Mekong Catfish: An endangered giant

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jun 9 20:03:56 MDT 2001

Interesting. I got together the other week with Alan Potkin just last week,
who is deeply involved in preserving the Mekong river in Laos. He has a
CD-Rom of endangered fish, just like the one described below in the
article. He was on the list briefly but couldn't handle the volume. Unlike
most Bard College graduates, Alan was drafted and fought in Vietnam where
he was wounded. At one point when he was here, he objected to Yoshie's
characterization of American soldiers as war criminals but otherwise kept

At 07:23 AM 6/10/01 +0530, you wrote:
>Business Standard
>Last updated 0100 Hrs IST, Friday, June 8, 2001
>An endangered giant
>The giant Mekong catfish may soon become a rarity if dam builders and
>reckless fishermen have their way, says Barun Roy
>Like the Pacific salmon in the American northwest, the giant Mekong catfish
>may soon become a rarity if dam builders and reckless fishermen have their
>way. Reputedly the biggest freshwater fish in the world, it is said to be
>extinct in Cambodia and almost so in many parts of Thailand.
>Laos is the only Mekong country where an average of 40 to 60 of the giants
>are still netted every year during the short April-May season, but the
>population is said to be dwindling fast. In some Laotian rivers, like the
>Theun, they don't exist anymore.
>These giants, with flattened backs and deeply curving bellies, are endemic
>to the Mekong basin and grow up to three meters in length and over 300
>kilograms in weight. They are listed as endangered but are still caught for
>their meat, popular in all the lower Mekong countries and believed to ensure
>good luck and long life.
>In Thailand, for instance, catfish meat sells for 300 to 400 bahts per kilo,
>which has induced more fishermen into the hunt. Every year from May 18 to
>30, an unusual catfish fair is held in the Chiang Khong district of
>Thailand, when tourists observe the ceremonial capture of these giants and
>savour the taste of their meat.
>The giants are vulnerable because they are migratory in nature and need
>specific water quality and flow. They run hundreds, sometimes thousands, of
>kilometers up or downstream to spawn. Dams are a direct obstruction and even
>the so-called run-of-the-river dams with fish ladders meant for fish to
>glide over don't help much. What's worse, fishermen use illegal traps,
>grenades, and even electrocution to fish more than they should.
>Attempts to protect the giant catfish are feeble. Occasionally, fishermen
>themselves release captured catfish back into rivers in symbolic gestures of
>conservation. The Cambodian government runs a programme of buying catfish
>from fishermen to return them to rivers and wetlands.
>The Laotian government discourages the blocking of streams when fish need to
>move out of the big river to spawn, and even signposts special habitats,
>such as deepwater pools, where fishing is banned during the low-water
>season. But so far the onslaught hasn't been reversed.
>There are some 1,300 species of fish in the Mekong River basin, including
>some 20 species of catfish. At least one million metric tonnes of fish are
>caught from rivers and wetlands every year while an additional 200,000
>metric tons are produced through aquaculture. Fishing, thus, is an important
>activity for the Mekong economies. Some people earn between $400 and $600 a
>year from it.
>In Vietnam's An Giang province, for example, over 66 per cent of households
>are engaged in fishing and the activity is highly commercialised, even at
>the small-scale level. Since 90 per cent of all fishing is done through
>direct capture, anything that messes up water bodies and flows can ruin
>people's livelihood.
>Fish catches have been declining in Laos since 1970, rapidly in the last
>four years. In Cambodia, wetlands, making over 30 per cent of the country,
>are threatened not only by overfishing but also by drainage for agriculture,
>pollution from fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides, deforestation, and
>mining run-offs.
>There have been recent attempts to save Tonle Sap, the huge Cambodian lake
>that's one of the most productive freshwater fisheries in the world, by
>establishing fish sanctuaries, reestablishing flooded forests, and creating
>alternative income sources for riparian communities, but the results are too
>early to tell.
>More than 60 per cent of the floodwater in Tonle Sap comes from the Mekong.
>When the annual floods recede, fish from the lake swim downstream into
>Vietnam or upstream as far as Yunnan in China.
>They need this unhindered run of the river to spawn and thrive. It will be
>disastrous if Tonle Sap were to lose its unique hydrological and ecological
>system, which sustains hundreds of fish and bird species, through reckless
>human activity.
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Louis Proyect
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