Photograph courtesy Zeb Hogan

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A boy poses with a giant barb on the Tonle Sap River near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The fish, landed as bycatch by a local fishing operation, was tagged and released as part of a study of large freshwater species in the Mekong River Basin. There is evidence that giant barb once reached sizes of 10 feet (3 meters) long and 660 pounds (300 kilograms), but today specimens even half that size are extremely rare.

Photograph courtesy Zeb Hogan


Giant Barb

Catlocarpio siamensis

Sometimes called the "king of fish," the giant barb has a storied history in its Southeast Asia range. In Vietnam, this distinctive, large-headed species is called cá ho. In Cambodia, the barb appears in ancient temple carvings at Angkor and has been named the national fish.

The giant barb is a river fish that often frequents deep pools but may move seasonally into canals or river floodplains. Juveniles are often seen in swamps or smaller river tributaries.

Though they've been known to reach 660 pounds (300 kilograms), specimens above 220 pounds (100 kilograms) have become exceptionally rare in recent years. These massive fish sustain their bulk on tiny plants such as phytoplankton as well as algae, seaweed, and, during periods of high water, the fruits of submerged terrestrial plants.

Scientists fear that cá ho populations have declined to the point where few survive to reach the age of sexual reproduction. This fish has become severely threatened along its native range, which stretches from Cambodia to the Mekong Delta, because of water pollution, river traffic, and especially overfishing pressures.

The flesh of the giant barb has long been considered a delicacy among residents of the Mekong River Basin, and it is a popular eating and pickling option for the tens of millions of people who depend on the Mekong's aquatic fauna for food.

Government programs have focused on captive breeding in an attempt to save this regional icon. Young giant barb can become acclimated to pond life and may be suitable for farming.