There were roast chickens and rice, pig’s heads and beer – all borne in a solemn procession as offerings to an unlikely recipient, the Mekong giant catfish. “Please accept our wishes to live in harmony, fish with humans,” intoned an official standing before a catfish statue raised high on a bamboo altar.

It wasn’t so long ago that the giant catfish was the target of an annual hunt that left the species critically endangered. But in June 2006, after two years of negotiations between local environmentalists, the IUCN, WWF Thailand and Thailand’s Department of Fisheries, the fishers of northern Thailand’s Chiang Khong declared an end to giant catfish catching. In place of the hunt, Chiang Khong has launched an annual giant catfish festival coinciding with the Buddhist New Year festivities.

The Mekong giant catfish deserves its name. Ranging from the waters of Cambodia north to Chiang Khong in the upper Mekong, the giant catfish is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. It takes more than three men using nets as long as 200 meters to land one. 

Recorded specimens have measured three meters in length and weighed as much as 250 kilograms. Boonrien Jinaraj, who founded Chiang Khong’s Giant Catfish Club 30 years ago, is certain that before people started measuring the catfish that he caught one that weighed at least 290 kilograms.

Boonrien estimates that he has caught at least 100 of the big fish in the 50 years he has fished for them. In the old days, people caught them to eat, he said. But as the roads came to Chiang Khong and word of the catfish spread to Thailand’s cities, people began paying top dollar for the giant fish. One catfish can fetch anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000, more than the average Thai earns in a year. 

The problem was that the catfish’s popularity, together with changing conditions on the Mekong, was resulting in lower and lower catches. While the Giant Catfish Club recorded 33 catches in 1990, by 2000 it wasn’t able to catch a single fish. The drought continued until 2004. 

Local environmentalists rallied to the catfish’s cause, not only for the fish’s sake, but as a potent symbol of the Mekong’s ecological well-being. The catfish depend on the abundance of algae and river invertebrates threatened by changing flow patterns. They spawn in rapids threatened by shipping and take refuge in deep pools being filled in as dams are built upstream. 

Somkiat Khuanchiangsa, coordinator of the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resource and Cultural Conservation Network, a local environmental group, worked with the IUCN’s Tawatchai Rattanasorn to help convince Boonrien and other club members that it was time to start conserving the catfish. 

It wasn’t easy. “Hunting was a way of life,” said Somkiat, and the 68 families of the Giant Catfish Club considered it part of their culture as well as an important source of occasional income. “But we all realized that the Mekong had changed, so we needed to think about management and maybe stop hunting for a while.” If the catfish were given time to recover, they argued, fishing might once again be allowed to resume.

Club members demanded that they be reimbursed for their huge nets and were paid about $600 for each one. Then, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Thai king’s ascension to the throne, they declared an end to the hunt. 

Whether the ban will last long enough to allow the catfish to recover will require continued effort, however. Efforts are still underway to convince fishers on the Lao side of the Mekong to give up giant catfish. And there is already grumbling among some members of the Giant Catfish Club that the local government hasn’t lived up to promises to help them find new occupations. Club members boycotted this year’s catfish festival to convey their disapproval of the way officials have handled it. 

For now, however, the Mekong’s giant catfish looks somewhat safer. “Among the club’s members,” promised Boonrien, “we still promise not to fish.”
Written by Wayne Arnold