The relationships between fisheries and pollution presents a good argument for designing a regional cooperation framework. Since the 1980s the fish stocks of the Middle Amur-Heilong have been overexploited due to the lack of unified policies and agreed quotas. The establishment of a joint China-Russia Commission on fisheries and a transboundary agreement on fishing regulations in 1994 did not stop declines in fish stocks, partly because there was no enforceable agreement on quotas or permissible mesh sizes for fishing nets. Russia attributed the continued overexploitation to growing numbers of Chinese fishermen. This perception, coupled with generally declining enforcement and corruption in Russia, gave Russian fishermen incentives to overexploit migratory fish stocks in the lower Amur-Heilong before they reached the upstream transboundary waters.
The effects of overfishing were compounded by physical and chemical changes in the river basin. Water diversion for agriculture and dam construction on tributaries drastically reduced volumes and altered the timing of river flows. Rapid economic development without environmental safeguards, mainly in China, caused rivers to carry life-threatening levels of pollution. As a result, at least for half of each year, especially during the winter season, fish caught downstream were contaminated by pollutants and could not be eaten without risk to the health of humans and wildlife. In 2002 China (in the framework of the Agreement on Fisheries and the UN Law of the Sea) proposed joint monitoring and anti-poaching patrols downstream in Russian territory. At the same time, but in a separate forum (dedicated to water pollution control and water management), Russian provincial governments encouraged its China counterparts to undertake joint measures to reduce pollution of the Songhua River in China and revise water diversion schemes.
Taken separately these interventions could be perceived as intrusions in each other's internal affairs, but together they provide a good opportunity to combine efforts for good integrated management of a common river basin. Both sides now suffer losses caused by actions on the opposite side of the river and need to find solutions to these problems in an integrated and cooperative manner. While Chinese participation in fisheries enforcement in the lower river may help more fish to return to upstream transboundary waters, Russian involvement in pollution control in China may protect this resource from poisoning. Continued application of the existing uncoordinated and non-integrated management models for fisheries and water pollution is a barrier to resolving these issues simultaneously.
This example shows that coordinating approaches to these related problems within shared river ecosystems will be possible only within a commonly agreed decision-making framework that is both trans-boundary and trans-sectoral.
Fisherman's hospitality (Photo by E.Simonov)