Mekong Catfish: An endangered giant

Ulhas Joglekar uvj at
Sat Jun 9 19:43:27 MDT 2001

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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