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World's Largest Catfish Species Threatened by Dam

Stefan Lovgren at Khone Falls, Cambodia
for National Geographic News
April 8, 2008
 
This is the sixth story in a continuing series on the Megafishes Project. Join National Geographic News on the trail with project leader Zeb Hogan as he tracks down the world's largest freshwater fishes.

In the swift currents of the Mekong River in northern Cambodia, fishers expertly navigate their longboats past rock outcroppings and fallen logs.

But soon these wild waters may be tamed. Plans for the construction of a large hydroelectric dam just across the border, at Khone Falls in Laos, would permanently alter one of the most pristine areas in Southeast Asia.

(See photos of the giant catfish at the falls.)

The dam is one of several being planned on the mostly untouched Mekong River, which meanders through six countries—China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (see map).

The future of the Mekong was a key issue when the prime ministers of those countries met for a regional summit earlier this week in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

The Don Sahong dam at Khone Falls, one of five dams that Laos is planning along the Mekong, will block the deepest channel on the section of the river that migratory fish pass through when the water level is at its lowest, conservationists say.

One of those migratory fish is the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish, which holds the record as the largest freshwater fish ever caught. The record catch, made in northern Thailand in 2005, tipped the scales at 646 pounds (293 kilograms). (See photos of the grizzly bear-size catfish.)

"An impassable dam at the falls could cause the extinction of the Mekong giant catfish species," said Zeb Hogan, a fisheries biologist at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Hogan, who visited the Khone Falls area last week, heads the Megafishes Project, a three-year effort to document the 20-plus species of freshwater fish that measure at least 6.5 feet (2 meters) in length or 220 pounds (100 kilograms) in weight.

(The Megafishes Project is partly funded by the National Geographic Society, which operates National Geographic News.)

Spawning Ground

Fishers at Khone Falls had long known that the giant catfish traveled through their area.

But in 2007 Thai photographer Suthep Kritsanavarin for the first time photographed a giant catfish caught at Khone Falls.

(See his photos of Khone Falls and the giant fish.)

Giant catfish were once plentiful throughout the Mekong River basin, but in the last century the population has declined 95 to 99 percent, according to Hogan.

The massive fish is not targeted by fishers, but it is sometimes caught as bycatch. In Cambodia, where the largest population of giant catfish is found, eight of the giant fish were caught last year.

Although fishing is the biggest immediate threat to the giant catfish in the Mekong, dams and habitat fragmentation could disrupt the animal's ability to reproduce, Hogan said.

"There is only one known spawning ground for Mekong giant catfish, and that spawning ground is in northern Thailand," he said.

"Until we know better, we have to assume that fish from Cambodia may migrate to Thailand to spawn."

The construction of the Don Sahong dam, which is slated for completion in 2010, would make that migration impossible, Hogan said.

Untouched

Advocates of the dams point to the enormous hydropower potential that the Mekong offers to an energy-hungry region. With oil prices at record levels, the projects have taken on added urgency, they say.

So far the Mekong runs almost uninterrupted; only China has dammed the river at two locations in Yunnan Province.

One of the dams that China is now building will be second in size only to the Yangtze River's Three Gorges Dam.

"China, as an upstream country, will never do anything that will harm the interests of downstream countries," He Yafei, China's assistant foreign minister, told reporters before last week's regional summit.

But officials in Vietnam, where the Mekong empties into the South China Sea, say water extraction for farm irrigation upstream has already caused ocean salt water to move inland, destroying rice fields.

Conservationists likewise warn that the new dams could harm fish stocks that millions of people throughout the Mekong depend on.

"Fisheries resources are essential to the population of the Mekong Basin," said Eric Baran of the nonprofit World Fish Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

"In Cambodia, for instance, the fish catch contributes 65 to 75 percent of the animal protein of households."

More than a thousand fish species live in the Mekong River system, a biodiversity second only to the Amazon in South America, Baran said.

In a report last year, the World Fish Center warned that the economic benefits of the U.S. $300-million Don Sahong dam may be outweighed by losses from local fisheries, whose production has been estimated at over U.S. $2 billion a year.

Deep Channel

At Khone Falls the Mekong River drops up to 100 feet (30 meters) from the Khorat plateau to the Mekong plain, forming a complex network of narrow channels, called hoo in Lao.

Scientists have found that the area supports at least 201 fish species, including several endemic or endangered species.

The area is also home to one of the few remaining concentrations of freshwater dolphins in the Mekong.

(Read related story: "River Dolphin Closer to Extinction Despite Reports, Experts Say" [March 21, 2007].)

The dam will block Hoo Sahong, the deepest channel and the only one that migratory fish can pass through at the peak of the dry season, in April and May, when the Mekong is at its lowest.

Nongovernmental organizations in Cambodia called on their government this month to ask Laos for a construction moratorium on the Don Sahong dam to allow for more environmental assessments.

Hogan admits that dams provide a number of benefits, including flood control, water for irrigation, and electricity.

"But it is also important to consider the costs," he said, "especially in an area where a large part of the population is dependent on fish for food."

"From a migratory fish's perspective, there is nothing worse than a dam."
 

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