Marc Goichot, the Water Program Lead at WWF-Greater Mekong.
Most people in Vietnam knows it is illegal to sell tiger meat or pangolin scales or rhino horn.
It is common knowledge that trading elephant ivory is a criminal offense, punishable by fines and jail time. But few of us seem to know that it is just as illegal to sell a Mekong Giant Catfish or Giant Barb.
But it is. Every restaurant advertising these endangered giants is breaking the law. Every time you eat a plate of Mekong Giant Catfish in Hanoi or Da Nang or Ho Chi Minh City, you are helping a criminal. In fact, you are paying a criminal.
And you are also helping to drive this extraordinary species toward extinction.
Instead of choosing one of these dishes from the menu, you should choose to contact the Provincial Department of Fisheries. The government and Vietnamese people have taken significant steps in recent years to tackle wildlife crime and trafficking of species like tigers, elephants and rhinos. It is time we ended the illegal trade in the Mekong’s most magnificent fish.
Did you know that four of the 10 biggest freshwater fish in the world live in the Mekong River? No other river comes close to having as many giants. Back in 2005, a colossal Mekong Giant Catfish was hauled out in northern Thailand; it was the size of a car – 2.7m long and weighed 293kg. Then there is the Giant Barb, which – as its name suggests – is the biggest barb around. And then there’s the Giant Freshwater Stingray, which can grow to five meters in length and weigh 600kg – around the same size as its largest marine cousins.
There is also the Dog Eating Catfish, which despite its name doesn’t commonly eat live dogs, instead feasting on carcasses of dead animals or smaller fish and shrimp. And there is even less likelihood of one devouring your pet dog since the chance of ever coming across one of these majestic creatures is vanishingly small.
Cambodia Fisheries personnel release a Mekong giant catfish. Photo by Reuters
Indeed, all the Mekong’s giant fish are disappearing rapidly despite the fact that they are amazingly unique and irreplaceable assets. The Mekong Giant Catfish is listed as critically endangered – the last step before extinction. International trade in it has been banned by CITES since 1975.
Even if a Mekong Giant Catfish is trapped accidentally in a net, it must be released and the authorities notified. Meanwhile, the population of the Giant Barb and the two other giants has declined dramatically across Cambodia, Laos and Thailand where they were formerly found in abundance, and there is an urgent need to protect them with equal status as the Mekong Giant Catfish.
Yet demand still exists, particularly here in Vietnam where most people do not know that trading and selling these fish is against the law. While momentum builds against the well-known illegal trade in tiger parts and rhino horns with outraged media coverage, public petitions and government promises, no one is fighting to save the Mekong’s iconic fish. Indeed, the opposite is true. Whenever a Mekong Giant Catfish is caught and sold, local media usually celebrate the event and trumpet its monetary value. You do not hear an outraged pledge from the authorities to stamp out the crime. You even see Facebook posts with people smiling next to huge dead fish.
How many of these people would post happy selfies next to a poached elephant or butchered tiger? How quickly would a video of a rhino horn sale provoke an official promise to ensure that those responsible face justice? And why do the media not report the real value of these immense and irreplaceable fish?
These giants may not be as charismatic or cute as a tiger or elephant, but their value to the Mekong River is many times greater than a few incredibly expensive plates of fish. They are an indicator of the health and ecological integrity of the river itself, which sustains the fish stocks and rice paddies of the delta that feeds millions of people in Vietnam. Millions of people who would never be able to afford to buy a fillet of illegal Mekong Giant Catfish, even if they wanted to.
Like all crimes, there are always victims. In this case, it is not just the giant fish being poached and illegally traded from Cambodia to restaurants in Vietnam. It is the health and future of the river itself.
Why should a few criminal chefs and ignorant consumers be allowed to threaten the existence of the most monumental fish in the Mekong? Increased awareness has already made it socially unacceptable in Vietnam to eat tiger flesh or drink tiger bone wine. We should all feel the same way about ordering any of these giants in a restaurant – most of which could already be extinct in Vietnamese waters.
It is not too late. Customers must stop ordering these fish. People on the streets or online should start reporting to the police any restaurants that openly advertise and sell Mekong giants. And the authorities must enforce existing laws and clamp down on the criminal chefs and wild fish traffickers.
If this happens, these incredible fish will be thrown a lifeline.
There are still many long term threats to these fish – and so many other freshwater species in the Mekong, from smaller fish to turtles to the last 92 river dolphins. Existing dams on the Mekong have already fragmented the river and interrupted fish migrations. Planned dams in Cambodia and Laos would wreak havoc. Sand mining is disrupting critical ecosystems. Water pollution is increasing.
Unless action is taken, these threats could doom the Mekong’s giant fish – the barometers of its overall health. In particular, we need to deal now with the most immediate and direct threat by reducing demand for these fish and increasing efforts to prosecute criminals involved in the illegal giant fish trade.
Attitudes toward tigers, elephants and rhinos have changed in time. Now the alarm bell is ringing for the Mekong’s giants. It’s time for Vietnam to wake up and save them.
If you see a Mekong Giant Catfish, Giant Barb, Dog-Eating Catfish, or Giant Freshwater Stingray for sale in Vietnam, contact Education for Nature-Vietnam: English speaking toll-free hotline number (within Vietnam) 1-800-1522.
*Marc Goichot is the Water Program Lead at WWF-Greater Mekong.