Saturday, December 12, 2015
By: Olivia Harlow
Produced & Edited by: Olivia Harlow
The Mekong Giant Catfish has low-set eyes, a silvery gray scaleless body and a yellowed white stomach. Endemic to the Mekong River and one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, the Mekong Giant Catfish lives a threatened existence, vulnerable to dam construction, overfishing, and habitat destruction.
Rarely seen, this massive fish–capable of reaching a record 10 feet in length and 650 pounds—was listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered in 2003; and according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) there may be only a few hundred left in the wild.
On November 9, this giant fish was found and tagged for the first time this year in the murky brown waters of the Tonle Sap by a team of biologists, including Nat Geo Wild’s “Monster Fish” host, Zeb Hogan, who has studied the species extensively for many years.
Mr. Hogan—who was coincidentally in Cambodia doing research at the time of this catch— said that adult Mekong Giant Catfish are only seen during very specific times of the year in equally specific locations. He added that compared to counting terrestrial animals, tracking fish populations from large ecosystems like the Mekong is very difficult.
“What we do know is that in the late 1800s, thousands of Mekong Giant catfish were caught each year. In the early 1900s, there are reports of hundreds being caught each year. And recently we hear reports of less than 10 caught per year,” he explained.
Youk Senglong, Executive Director of Fisheries Action Coalition Team, clarified that these fish used to be eaten for food, “because those people do not understand.” He added that many people back then used to care more about their income than the importance of protecting the species.
Mr. Hogan said that fish catching often serves as a proxy for abundance, “So, IF catch is related to abundance, then giant catfish has declined by 90-99 percent in the last century.”
Mr. Hogan explained that giant freshwater fish in other parts of the world, including the Yangtze River in China, have completely disappeared. “Unless there is someone monitoring the populations, the same thing could happen on the Mekong,” he said, adding that the Mekong Giant Catfish already teeters on the brim of extinction.
Mr. Hogan said though some people may not care about one species’ potential extinction, this declining population reveals a much bigger issue.
“The Mekong Giant Catfish is symbolic of the health and integrity of the Mekong River,” he said, explaining that this specific body of water is one of the most biodiverse on Earth. “The extinction of the Mekong Giant Catfish would be an indication of declining river health and a red flag for the millions of people who depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods.”
In addition to warnings of the area’s fragile environment and loss of sustainability exists a spiritually related problem.
Traditionally revered among Buddhists, the Mekong Giant Catfish, or “pla buk”, is considered a sacred creature.
“Cambodian people, in particular fishers, believe that this kind of species is the king of other fish,” said Mr. Senglong, adding that Buddhist religion requires that the fish not be killed. “This species also brings other fish to fish. So, if the fishers catch and eat the catfish, the fishers will never [have] chance to catch other fish.”
Mr. Senglong added that when he was young, fishermen would conduct a special ceremony for the fish. “[There was] music and sprinkling perfume,” he explained. “The role of Buddhist monks and other religious followers is important to educate the fishers not to catch and eat.”
Thach Sophanara, Director of Laboratory at the Fishery Administration Department, said that this kind of ceremony occurred before the fish was set free on November 9, fishermen sprinkled perfume over it for good luck. “Cambodians believe they can wish for something or for good luck with these fish,” he explained.
But unfortunately, this “lucky” fish is experiencing anything but luck.
The Giant Mekong Catfish requires long stretches of open water in order to migrate and environmentally specific conditions to breed, but according to Mr. Hogan, human intrusion and the building of dams have disrupted these patterns.
“The main threats are incidental catch, habitat fragmentation because of dams, and habitat degradation—primarily dredging, rapids blasting, and reduction of flooded forest habitat,” he explained.
Additionally, although it’s now illegal to fish this particular species, enforcement in Southeast Asia’s more secluded areas is minimal.
“The difficulty of enforcement in remote areas is because when they fish Giant Mekong Catfish, they transport into Laos,” said Mr. Sophanara—who was also present at the catch on the Tonle Sap. “Also, we don’t have budget for patrol or to educate them.”
Mr. Sophanara said that fishermen rarely pay close attention to the types of fish they catch when they cast nets. “Fishermen never understand when it’s [the fishes’] season and what kind of fish they are catching,” he said. “They just leave their nets in the Tonle Sap, but they don’t know that impact.”
He added that many fishermen in other Southeastern countries continue to catch and sell the species in local markets, which is out of Cambodian control.
According to the WWF and Mr. Hogan, these social and economic developments make conservation work in the Greater Mekong region urgent, yet challenging.
Fortunately, last Monday, scientists found hope.
On November 9, the Mekong Giant Catfish— also known as the “royal fish”—was caught and tagged, proving its doubted presence in Cambodia.
Mr. Hogan then dove ten feet with the seven-foot long fish, ensuring that it returned safely to deeper waters.
“[I tried] to direct it to deeper water where it normally swims and is less likely to be caught again in a net,” said Mr. Hogan. “The fish seemed strong as I released it, so I hope that it will recover from being captured and continue its migration.”
(Additional Reporting Sek Odom)