Giant catfish conservation in the Mekong

Geographical location:

Asia/Pacific > Asia General

Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Lao People's Democratic Republic
Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Thailand

Mekong River's giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas). This fish weighed approximately 160kg and measured about 250cm in length. Populations have declined by about 90% over the past 20 years.
© WWF-Canon / Zeb HOGAN

Summary

The Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) is found only in the Mekong River and is one of the largest freshwater fish species in the world.

It is also extremely elusive! Since 2000, only 5 specimens have been captured by fishermen. The population is in decline, with scientists estimating that numbers have decreased by about 90% in the last 20 years. Overfishing and dams are often cited as the major threats facing the species.

This WWF initiative aims to conserve the species and other large migrating fish through a regional management plan and conservation of catfish spawning sites in northern Thailand and Laos.

Background

The Mekong giant catfish is one of the largest freshwater fish species in the world but has rarely been captured by fishermen in the entire Mekong Basin over the last 10 years. This is despite high fishing intensity in all regions where the species is known to occur.

The Mekong giant catfish is only found in the Mekong river and its tributaries in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Local fishermen have previously caught specimens weighing over 300kg and more than 3m in length. A century ago, the Mekong giant catfish was found the entire length of the river from Vietnam to southern China.

Today, knowledge of species populations and breeding areas is still very limited. Local communities report that at least 4 large catfish species conduct annual migrations over hundreds of km in the Mekong River, but spawning sites have never been found.

Catfish species are threatened by overfishing and loss of habitat and spawning sites due to changes to the river, including dam construction, canalization of river banks, port construction and blasting of rapids. Infrastructure development also blocks migration routes and isolates some populations.

There is an urgent need to develop a regional management plan for the large migrating fish species in the Mekong River. There is currently no such agreement between the countries around the Mekong (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and China), resulting in a lack of joint management and protection of these species.

The project will be implemented by the WWF Living Mekong Programme, based in Bangkok. A number of regional, national and local institutions, including the fishery authorities and institutions in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Mekong River Commission, the Mekong Wetland Biodiversity Programme, and a number of academic institutions will be involved.

Objectives

Conserve populations and breeding habitats of the Mekong giant catfish and other large migrating fish species in at least 2 key provinces in Thailand and Laos.

Solution

WWF’s work to conserve the Mekong giant catfish and other large migrating fish species comprises 2 components:

1. Conservation of the Mekong giant catfish and its spawning sites in Northern Thailand and Laos
WWF will implement a study to identify the more exact position of the spawning sites and the migration patterns for the species. WWF will also work on a conservation agreement developed between the local authorities in the Chaing Rai Province in Thailand and the local fishermen communities to stop the catch of this and other threatened species, and to compensate fishing communities for loss of income.

The activities will build on pilot initiative that WWF is currently implementing. Local capacity for further research and monitoring of the species will be built, including at least 2 training workshops on tagging, telemetry and other relevant subjects, and several planning workshops to present the results from the project to the local responsible authorities, so that the results can be included in the local development and management plans.

The activities on the local conservation agreement will take place in 2 provinces on each side of the Mekong River (Chaing Rai and Bokeo). The WWF project will monitor the effect of the already established conservation agreement in Chiang Rai and prepare the implementation of a similar agreement on the Lao side of the river.

WWF will work with local authorities to establish a common management agreement between the 2 provinces. WWF will also implement awareness raising activities for local communities and develop methods of sustainable fishery, together with the local fishery authorities and relevant non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

2. Regional management plan for the large migrating fish species
WWF will help the involved countries to implement a strategic planning meeting with the purpose of developing a joint management plan. After this meeting, WWF will follow up to secure the final development of the joint management plan.

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