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Environmental crime crackdown in China - harvesters of midge larvae fined

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Court in Anhui Province fined six people 66,400 yuan (about 10,300 US dollars) for harvesting bloodworms – aquatic larvae of non-biting midges, after the judge ruled that severe ecological damage had been done. The state media gave prominence to this case, in what seems to be a warning. This is the first such case in China - previously this minor, local industry remained under the authorities' radar.

Chironomid larvae are commonly known as bloodworms because of their red colour caused by high amounts of haemoglobin in their tissues. Bloodworms are sold as bait for recreational fishing and also as food for aquarium fish.


Building Ecological Civilisation - reversing the ecological damage already done and achieving a sustainable future, is being presented as a pillar of China’s domestic governance and international policy. It is also the slogan of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) to be held in Kunming, China, in October this year.


Over the past three years, in the build-up to COP15, the enforcement of environmental regulations and wildlife crime laws has become increasingly strict in China.


This time, the full weight of the law was brought down not on international traders in elephant ivory, but on rural folk who make a living harvesting blood worms – aquatic larvae of non-biting midges. Known as chironomids (the midges belong to family Chironomidae) these red-coloured larvae thrive on the bottoms of polluted, degraded lakes and streams. Bloodworms are sold as food for aquarium fish and as bait to recreational fishermen.


The state media covered the case - it was even reported in the Law section of Renminwang, the website of the The People’s Daily, and the same content was republished on other websites dedicated to legal and administrative issues. This is the kind of prominence that an ivory smuggling case would normally receive in the national press.


The website reported on the May 26th 2021, a court in Bangbu City, Anhui Province fined six people for “plundering ways of harvesting” of bloodworms. Using mechanical dredging equipment and pumps, says the article, the 6 cased damage “to the resources of benthos, plankton, vegetation and fish, affecting the habitat, growth and reproduction of aquatic animals”. The authorities seized 41,5 pounds of bloodworms.


Home-made bloodworm dredger mounted on a boat in China


The “plundering” was done on the northern section of the Fei River, an important tributary of the River Huai.


Moreover, the prosecutors argued that such dredging “severely endangered the stability and balance of the aquatic ecosystem, damaged biodiversity and led to damages to the interests of society.”


The prosecutors have “consulted experts, conducted visits and interviews and read the available materials” and concluded that chironomids were important for ecological balance, as they accounted for 50% of the 70 species of benthos found in the River Huai.


Adult non-biting midge. Credit Alan SL Leung


The experts, brought from Anhui Normal University, agreed that severe damage was indeed done to the river by the 6 “plunderers” – water quality and ecosystem stability were affected, as was the benthic fauna. The experts also recommended that ecological restoration be done to the damaged section of the river.


The judge fined the defendants 66,400 yuan (about 10,300 US dollars) – or 40 times the market value of the bloodworms seized, plus 3,000 yuan to cover the cost of the professional expertise.


The defence tried to argue that dredging was not done in a no-fishing zone, bloodworms were not listed as nationally protected animals, and the fine – 40 times the market value, was simply excessive.


The judge however, dismissed the defence, agreeing with the prosecutors that ecological damage was indeed done, adding that the use of mechanical equipment to harvest the larvae was illegal.


The People’s Daily also reports that the local government has since carried out a restoration campaign releasing 10,000 juvenile fish and 200kg of snails and planting 1000 aquatic plants on the section of the river that had been affected by the “plundering”.


Eminent freshwater biologist, Hong Kong University’s Professor Emeritus David Dudgeon said in response to this case:


“I've heard nothing, ever, about overexploitation of these (bloodworms) and, as far as I was aware, those that are sold as food for aquarium fishes are farmed. This used to happen in Hong Kong, but now everyone here buys frozen ones that come mainly from Japan.


Bloodworms are generally not numerous unless the waters in which they occur are organically polluted. And in that case, we regard them as pollution indicators, indicative of organic pollution or oversupply of nutrients in river and shallow lakes. When they were farmed here in Hong Kong, the shallow ponds in which they were cultivated were 'fed' by chicken manure.


As for dredging, it depends what they do with the material they dredge out and the scale of the dredging. But it would only be worth extracting them from the 'wild' if they were very abundant, which indicates polluted conditions. So, I suspect the collateral damage might be fairly minimal unless the scale was very large.”


Dudgeon adds that with large scale dredging or mining of river and lake sand, such as on Poyang Lake, being a huge problem in China, dredging for chironomids needs to be put in that context when discussing the ecological damage done.


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