Fishermen in Cambodia catch rare and iconic Mekong giant catfish

A massive and rare Mekong giant catfish is tagged and released in Cambodia.
A massive and rare Mekong giant catfish is tagged and released in Cambodia. Monster Fish host Zeb Hogan, left, assisted. Photo: University of Nevada, Reno

Cambodian fishermen on the Mekong River made a special catch when they landed an incredibly rare Mekong giant catfish — the first caught this year — and the host of Monster Fish on Nat Geo WILD just happened to be visiting at the time.

The catch of the massive freshwater fish measuring nearly seven feet was made near Phnom Pengh on Monday as Cambodians celebrated Independence Day.

The Mekong giant catfish was bigger than any catfish that has been caught in the U.S. in the past 100 years, according to Zeb Hogan, a University of Nevada, Reno biologist who has studied the Mekong giant catfish for nearly 20 years.

Hogan, a National Geographic Explorer and host of Monster Fish, called his being there to witness and participate in the tagging and releasing of the “royal fish” a “one-in-a-million opportunity,” according to the university.

“This is really extraordinary,” Hogan, a National Geographic Explorer, told the university. “It confirms that this incredibly rare and critically endangered freshwater species still occurs in Cambodia and it is still making its annual spawning migration out of the Tonle Sap Lake and into the Mekong River.”

The fast-growing Mekong giant catfish can reach up to 440 pounds in six years. The largest recorded in Thailand weighed 646 pounds and stretched 8 feet, 10 inches.

The Mekong giant catfish is rare and critically endangered.
The Mekong giant catfish is rare and critically endangered. Photo: Ginkgo100/Wikipedia Commons

Dozens of people gathered at the riverbank of the Mekong River to look and take selfies with the seldom-seen fish that holds a special place in Cambodian culture.

In Thailand, 3,000-year-old cave paintings depict the Mekong giant catfish, and elaborate ceremonies have been conducted for centuries upon catching them.

“The Mekong Giant Catfish was once caught by the thousands,” Hogan said. “But it’s so rare now that the survival of every fish makes a difference; survival of migrating adults is especially important. With ongoing changes happening on the Mekong River that may cause the extinction of the giant catfish, measures to study and protect these fish are more important than ever.”

Cambodian Department of Fisheries and Hogan tagged the fish to track its future movements, and guided the fish to the middle of the river to be released. Hogan dove down 10 feet with the fish.

“Swimming with the fish was incredible as always,” Hogan said. “This particular fish was in better shape, not as injured, than most, so that makes me optimistic it will survive…

“Without monitoring we have no way of knowing how the fish are doing. Just like elephants, tigers and polar bears, these fish are iconic animals that have an almost mythical status in the Mekong region.”

And like those animals, the Mekong giant catfish needs conservation efforts to succeed for it to survive.

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