Mekong Giant Catfish
| Mekong River
Facts about the Mekong River Giant Catfish
The Mekong River Catfish is one of the largest freshwater fish on the planet. Belonging to the shark catfish family, this underwater giant is endemic to Southeast Asia’s Mekong basin. Once found along the course of the river, stretching from Vietnam to China, this giant fish now inhabits the waters of the Lower Mekong – a fragment of its prior home.
Shark-like in appearance, the Mekong River Catfish is scale-free. It has a large head with low, wide set eyes and a toothless, gaping mouth. It is gray on top with a pale belly, and adult fish are whiskerless. Powerful but not aggressive, this gentle giant is fast growing in size: it can reach 330 to 440 pounds (150 to 200 kg) in just six years. In 2005, a record breaking specimen was caught in the Mekong River in Thailand. The giant fish was nearly nine feet long (close to three meters) and weighed in at a whopping 646 pounds (almost 300 kg).
The Mekong River Catfish migrate long distances each year in search of specific environments in which to spawn and reproduce. During the start of rainy season, the fish gather together and then head upstream to spawn. They typically mate at around six years of age. Although young fish consume zooplankton, their diet changes to algae and plants once the fish reach one year old.
An interesting fact about the catfish is that the Mekong people consider it sacred, and locals celebrate catching the fish with a big ceremony and feast. Indeed, in Thai tradition, rituals are carried out before fishing this aquatic creature. Some even believe that devouring the fish brings good luck, intelligence, and longevity.
Why is the Giant Catfish significant to the Mekong River?
Historically hunted and culturally celebrated, the Mekong Giant Catfish is now critically endangered due to overfishing, pollution, and construction in the river. The fish face habitat destruction and poor river conditions as water is sullied due to previous deforestation. Moreover, projects to construct dams and develop cargo routes will disrupt the species’ reproduction. Dams block migration routes and thus prevent fish from reaching their breeding spots, negatively affecting the population.
In order to protect this threatened species, northern Thailand’s fishermen in the Chiang Khong district agreed to end the hunting of the giant catfish in 2006, and Chiang Khong market only sells farmed fish. However, despite these efforts, the giant catfish can no longer be found in this area of the river. Without proper law enforcement, hunting continues; indeed, wild catfish can still be found at other markets.
The Department of Fisheries in Thailand initiated a plan to save the Mekong River Catfish. Fish are now bred in captivity and later released into the wild. Other endeavors to increase the population have been instigated, such as supporting the wild catfish to reach breeding age by patrolling areas to deter hunting.
Now estimated to be just a few hundred left living in the wild, there has been a dramatic drop in the Mekong River Catfish population of over 80% since 1990. This is despite wild fishing being prohibited in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as various conservation projects. The migratory nature of the giant catfish makes it hard to protect: some areas may not enforce hunting bans, and construction work prevents the fish from making its natural journey along the river.
A fish of great size and cultural significance - and with a dwindling wild population - this is the largest catfish in the world. The extremely biodiverse Mekong River is the only place to spot this gentle giant which is found in the deeper and faster parts of the river… Visit the Mekong and show your support for its survival! For more information about booking a Mekong River tour, please contact us or call 1-888-215-3555.