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.