Search for giant carnivorous fish renews calls for invasive species control

The dramatic search by a local government in Henan for two alligator gars (Atractosteus spatula), a giant carnivorous fish native to North and Central America, has made national news this week.

The search for the allegedly freed fish involved draining a lake. It sparked heated discussion about how to regulate the large number of alien species often sold and kept as pets in China. 

It is feared that if the alligator gar populates open waters, it will sit on top of the food chain and severely damage aquatic ecosystems. Regarded as neither tasty nor safe to eat, it is believed to have first been smuggled into China to be bred and traded as an exotic pet.

Multiple other efforts to capture the fish from the wild have been reported in different parts of the country. According to an expert on invasive aquatic species, the alien fish has already established populations in the Pearl River in the south, possibly on its way to becoming truly “invasive”.

The newly effective Biosecurity Law and the Measures for the Administration of Invasive Alien Species both ban the importation and release of invasive species into the open environment without approval. In the Criminal Law, it is punishable with three years in prison. But the underregulated market for alien species remains substantial.

Alligator gars are easily available on Chinese e-commerce platforms. The dramatic event in Henan has prompted calls for regulating the trade of alien species, and for putting the fish and other species deemed potentially dangerous on a list of invasive species of national concern. 

The new draft of the long-anticipated revision of the Wildlife Protection Law is reported to include a clause authorising wildlife authorities to regulate the freeing of animals. It also reportedly proposes the establishment of a “categorised and graded” system for captive-breeding of wild animals, as well as to stop automatically treating animals listed under international conventions such as CITES as national key protected animals. 

It’s so far not clear what the implications of these measures will be for the tension between the need to control invasive species and the slow progress in regulating the breeding and trading of species coming from abroad.

Read China Dialogue’s recent story on why China’s judiciary is decriminalising trade in captive-bred wild animals.