The Mekong River’s giant catfish is critically endangered and faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, according to the new 2003 list of endangered species released by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species 2003 classified the giant catfish, or pangasianodon gigas, as critically endangered, upgraded from an endangered classification in the previous year’s list, a Nov 18 press release stated.
The Red List profile on the giant catfish estimates a rate of population decline for the species of 80 percent in the last 13 years, which meets one of the Red List’s criteria for a species to be classified as critically endangered.
The giant catfish, found in the Mekong River basin from the coast of Vietnam to northern Laos, grows up to 3 meters in length and can weigh up to 300 kg, earning the Guinness Book of Records title as the largest freshwater fish in the world, the statement said.
Between 40 and 50 of the fish were caught annually by fishermen and researchers about 10 years ago, according to the IUCN profile, but the organization said only 11 of the fish were caught in the region in 2001, while eight were caught in 2002.
Earlier this month, two giant catfish, weighing between 160 kg and 200 kg, were found dead in commercial fishing nets on the Tonle Sap River between Kandal province and Phnom Penh. Fishermen who catch giant catfish are required to inform fisheries officials so that officials may tag and release them.
This year, six catfish have been caught in Cambodia and released, according to the IUCN statement.
Nao Thuok, deputy director of the Fisheries Department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, said the government is taking steps to protect the fish, such as overseeing the Mekong Fish Conservation Project since 2000, in which giant catfish are caught, tagged and released.
The department has never caught the same fish twice, said Nao Thuok. He added that he thought there are probably more giant catfish in the Mekong than the Red List estimated.
Though Cambodian law prohibits the catching and killing of giant catfish, the industrialization of the Mekong is adversely affecting the population, he said.
Nao Thuok differentiated between the levels of industrialization along certain sections of the Mekong River running through Laos and Thailand—particularly the Mun River dam, where fewer giant catfish are now being found—and the area of the Mekong River in Cambodia.
“I believe the [domestic] population is not severely affected. I think the giant catfish population of Cambodia is separate from the giant catfish population to the north,” he said.
Chun Sophat, assistant fisheries program officer for the Mekong River Commission, said he doubts the species will become extinct.
“Perhaps if the Cambodia government doesn’t take serious measures, then it will become extinct. But the government is taking these measures,” he said.
Chun Sophat said most fishermen know that the law prohibits them from catching and killing the giant catfish, and they usually inform officials. But, he said, fishermen do not always follow the law.
“When the fishermen catch such a big fish they are happy and proud and do not want to release the fish or notify the officials,” Chun Sophat said.
However, the smell of the giant catfish, a putrid, mossy odor, makes it an unpopular meal, he said.