With a slight shrug and a slow smile, catfish farmer Ing Vannath watched Wednesday morning as seven years and more than 200 kg of pure good fortune slipped into the murky waters of the Tonle Sap and disappeared forever.
In 1998 Ing Vannath had no idea what was living in his pond. The 36-year-old had simply ordered a batch of 1,500 fingerling catfish to raise on his property 7 km north of Phnom Penh. A year later he noticed that a handful of the whiskered fish had grown remarkably large.
On the advice of friends, he let the mightiest ones remain in the pond to bring good luck.
Evidently it worked.
On Wednesday, at a lavish, riverside ceremony organized by the World Wildlife Fund and the Ministry of Agriculture, dozens of environmentalists, government officials and excited biologists applauded Ing Vannath’s work in raising four critically endangered Mekong giant catfish—the largest freshwater fish in the world.
The catfish, each weighing around 50 kg and measuring roughly 1.5 meters in length, were released into the river in a move that Dr Claude Martin, WWF director-general, called a significant contribution to the continued survival of the species.
The Mekong giant catfish, which can grow to more than 3 meters in length and can weigh over 300 kg, was first listed as an endangered species in 1975.
It has been on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species since 1996. It’s decline, due to over-fishing, development and drought, has been used by scientists as an indicator of the overall health of the entire Mekong river ecosystem.
“The disappearance of the Mekong giant catfish may foreshadow the slow decline of environmental conditions throughout the Mekong river,” Dr Zeb Hogan, a research biologist at the University of Wisconsin in the US and the coordinator of the Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Program, wrote in an email Wednesday.
Though fishing for Mekong catfish was ruled illegal in 1921, Cambodian fisheries scientist Touch Seang Tana estimates that less than 2 percent of the native population remains.
Data collected by Hogan in 2003 suggests that 90 percent of the population has vanished over the last two decades.
“If you consider that only five to 15 similarly sized fish are caught in Cambodia each year, this is a very important release,” said Rob Shore, a WWF program officer.
“We don’t believe there are many fish like this in captivity. Because they were caught in the river, they are essentially wild fish. Now they’re returning to their rightful home,” he said.
The event followed a Tuesday meeting between Martin and Prime Minister Hun Sen in which the two discussed threats to Cambodia’s biodiversity-among them was the dwindling population of Mekong catfish.
“Cambodia still has a lot of natural resources to preserve. Chances are good in terms of conserving biodiversity if things are done right,” Martin said.
It is the hope of the WWF that charismatic, “flagship” species such as the Mekong giant catfish can raise public awareness about dangers to the environment as a whole. After all, the Mekong catfish is a near-mythical creature throughout Southeast Asia, where some believe it has been an element of cultural heritage for centuries.
“Huge fish are depicted in cave paintings in northeast Thailand that are 4,000 years old and on the bas reliefs of Angkor Wat,” wrote Hogan who has studied the fish since 1996.
In Cambodia the Mekong catfish is revered as “trey reach” or “royal fish.”
With its mammoth size, smooth shark-like skin and gaping, toothless mouth, the mighty Mekong catfish is, iconically-speaking, to the river what the elephant is to land.
“The most obvious attraction people have to the Mekong catfish is the enormous size,” Shore said.
“The only other fish of this size is in the Amazon. So to have a fish this size swimming through a capital city is just amazing. The other thing is the potential migration route it has. Some people believe that it travels from the Tonle Sap all the way to northern Thailand. This would take an enormous effort.”
Though Shore initially expressed concern about the transfer of the fish from Ing Vannath’s farm to Wednesday’s ceremony, he said the fish appeared to have weathered the move nicely.
Ing Vannath, who contacted the WWF to generously donate the rare fish, was content as well.
He said that in the years that the catfish resided in his pond, his business became quite successful and his family was very happy.
“I am pleased to release the fish,” he said.
“I am glad because now they will grow well and live in a big place. They are at home.”