The Imperiled Giants of the Mekong
Ecologists struggle to understand—and protect—Southeast Asia's large migratory catfish
The Guinness Book of World Records lists the Mekong giant
catfish as Earth's largest freshwater fish. This species
(Pangasianodon gigas), which grows as fast as a bull
and looks a bit like a refrigerator, can measure 3 meters in length
and weigh up to 300 kilograms. Called the "king of fish"
in Cambodia, "buffalo fish" in Thailand and Laos, and
"blubber fish" in Vietnam, this catfish is well known
throughout Southeast Asia. Only the caviar-producing sturgeon,
goliath catfish of the Amazon and a few species of poorly understood
freshwater sting rays rival the Mekong giant catfish in size. In
Europe, the Wels catfish (Silurus glanis) reportedly once
grew to a monstrous 5 meters in length, but today a 2-meter specimen
is considered remarkable.
A century ago, the range of the Mekong giant catfish spanned the
entire length of the river and its tributaries from Vietnam to
southern China. But in the 1930s and '40s, this species began
disappearing, first from the segment of the Mekong that flows
between Thailand and Laos and later upstream, in northern Laos.
During recent times, the status of P. gigas has become
extremely precarious. For example, in Chiang Khong (northern
Thailand) and across the river in the Houay Xai district (Laos), the
1990 haul included just 69 of these fish. The catch from this
stretch of river has fallen considerably since then, and over the
past three years local fishers have not reported a single one.
Noting this absence and similar patterns unfolding elsewhere, we
estimate that the total number of these giant catfish has decreased
by 90 percent or so during the past two decades.
Efforts to save this fish from extinction will hinge on many
factors—including how well biologists understand the migratory
behavior of these animals. Using a variety of approaches, we have
endeavored to provide such knowledge. Here we relate how we became
involved in this effort and where that journey of discovery has