Naturelle (Wikimedia Commons)

OR-paddlefish drawingsDrawing of the American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) from The Fishery Industries of the United States (1884):

“The Paddle-fish, or Duck-bill cat is one of the most characteristic fish of the rivers of the Western and Southern States. It reaches a length of four to six feet, and a weight of 30 pounds or more. It feeds on minute organisms present in mud. The long snout or spatula is used to stir up the mud on which, and the animals within, the fish feeds. The fish is rarely or never used as food.” (page 204, Damming the Osage)

Chinese rivers are even more dammed than those in the United States. While the big dam building era in the U.S. is past, the Chinese are still going full tilt at nearly every stream in their (and other countries’) geography.  First the giant Gehzouba hydroelectric dam on the Yangtze closed in 1983 blocking the paddlefish migration from feeding areas of the lower river to the Gehzouba, the largest dam in the world, closed in 2006, covering over the remaining spawning areas of the paddlefish.

The last living specimen was captured in 2003.

Ironically, tourists visiting Chinese aquariums see descendants of the American paddlefish swimming in tanks as their own native paddlefish is likely now extinct. Globalization of the American Paddlefish

The American paddlefish remains a viable species for now – but its future is clouded. The changes brought on by water resources development projects have blocked natural spawning. Artificial breeding may seem like a solution, but it leads to long-term deterioration of fitness to survive in the wild. Species maintained by such programs are teetering on a precipice.

OR gravel bars-paddlefishAbove: The upper Osage before Truman Dam. This Ordovician chert floored river was not only ideal for paddlefish eggs to stick to; it was utilized by spawning walleye and introduced striped bass. No other feeder streams of Lake of the Ozarks had an appropriate flow to trigger an upstream migration and satisfy the spawning requirements of these large fish. (Leland Payton photograph, page 205, Damming the Osage).

For more information on the history and current state of the American paddlefish, see DAMMING THE OSAGE