The Mekong Giant Catfish

As promised, an article on the Mekong Giant Catfish by IMMF journalist and Cambodian reporter Sin Putheary. Thanks, Theary! You’ve done fine work.

Giant Catfish Hunters Put on a Show
Declining numbers of pla buek have prompted fishermen to perform for tourists

By Sin Putheary

Sitting on the bow of a boat and holding a paddle in both hands, Nae, a 26-year-old Thai fisherman in Chiang Khong district, said he still intends to hunt the Mekong Giant Catfish for a living instead of merely demonstrating this traditional method to tourists.

“I do not want to stop catching the pla buek, but there are severe restrictions on it from the headman,” he whispered, looking at the river current flowing to the south.

The Mekong Giant Catfish, Pangasianodon gigas (king of the river) by its scientific name, can measure up to 3 meters long, weigh up to 300 kilograms, and generate 30 kilograms of sperm. It is the largest freshwater fish among 1,200 species found in the Mekong Basin.

Like many other villagers in Chiang Khong district, Chiang Rai province, Nae considers the Mekong Giant Catfish as the most valuable species for hunting.

Ten years ago, five fishermen, including nae, caught a 200-kilogram Giant Catfish in Chiang Khong on the Thai-Lao border. It was the first Nae had ever caught. At that time, they got 50,000 baht ($1,330 now) by selling it to a middle buyer, he said.

In his 10 years as a Mekong fisherman, nae has caught six Giant Catfish, which he claimed have made him more money than being a farmer.

However, the Giant Catfish population has dwindled and the fish is critically endangered. That’s why lately Nae can get only small fish, which sell for 150 baht to 250 baht per day. Plus, he needs to spend 60 baht a day for boat gasoline, he said.

In Chiang Khong in 1999, 69 Giant Catfish were caught; but from 2001 to 2003, no fish were caught. In 2004, seven were netted. Last year, only four were caught, and one among them weighed nearly 300 kilograms. It was 2.7 meters long and was the biggest fish caught in Thailand in 25 years.

As a result of declining Giant Catfish numbers in recent years, as well as this year’s celebration of the Thai King’s 60th anniversary on the throne, Thai fishermen voluntarily have stopped hunting Giant Catfish. But Lao fishermen still continue on the other side of the Mekong River.

Mr. Poom Boonnak, Chairman of the Pla Buek Club in Chiang Khong, attended a fisheries conference in Bangkok while news broke of a Giant Catfish caught by lao fishermen. Poom had no comment about that except he said, “It is not a rule to stop catching Giant Catfish, but it is just an agreement that fishermen have promised.”

As the Giant Catfish is a sensitive creature, it is hard for scientists to put tracking devices on them, said Ms. Pianporn Deetes of the Southeast Asian Rivers Network (SEARIN). One fish died 10 minutes after being released back into the river; therefore, certain information on population and migration habits of the Giant Catfish remain a mystery.

But researchers have found that the Giant Catfish spawning ground is in the river’s upper rapids and in the middle stream of the Mekong, while feeding and nursing take place downstream.

The fish reportedly has been caught as far north as Yunnan province in China and as far south as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

Yet, Had Luang, a narrow area in Chiang Khong district, is the most important place in the world for hunting the Giant Catfish, said Mr. Pisit Wannatham, a 40-year-old Thai fisherman.

Although Pisit worries about losing his job as a fisherman like Nae, he happily agrees to stop catching Giant Catfish.

During 30 years of his fishery life along the Mekong River, Pisit has caught 14 Giant Catfish. Recently he has donated the fish’s sperm to the Collecting Eggs of Giant Catfish Program for the sake of increasing Giant Catfish numbers in the future, he said.

In 1989, the Collecting Eggs of Giant Catfish Program was created in Chiang Khong, where Giant Catfish were bred and taken to a fish nursery in Luang Prabang, Laos, said Mr. Chiawat Mongkolchaisip, a 40-year-old secretary of the Pla Buek Club.

This program will give a 3-month-old Giant Catfish baby, about 10 centimeters long, to the fishermen who donate the catfish sperm. The fishermen can sell the babies or raise them in their own farms for a greater profit, explained Pisit.

“I will catch pla buek as a demonstration for tourists, but I will release the fish back to the river,” he confirmed in a loud tone.

For a one-time demonstration, a group of fishermen can earn 2,000 baht, which is much less than selling a Giant Catfish. Nevertheless, they receive money regularly without waiting for luck in hunting the Giant Catfish, pisit said.

In the past, fishermen used fishing gear called kwak, which were nets 10 meters long and 3 meters deep, to grasp Giant Catfish. At that time, fishermen could not succeed in their mission without the help of a watchman who stood on a tall bamboo cottage and gazed over the water, looking for Giant Catfish, Poom explained. But now, the most effective fishing gear for holding Giant Catfish is the auan, a kind of net 250 meters to 300 meters wide. If the Giant Catfish struggles, fishermen will recognize it without the help of a watchman anymore. Only by removing the rope, can they get the giant creature, pla buek. Hence, it is hard for pla buek to escape as it could in the past, Poom added.

Dr. Chavalit Witayanom, senior freshwater biologist with WWF Thailand, said the Giant Catfish is one of five critically endangered species in the Mekong.

HE said that throughout his research he has found many factors that contribute to the dramatic decrease of the species, such as deforestation, overfishing, illegal poaching, river navigation and especially the construction of dams.

“We are not against the dams, but we promote development that is friendly to ecosystems,” he said.

In southern China, in the upstream Mekong, two hydroelectric power dams, Manwan and Dachaoshan, have already been built and are in use. Meanwhile, another dam, Xiaowan, is under construction, he said.

Dam construction along the Mekong River does not only change the quality of water, but also blocks migration routes of the Giant Catfish as well as smaller fish, and it has negative effects on fragile biological life, according to Mr. Witoon Permpongsacharoen, the director of the Bangkok-based Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA).

Besides the dams, plans are in the works for blasting the Khon Pi Luang rapids from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong for improved navigation. If this is done, ships weighing up to 500 tons will be able to easily pass from China to the lower Mekong, said Mr. Somkiat Keungchiangsa of the Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network, an NGO in Chiang Khong.

More or less, rapids blasting will cause harm to populations of the Giant Catfish as the fish’s spawn will stick on reefs after it lays its eggs. Also, the fish’s food, gai, a green algae growing on the rocks of the Mekong, possibly will disappear due to the loss of rocks and an unstable water level.

However, there is a good sign that the government has postponed the rapids blasting project in this area.

He said that in order to keep Giant Catfish from extinction, prohibiting the fishing of Giant Catfish is not enough, but local people should also change their over-consumption of Giant Catfish meat.

In Thai markets, Giant Catfish meat costs about 750 baht for a kilogram, said Chavalit. But in Cambodia, the price is much cheaper as Cambodians do not prefer to eat the giant fish.

Every year on April 18, fishermen in Chiang Khong walk from their hamlets, carrying with them boiled pork and chicken, Thai wine, candles and flowers, and they gather at the riverbank for a worship ceremony, which has been celebrated for centuries, Mr. Chiawat Mongkolchaisip, a secretary of the Pla Buek Club described.

“Before we prayed for spirits helping us to catch pla buek, but this year we celebrate the ceremony to release baby Giant Catfish,” said Chiawat.

Groups like National Geographic Conservation and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have agreed to pay 20,000 baht per fishing boat as compensation for fishermen not catching the forbidden Giant Catfish, said Thai fisherman Pisit.

As National Geographic and IUCN have guaranteed to provide crops and animals for agriculture without taking the fishing gear from any fishermen, Pisit felt satisfied because he can use his net to catch small fish or to demonstrate his techniques for extra income, he added.

Unlike Pisit, fisherman Nae said he does not know for sure whether National Geographic Conservation and IUCN will do as they stated, because he just heard this news from other fishermen.

When the boat reached the bank, Nae put down the paddle, tied the rope to a wooden stick nearby and stepped on the stairs opposite him, leaving the story of the Giant Catfish behind.

2 thoughts on “The Mekong Giant Catfish

  1. Thank you for the interesting article! I will be waiting to see what happens to these big fish as the dams go in and rapids blasting occurs. Hopefully the fisher-people that are raising the fish eggs will have a positive impact.

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