The 90 percent decline in Amur-Heilong fish catches has been widely documented. The basin supports valuable stocks of salmon and sturgeon that require effective international protection. To achieve this, Russia and China entered into three bilateral agreements: the Russia-China agreement on “Cooperation in Fisheries” (1988), the “Agreement for Cooperation in the field of protection, regulation and reproduction of aquatic biological resources in Transboundary waters of the Amur-Heilong and Ussuri-Wusuli Rivers” (1994), and the “Amur-Heilong-Ussuri-Wusuli Fishing Regulations.” The regulations cover 25 species of fish, as well as two crustaceans, one turtle, one mollusk, and three aquatic plants. The regulations specify catch size limits for fishnet mesh sizes and lengths, seasonal fishing ban periods, closure of waters to fishing, and permitted fishing gear. They also contain provisions to mitigate harmful impacts of agriculture, municipal and industrial pollution, construction of water infrastructure, and mining. A Special Task Force and a Consultative Expert Group were established to implement this agreement.
This cooperative mechanism, although far from stopping declines in fish stocks, have at least provided a regular forum for exchange of important information, resolving disputes, and planning joint measures. Commonly agreed fishing bans were implemented as were joint anti-poaching operations. The regulations have been continually discussed and strengthened, most recently in 2003.
Article four of the fishing regulations imposes a total ban on fishing in transboundary waters of the Amur-Heilong and Ussuri/Wusuli from 11 June to 15 July and 1-20 October for all fish species.
Article five lists waters in which commercial fishing is banned year-round in Russia. These include reaches of the Ussuri/Wusuli and Amur-Heilong two km up and downstream from the mouths of major tributaries (Zeya, Bureya, Bira, and Bikin) as well as 500 m up and down all other tributaries on the full width of the Amur-Heilong and Ussuri/Wusuli. In China, a similar ban is imposed on the lower Songhua River and all left-bank tributaries from the mouth of the Niu’erguxiaohe to the mouth of the Songhua River, as well as in waters of the Amur-Heilong 2.5 km up and downstream measuring from the left and right banks of the Songhua confluence, as well as at the Naoli River confluence with the Wusuli-Ussuri, and a reach of the Amur-Heilong in Luobei County (Hegang Prefecture). All forms of fishing are prohibited in these zones, which are to be demarcated with special signs delimiting the no-fishing zones.
Other articles specify types and lengths of nets that are allowed, and legal placement of the nets in the river channels.
In addition to the measures prescribed by the transboundary agreement, countries also implement their own national policies. Several nature reserves to protect rare and valuable fish species have been established in China and Russia (Humahe NR, Dichun NR, and others). Russian legislation also prescribes protection of forests near spawning rivers and the delineation of areas with temporary and permanent fishing bans.
There is a well established set of agreements to guide protection and restoration of fish stocks. Agencies in the two countries, however, have no capacity to protect fish biodiversity because the majority of species is overlooked even by basic monitoring. Nor do they have capacity to harmonize domestic policies with international agreements. Therefore most “no fishing zones” prescribed by international agreements do not necessarily coincide with those enforced domestically. Thirdly, China has no say in the protection and management of migratory stocks in Russia’s reach of the Lower Amur. This might be a strong disincentive to participate in any binding agreements on upstream areas.
In the realm of Russia-Mongolia and China-Mongolia relations, protection of aquatic species is difficult to discuss because of mismatching responsibilities of agencies that represent countries in negotiations.
Netting Amur (Photo by E.Simonov)