Mekong Catfish Death Sparks Rethinking of Law

The death last week of a 2.5-me­ter-long Mekong giant catfish, a cri­tically endangered species that’s con­sidered the largest freshwater fish in the world, has spurred fish­er­ies experts to set in motion a revision of the policy re­garding their catch.

Eng Cheasan, deputy director of Fisheries Department for the Min­istry of Agriculture, said on Tues­day that officials have floated a new proposal to fine fishermen who don’t im­mediately turn over a rare giant catfish alive.

“There have been accidents when the [giant catfish] are caught, but the fishermen must re­lease it according to the fisheries law,” he said. “We always encourage the re­lease of the fish, but it’s been very difficult [to enforce].”

Zeb Hogan, a research biologist and the coordinator of a specialist group on the catfish for the Me­kong Wetlands Biodiversity Pro­gram, said fishermen were previously compensated for the market value of the species if they could prove they had caught one and re­leased it alive.

A reward of $25 was also previously paid to fishermen who handed over the carcass of a giant catfish to the Mekong Fish Con­ser­va­tion Project if one glided into their nets and died, Hogan said.

“[Government officials] are still trying to determine what the new policy and punishment will be,” said Hogan, adding that the decline of the catfish, due to over-fishing and  development, may fore­sha­dow the slow decline of environmental conditions through­out the Mekong river ecosystem.

Revamping the policy was prompted by the death of a 200 kg catfish that died Nov 9 after a fisherman in Kompong Cham prov­ince caught it in a bamboo snare and held it by a rope through its gills for over 20 hours.

The fisherman sold the meat to onlookers, according to Bun Chhay Hak, fishery chief for the province.

“Fortunately, Mekong giant catfish doesn’t fetch a very high price and a lot of people won’t eat it be­cause they know that it’s endangered, because it’s illegal and also be­cause it’s considered culturally taboo,” Hogan said. “And, reportedly, it doesn’t taste very good.”

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