China's environment ministry said Thursday that it has ordered an ecological assessment for a proposed Yangtze River dam that conservationists fear could threaten hundreds of fish species and drive the giant Chinese sturgeon into extinction.
Chinese environmentalists and scientists are trying to halt the Xiaonanhai dam, upstream from Chongqing city in mountainous western China, saying that it and two other dams would flood most of the last remaining fish reserve on the Yangtze, preventing the migration of rare fish.
They argue that could lead to the extinction of species such as the Chinese sturgeon, one of the world's longest freshwater fish.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection's chief engineer, Wan Bentai, announced the environmental assessment order at a news conference, saying the ministry has the power to reject the project if it is shown to be harmful to the environment.
"The Chinese government is fond of developing hydropower, but we must take into account the environmental effects of those projects," Wan said.
He said the assessment will be commissioned by the Chongqing government, but it was unclear when it would be finished.
China has pumped money into hydropower as part of plans to wean its economy off its dependency on coal. There are more than 25,800 large dams in China — more than any other country, according to International Rivers, a nonprofit group based in California.
But critics say the dams will obstruct the free flow of the river and threaten aquatic life.
In particular, the Xiaonanhai dam — along with two other dams planned for the stretch of river upstream of the Three Gorges Dam — would flood areas of the rare fish reserve, leaving less than 10 percent of its original size, a group of eight scientists and environmentalists wrote last month in the China Economic Times.
Some 338 species of fish live in the Yangtze River basin, 162 of them unique to the river, the article said.
The sturgeon, which can reach up to 16 feet and weigh up to 1,100 pounds, is an endangered species and classified as a protected animal in China.
"The Chinese sturgeon is a fish that has to have a sufficient length of flowing water, and putting this dam right in the middle of the reach where the sturgeon are spawning will really doom the sturgeon to extinction as a result," Brian Richter, director of global freshwater programs at The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based conservation group, told The Associated Press.
The Xiaonanhai dam is being built by the Yangtze River Three Gorges Project Development Corp., but there have been no details released on its size, funding or when construction would start. It was not possible to contact the corporation for comment Thursday.