A Gentle Giant of a Catfish Fades From Sight

A Gentle Giant of a Catfish Fades From Sight

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/17/a-gentle-giant-of-a-catfish-fades-from-sight/

By JEFF OPPERMAN
 
January 17, 2013, 12:26 pm
 A mural next to a small Buddhist shrine in Luang Prabang, Laos, reflects the importance of the giant catfish in the Mekong River culture.
 
The captain leaned heavily into his pole, nudging the boat’s nose off the sandy bank.  As the boat swung into the swift current of the Mekong, he scrambled back behind the wheel, the engine roared, and we resumed our downstream journey toward Luang Prabang, Laos.After a few minutes, we motored through a section of river where the channel was flanked on both sides by knifelike boulders and outcrops.“That looks like a dragon’s back,” I said, pointing to an arching curve of rocky plates.Our guide, Peng, laughed and said, “People say there is a dragon in the river.”“The Naga?” I asked.  While wandering a riverside town the night before we started the trip, I’d seen statues of these Naga serpent dragons flanking the entrance of a Buddhist temple.

“Yes. When someone drowns while fishing or boating, the people say that the Naga took them.”

But the Naga is also beneficial and is considered the divine protector of Luang Prabang and, by extension, all of Laos. Each year, just before the rainy season, the city holds the Boun Bang Fai festival to bring rain and to encourage the Naga to leave the river and follow the rising water into the rice fields (something that the river fish actually do).  Several months later, another festival is held to induce the Naga to return to the river.

Jeff Opperman
Fishermen who ply the Mekong River near Luang Prabang, Laos, say the catfish population has dwindled.

At the same temple where I’d seen the mythical Naga, I had also found a vibrant mural depicting real river creatures, including a Mekong giant catfish — a species that seems at once both biological and mythological — adjacent to a small shrine with a Buddha statue.  Knowing that the catfish undertake long-distance river migrations, I’d taken it as a good omen that I’d stumbled across this scene on the eve of our departure.

Peng grew up in a fishing family, so I asked him about the temple and the catfish mural. He replied, “They are very important fish. We used to catch many of them here, but not for several years.”

His experience echoes scientists’ reports: the populations of these giant catfish have declined precipitously, by an estimated 90 percent in the last 20 years. Being large-bodied fish that require several years to reach reproductive maturity, the giant catfish are quite vulnerable to fishing pressures, whether the fishermen are directly pursuing the giants or unintentionally snaring them in their nets.

They are large-bodied fish indeed, attaining dimensions that are truly staggering.  A giant catfish caught in northern Thailand in 2005 weighed 650 pounds and measured nearly nine feet long, ranking as the biggest freshwater fish ever caught.  Scientists estimate that the largest individuals may weigh up to 100 pounds more than the record holder.

Although it’s fun to compare its dimensions to that of a grizzly bear, a more appropriate comparison might be to a moose, as the giant catfish is an herbivore that feeds on algae.

The people of Mekong basin generally revere the gentle giants, although this has both negative and positive consequences.  While governments have been quick to impose fishing bans, some people believe that eating their flesh will bring a lifetime of good luck, driving up the price for those that remain.

Beyond the direct (and illegal) pursuit of the giant catfish, the larger reason for their decline is probably the intensity of fishing in the Mekong over all. Although the volume of the total harvest from the Mekong is steady or even increasing, larger fish have declined dramatically in number, and the harvest is now mostly small and rapidly reproducing fish species.

The giant catfish undertake a long spawning migration, and on our three-week trip we’ll be tracing their path in reverse.  And not just the catfish, but hundreds of species are migrating now, right down to the sardine-sized trey riel (a fish so economically important that the Cambodian currency is called the riel).  As we follow the river downstream, beneath our boat an immense river of fish will be flowing in the opposite direction, swimming upstream to spawn.

This river of fish is being pumped out by Cambodia’s Tonle Sap (Great Lake), where we’ll end our trip.  The Tonle Sap, which expands and contracts dramatically each year with the arrival and then departure of the rain, is the central factory for fish production in the Mekong.

But thinking smaller, we’ve lugged my son’s fishing rod all the way from Ohio and, despite two days alongside this river of fish, we’ve yet to get more than a few bites.  Admittedly, neither Luca nor I know how to fish in the Mekong, and nets, not rods, definitely appear to be the method of choice in the muddy currents of the river.

Early that afternoon, we reached the village where we’d be staying the night.  Fully aware of my limitations and eager for Luca to catch some fish, I talked with Peng about bringing in some experts, which in this part of the world is pretty much any person over the age of 6.

Jeff Opperman
A modest catch.

Peng and the boat captain got right to work, cutting and stripping four-foot bamboo poles and then tying a line and hook to each.  These were baited with maggots, and then we pushed the poles into the muddy river bottom in about chest deep water.

Having set the line of poles, we then ventured out under a blazing afternoon sun to work the beach with cast nets.  Both Peng and the captain had a net.  Moving upstream along the beach, the men would periodically stop, methodically gather up their nets in their arms, coil their bodies clockwise, and then explode toward the river.  The nets burst from their bodies and formed a near-perfect circle just before hitting the water surface.

These various methods produced six small fish and one foot-long black shark minnow, a type of carp.

That night we dined in the house of the headman, and the shark minnow was featured as a fish curry -– bony, but tender and delicious.  A generator roared out back.  After dinner, most of the village gathered in the headman’s living room — or peered through his windows — to watch Thai soap operas.

Paola and the kids and I were exhausted, so we left mid-show and climbed the steep stairs to the single open bedroom above. Two mattresses had been unrolled onto the floor for us, draped by mosquito nets.  We climbed in bed and dozed off. Over the next few hours, family members spanning three generations filtered in and out of the room.  Eventually everyone was asleep and the house fell quiet.

The local roosters seemed intent to break free from stereotype and they crowed off and on throughout the night.  At one point, probably around 3 a.m., it sounded like all the cats and all the dogs of the village were facing off against each other, “West Side Story”-like. Despite all the ruckus, I slept better than I had all trip.

As a generator hums outside, villagers gather in the headman's house to watch Thai soap operas.
Jeff Opperman As a generator hums outside, villagers gather in the headman’s house to watch Thai soap operas.

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