Rare fish: The 200 kilograms giant catfish is released back into the Mekong River in Champassak province. (The Asia News Network/Vientiane Times)A 1.67 meter-long giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) weighing in at an estimated 200kg was released back into the Mekong River by agriculture and forestry authorities yesterday after it was caught by fishermen in Champassak province in southern Laos on Wednesday.
Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Department Deputy Director Prachit Norasaeng told Vientiane Times Thursday the fish was lucky to still be alive.
The catfish was caught in a fish trap in Hadsalau village, Phonthong district. Village authorities reported the catch to the district level, which then notified provincial authorities.
This was the third giant catfish caught in the province since 2008, after one in Khong district and another in Hadsalau village, but the other two died immediately, Prachit said.
It was feared that the latest catch would suffer a similar fate if fisheries authorities were slow to act, as it was in a severely weakened state after being removed from the river.
However, after officials quickly consulted with the provincial governor, it was decided the fish would be released back into its natural habitat and the fishermen compensated and given certificates of honor, Prachit said.
He said that provincial authorities, most notably those in the livestock and fisheries sector, had previously allocated 25 wildlife protection areas after conducting extensive feasibility studies.
"In order to protect certain fish in the province, the Agriculture and Forestry Department is working hard to educate target groups about the Law on Wildlife and Aquatic Species, also joining with the Livestock and Fisheries Department to hopefully allocate new protection areas," he explained.
The law explicitly bans the catching or trade of giant catfish in an attempt to protect the species. Those who violate the law will be fined three times the determined cost of the fish, according to the Livestock and Fisheries Department.
"Offenders will also serve a jail sentence of at least three months and up to one year," Prachit said.
Since the law was passed, the number of catches recorded each year has continually declined.
The total population of giant catfish is estimated to be no greater than a few hundred worldwide but the species is endemic to the Mekong basin.
Mekong basin countries can only continue to benefit from the giant catfish by understanding, monitoring and managing the population.
Legal protection, whilst encouraging, will alone not be sufficient to ensure population stabilization. There is a need to develop greater technical capacity and awareness in Laos to support the legal agreements protecting the giant catfish. (mtq)