Giant Catfish Critically Endangered, Group Says

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Fishing is the most easily identifiable threat to the Mekong giant catfish. Dams, navigation projects, and habitat destruction also threaten the giant catfish. In the Mun River, the largest tributary to the Mekong, a dam blocks the migrations of giant catfish. The dam has isolated the Mun River fish populations from the remainder of the Mekong River Basin. For migratory species, such dams can disrupt several stages of the life cycle of the fish. In China, northern Lao PDR, and northern Thailand, the Mekong Navigation Improvement Project (blasting, dredging, and infrastructure development for navigation) threatens to destroy the only known spawning ground of the giant catfish.

How important is fishing—especially catfish—to the people who live on the Mekong? Can you tell us a bit about the economics of the industry?

The Mekong capture fishery is one of the largest in the world—with 1.5 million tons caught annually, 16 percent of the world total—according to recent studies by the Mekong River Commission. Catfish are one of the dominant food fish, popular in aquaculture, and frequently the basis of community-level fisheries. Annual production in Cambodia is 10,000 tons and in Vietnam exceeds 100,000 tons. Catfish represent 90 percent of all aquaculture, as much as 20 percent of inland capture fisheries in Cambodia, and account for the majority of the May to July harvest in southern Laos and northeastern Thailand.

There has been an unpleasant trade war between the U.S. and Vietnam about catfish farming. What is your analysis of the issue?

The U.S. Congress recently passed a law that makes it illegal to label Vietnamese catfish as "catfish" when marketed in the United States, even though these fish are commonly referred to as catfish according to a globally accepted science-based classification system. Vietnamese catfish must now be labeled as "basa fish" or "Pacific dory," names that have no meaning to United States consumers and make no sense from a scientific stand-point.

Personally I would like to see both sides spending more time and money investigating the environmental ramifications of aquaculture and trade policies, rather than wasting resources paying for nasty advertising and rubber-stamping protectionist legislation.

Is fish farming a threat to the overall health of the Mekong?

Managed correctly and sustainably, fish farming has the potential to increase fisheries productivity and provide food for hungry people. If fishers collect too many baby fish, wild populations decline. But, if fishers harvest sustainably, then the young fish can be raised to provide extra food. And, in fact, since aquaculture for this species is dependent on healthy fish populations and a healthy river ecosystem, the economic benefit gained from wild fish harvests provides an indirect incentive to protect the environment.

Who is involved in the conservation of the Mekong and its fish?

The Mekong Fish Conservation Project, in cooperation with the Cambodian Department of Fisheries, conducts research, conservation, and education on vulnerable populations of migratory fish of the Mekong, notably the Mekong giant catfish. Since 2000, the project has bought, tagged, and released over 20 Mekong giant catfish (about 80 percent of the total global catch) into the Tonle Sap River and Tonle Sap Lake.

The Thai Department of Fisheries has established an artificial breeding program for Mekong giant catfish (started in 1983). The Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Program, together with the IUCN Water and Nature Initiative (based in Bangkok), recently conducted a biodiversity assessment and community fisheries study in Northern Lao PDR and Thailand. These studies produced evidence that the Mekong giant catfish spawns in the area that will likely be impacted by the Mekong Navigation Improvement Project.

The Mekong River Commission, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) support conservation of Mekong River species. Local conservation initiatives, within the critical habitat of the giant catfish (such as the activities of the Wildlife Conservation Society, OSMOSE, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in the Tonle Sap Lake), result in some indirect protection of the species.

Tell us about your catfish book for the kids of Cambodia.

The Long Journey of the Giant Catfish is a very important part of our project, since it represents a longer term approach to biodiversity conservation—conservation education. The publisher of the book, the Cambodian organization Save Cambodia's Wildlife, plans to distribute the book to several thousand children throughout Cambodia.

Using a children's book about the giant catfish and the Mekong River, we are trying to introduce environmental knowledge in a way that's fun for kids. Kids love the colorful books, but it's too early to determine the long term impact of the project.

What hope is there that the decline will be reversed or at least halted?

When considering the Mekong River as a whole, there is still reason to be optimistic. The Mekong River has not been dammed below China, remains relatively unpolluted, and produces more aquatic resources for human consumption than any other river on the planet.

The Mekong giant catfish can be saved, but it will take a level of commitment from all countries of the lower Mekong, as well as international organizations and donor agencies, that currently does not exist. Finding resources for the conservation of the Mekong giant catfish is even more difficult in a region like the Mekong, where many people struggle for their livelihood and resources are scarce.

What in your opinion needs to be done at local, state, regional, and global levels to protect the Mekong and its systems of life?

At a local level, many communities are willing to protect the environments in which they live, so I think the main challenge is to educate and empower local people to do just that—sustainably manage the resources upon which they depend.

At a national level, governments need to provide incentives for biodiversity conservation. This includes, at a very basic level, provision of a stable political environment (not always easy in Southeast Asia), a fair legal system, and a certain amount of economic security, education, and health care. National governments also have a responsibility to cooperate with the governments of other nations and international organizations to protect and manage the Mekong River.

At a global level, we all need to recognize the importance of freshwater ecosystems. Though freshwaters constitute less than one tenth of one percent of the Earth's water supply, such ecosystems support tens of thousands of unique species and hundreds of millions of people. More than fifty percent of the Earth's freshwater is used by humans. With use, especially unmanaged use, comes environmental degradation and species extinctions. Global institutions, like the World Bank, and governments that impact global trends, like the United States, must place more importance in environmental protection and sustainable development.

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