Researchers Study Ways To Save Giant Fish

Gliding silently through the murky depths of the Mekong, the giant catfish is an elusive creature, considered holy by some and prized for its meat by others.

Little is known about the fish, which can weigh more than 300 kg and measure up to 3 meters in length. It is thought to travel as far as China’s Yunnan province

—2,500 km up the Mekong—to reach its spawning grounds.

“Cambodians believe in the giant fish,” said Nao Thuork, director of the Department of Fisheries. “Traditionally they think it’s holy and want to release it.”

And others want to eat it.

As a result, the mysterious fish is in imminent danger of disappearing forever, according to a recent report by the Mekong River Commission. Researchers say fishing areas just outside Phnom Penh might have to shut down periodically to ensure the fish’s survival.

Selling the giant catfish for profit has been illegal for some time in Cambodia, Department of Fisheries officials said. But the fish, which exists solely in the Mekong and its tributaries, is still being sold for its meat in Cam­bodia, Laos, and Thailand, the researchers say. It is still legal to sell the fish in Thailand.

To many fishermen, the catfish is neither particularly holy nor valued, except for the price it fetches, now about $0.42 per kilogram.

“We feel that the catfish brings good fortune when it weighs down our nets,” said Lah Mom, 34, owner of a fishing platform where one of the giant fish was caught last year.

The report, funded by the US chapter of the World Wildlife Fund and sponsored by the department of fisheries, states that the giant catfish and another endangered species, the giant barb, are being caught at several sites at the Dai fishery, on the Tonle Sap just north of the Japanese Friendship Bridge.

The giant catfish and giant barb are usually able to elude the fishing nets, but where the river channel narrows and the current quickens, the large fish are propelled into the nets.

Fisheries officials do not have an estimate on the giant catfish population in Cambodia. Ten giant catfish and 12 giant barb were caught in the last three months, according to the report. Two-thirds of them were caught at just eight of the 63 fishing platforms at the Dai fishery.

“They are probably caught at other places, but it is probably kept quiet,” said Nicholas van Zalinge of the Mekong River Commission and a co-author of the report.

The Department of Fisheries has been buying the endangered fish caught at the sites since October, van Zalinge said.

They have photographed, weighed, measured and tagged the fish to track its migration patterns, he said. But five of the catfish and seven of the barb died before they could be released.

Nao Thuork recommended that the government close down four of the platforms in the Dai fishery during the fish’s migration period, from October through December. He said his department may also recommend closing the other four platforms.

In Thailand, the giant catfish catch has declined steadily from 65 in 1990 to five in 1997, the Me­kong River Com­mission reported. And a Thai-sponsored artificial-breeding program has failed, the commission said.

Migration patterns will help researchers understand the source of the problem. For example, if the giant catfish crosses the confluence of the Mekong and mi­grates all the way back to Thai­land, then the fish is declining throughout the Me­kong River basin and not just in Thailand, van Zalinge said.

Although the health of the ecosystem doesn’t rest solely upon the giant catfish, van Zalinge said it is a charismatic species, like the tiger or the panda.

“People develop a sentiment for it,” he said.


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