Emperor of the Mekong
Thailand’s Annual Catfish Hunt
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Every year between April and May, when the mighty Mekong River swells and the rains come, the fishermen in the province of Chiang Kong, Thailand prepare to hunt for the giant catfish which are unique to these waters – and worth large sums of money.
Ceremonies intended to attract the attention of the gods and bring protection are organised and the hunt begins.
ERIC PASQUIER accompanied the local fishermen on their annual trip up the Mekong River.
Towards the end of the “Songran” festival, which celebrates the Thai New Year and the coming monsoon, the little Thai village of Hat Kari, in Chiang Kong province, comes alive with activity as preparations are made for the passage of the giant cat fish through local waters.
Along the banks of the Mekong, local fishermen catch the giant catfish, the pla buek, which is so unique to these waters and this particular season.
Like salmon, the pla buek swims against the current to spawn several kilometres upstream, all the way to Lake Tali, in the Chinese province of Yunan. The Mekong, with its 4,180 km, is one of the great rivers of Southeast Asia.
It rises as the Za Qu in Tibet, and flows generally south through Southwest China, then circuitously along the borders of Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. It enters the South China Sea through several mouths across a vast, fertile delta near Ho Chi Minh City, in South Vietnam. Its densely populated lower valley, in Cambodia and Vietnam, is one of the world’s greatest rice-growing regions.
At the village of Hat Krai, the Mekong runs into a small island and divides into two branches, sufficiently narrow and shallow for the locals to be able to fish the pla buek. This enormous silurid, probably the largest freshwater fish in the world, is generally about 2.5 metres long and weighs a maximum of 250 to 280 kg. It is even said that some specimens reach up to three metres in length, and can weigh up to 300 kg.
For the inhabitants of Hat Krai, the passage of the giant catfish is a major event. Small Buddhist temples are set up along a half-kilometre stretch of the banks of the mighty Mekong as fishermen hold ceremonies seeking the protection of the gods.
Village folk in traditional dress gather on the beach along the Mekong; altars are elaborately adorned with flowers and sculpted wreaths of fruit and vegetables.
In a joyful display of their devotion, men, women and children pray and dance frenetically in an emotional outpouring bidding the heavens to supply plenty of rain and an abundant catch during the pla buek’s passage.
The first raindrops of the monsoon come as a sign that the giant cat fish will soon be passing by. It is a ritual steeped in an age-old tradition juxtaposing local spiritual and superstitious beliefs and practices.
Meticulously decorated boats push off from the shore and head into the middle of the river, where their cargo of live chickens will be sacrificed in the hope of appeasing the gods.
The blood of the sacrificed animal spills into the vast waters of the Mekong, in a bid to attract the sympathy of the gods as well as great schools of hungry catfish.
At this point, the usually murky waters of the Mekong become rough and change colour as the first rainfall oxygenates the water and causes it to froth, attracting the giant catfish to the surface. The locals know from experience that these are signs that the precious fish will soon be in range.
While waiting for the first sighting of the giant fish, the boats take up their position two by two on the river. Aboard these slender, 15-metre vessels, two fishermen are poised for the catch. With a swift and practised hand, they let out their 50-metre long nets. This is followed by an intricate operation, which ends with a network of fishing boats tied together and forming an impassable barrier across the river.
This traditional event has taken place since time immemorial. The
pla buek are only to be found in the waters of the Mekong. Over the years, the number of giant catfish has been steadily decreasing despite government measures to enforce a limit on fishing privileges throughout Thailand. This included an extremely strict patrol programme to ensure that fishermen return fish that fall below the officially authorised length. For this reason, the nets must have 20-centimetre gaps to allow the smaller, younger fish to escape. However, wildlife and fisheries authorities are not able to monitor the entire Mekong to enforce these conservation rules, and over-fishing continues at an alarming rate. To highlight this, we need only look at the case of Hai Krai, which in 1994 netted around forty giant catfish. By 1995, the number had dropped to a mere 16, and by 1996 to a dismal seven.
The continued growth of tourism in the region has significantly contributed to a major increase in the price of catfish. The fish is considered a delicacy and served in the region’s most expensive restaurants. The sale of 200 kg of quality catfish fetches a princely sum.
The Mekong fishermen and their families can live off the proceeds for at least six months, and use the money to send their children to school. It is therefore, easy to understand why competition among fellow fishermen has intensified and the giant catfish become increasingly rare.
As a consequence, the number of fishing boats at Hat Krai is officially regulated during this time; an impartial draw is conducted by the authorities to determine which families will be permitted to join the catch. Each year, around 40 boats are granted permission to fish. For 24 consecutive hours a day, over the period of a month, family members who make up the crew will take turns in tending the nets and hauling the precious catch into the holds of the boats.
Since 1990, Thailand’s wildlife and fisheries officials have attempted to halt diminishing numbers of the giant catfish, which are under threat from both legal and illegal fishing practices by setting up a number of artificial insemination centres. These centres have also been a place of interest to visiting tourists. When a female catfish is caught, the thousand of eggs she lays are carefully preserved for artificial insemination.
Once the young catfish grow to a few centimetres in length, they are released into the river. Unfortunately, their chances of survival until maturity are extremely slim. Fisheries biologists have tagged and released the giant catfish as part of an ongoing research and conservation programme, which may shed some light on the progress of the fisheries’ efforts so far. But crucial to its success is the cooperation from local fishermen and those across the borders.
Laos, on the other side of the Mekong, poses yet another threat, as here the pla buek eggs are considered a great delicacy and eaten on toast like caviar. It seems relatively few are concerned about the future of the giant catfish. Some attempts have been made to declare the pla buek an endangered species and this has served to draw media attention to their plight.
But could it be a case of too little, too late?
Copyright Eric Pasquier
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