River Monsters: Discover the Largest Fish in the Yangtze River

Written by Colby Maxwell
Published: August 15, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/NataliaBelay
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The Yangtze River is one of the largest and most important rivers in the world. Beginning in the Tanggula Mountains and flowing towards the East China Sea, this river is an economic powerhouse, an essential transportation method, and a natural home to creatures in all the regions it flows through. Living in its waters, however, is a river monster that ranks as one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. Let’s discover the largest fish in the Yangtze River!

What is the largest fish in the Yangtze River?

River Monsters: Discover the Biggest Largest Fish in the Yangtze River
The Chinese paddlefish is the largest fish that lived in the Yangtze River.

Alneth / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

The largest fish in the Yangtze River was historically the Chinese paddlefish, although it was officially declared extinct in 2020.

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As the third longest river in the world, it’s no wonder that the Yangtze is home to some truly massive freshwater monsters. Historically, the largest “river monster” that lived within the Yangtze was the Chinese paddlefish, although the fish was officially declared extinct in 2020. Since its disappearance, the closest contender for the largest fish in the Yangtze is probably the Yangtze sturgeon.

The Chinese paddlefish goes by a few names, including the Chinese swordfish. Until its extinction, it was widely considered to be one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. It is somewhat related to the American paddlefish, a member of the Polyodontidae family.

Chinese paddlefish were extremely long, had a white underbelly, and their back and head were gray. Their most notable feature was their paddle-like nose (known as a rostrum). This often measured up to a third of their total body length.

Where did the Chinese paddlefish live?

The Chinese paddlefish has a historical range that spanned the majority of the Yangtze River. The paddlefish was anadromous. This means it spent part of its life in the ocean and part of its life in freshwater. As such, it could occasionally be found in the South China Sea during certain times of the reproductive cycle. When it was an adult, the paddlefish lived in the ocean. Once it was time to spawn, it would travel upstream (similar to salmon) to spawn and reproduce.

How big did the Chinese paddlefish get?

River Monsters: Discover the Biggest Largest Fish in the Yangtze River
Although they are considered extinct, Chinese paddlefish reportedly reached lengths of 20 feet long.

Alneth / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

The Chinese paddlefish would regularly reach 10 feet long. Although, some larger specimens were reported to have reached upwards of 23 feet long.

When Chinese paddlefish reached maturity, they were easily among the largest freshwater fish in the world. Before their extinction, they were possibly the longest freshwater fish in the world, along with the likes of the beluga sturgeon and American sturgeon. Juvenile fish would generally weigh 2-3 lbs, although a fully mature adult could reach 660 lbs. The heaviest fish reported (though not officially recorded) was measured at 23 feet and weighed 1999.59 lbs.

Why did the Chinese paddlefish go extinct?

River Monsters: Discover the Biggest Largest Fish in the Yangtze River
The Three Gorges Dam was the primary contributor to the decline of the Chinese paddlefish.

isabel kendzior/Shutterstock.com

The Chinese paddlefish went extinct primarily through population fragmentation that was the result of two dams built along the Yangtze River.

The paddlefish was declared functionally extinct in 1993, although it wasn’t estimated to have gone extinct until between 2005 and 2010. Once the Gezhouba and Three Gorges dams were built along the river, the fish weren’t able to travel upriver and spawn any longer. Once the population was fragmented, their decline was imminent.

Outside of damming, the fish were also threatened by extreme overfishing. This was because they were considered a delicacy that dated back to ancient times.

Did people eat Chinese paddlefish?

When the Chinese paddlefish were still around, they were considered a delicacy by locals, a practice that dates back to ancient times. In fact, the decline of the paddlefish likely began between the 13th and 19th centuries as the fish captured annually began to exceed 25 tonnes.

Were Chinese paddlefish dangerous?

Even when they weren’t extinct, Chinese paddlefish weren’t a threat to humans.

iStock.com/NataliaBelay

Despite their size, Chinese paddlefish weren’t a threat to humans in any way. Even when they still swam in the waters of the Yangtze, they were only interested in small crustaceans and other fish, not humans. They had a similar demeanor to gar or sturgeon, silently swimming around and content to leave humans alone. Still, it doesn’t matter anymore as they are officially extinct with no hopes of recovery.

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