The world’s largest scaleless freshwater fish lives a tenuous existence in the murky brown waters of Southeast Asia’s Mekong River. Capable of reaching an almost mythical 10 feet (3 meters) in length and 650 pounds (295 kilograms), Mekong giant catfish live mainly in the lower half of the Mekong River system, in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Once plentiful throughout the Mekong basin, population numbers have dropped by some 95 percent over the past century, and this critically endangered behemoth now teeters on the brink of extinction. Overfishing is the primary culprit in the giant catfish’s decline, but damming of Mekong tributaries, destruction of spawning and breeding grounds, and siltation have taken a huge toll. Some experts think there may only be a few hundred adults left.
Mekong giant catfish have very low-set eyes and are silvery to dark gray on top and whitish to yellow on the bottom. They are toothless herbivores who live off the plants and algae in the river. Juveniles wear the characteristic catfish “whiskers,” called barbels, but these features shrink as they age.
Highly migratory creatures, giant catfish require large stretches of river for their seasonal journeys and specific environmental conditions in their spawning and breeding areas. They are thought to rear primarily in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake and migrate hundreds of miles north to spawning grounds in Thailand. Dams and human encroachment, however, have severely disrupted their lifecycle.
International efforts are under way to save the species. It is now illegal in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to harvest giant catfish. And recently in Thailand, a group of fishers pledged to stop catching giant catfish to honor the king’s 60th year on the throne. However, enforcement of fishing restrictions in many isolated villages along the Mekong is nearly impossible, and illicit and bycatch takings continue.