Big Catfish

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HAT KHRAI, Thailand - The monster fish announced itself with four huge whacks of its tail, thrashing against the net that had trapped it in the pale brown water of the Mekong River.
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Suthep Kritsanavarin

Fishermen at Hat Khrai slice the catfish for sale. The giant catfish have been disappearing fast, with only a few now caught.

It was a rare giant catfish the size of a grizzly bear, and it took five boatmen an hour to pull it in and 10 men to lift it when they reached the shore in this remote village in northern Thailand.

Only after their catch had been chopped into pieces and sold did they learn how special it was. At nine feet in length and weighing 646 pounds, it may be the biggest freshwater fish ever recorded.

But in one of the world's more surprising mysteries, nobody really knows which is the biggest species of fish lurking under the waters of the Mekong or the Amazon or the Yangtze or the Congo or the Colorado or Lake Baikal.

When the giant catfish was caught in May, a biologist named Zeb S. Hogan rushed here to take a look. It was his first trophy in a project to identify and study the world's largest freshwater fish in the hope of slowing their extinction.

Sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the World Wildlife Fund, Mr. Hogan has embarked on an 18-month expedition that will take him to five continents and more than a dozen rivers.

"I guess it's like looking for Bigfoot," he said. Some species may already be too rare to study.

He has started with the Mekong, which he said has seven species of giant fish, more than any other river, along with at least 750 other species. All of them are threatened - like river fish around the world - by overfishing, pollution and development, including major dam projects.

The Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) may be the first to disappear from the river, he said. The few that remain can be spotted now only in central Cambodia and here, just below the Golden Triangle, where northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet.

No one has made a credible claim to top this year's trophy, Mr. Hogan said.

It is five times the size of the biggest catfish recorded in the United States, a 121-pound Mississippi River fish that was also caught in May.

"I keep expecting people to send me photos or records of larger fish, but nobody has," Mr. Hogan said. "But that's kind of the point of the project. Let's gather all the information that's out there and decide which is the largest freshwater fish."

The candidate species must grow to at least 200 pounds or longer than six feet - creatures like sturgeon, lungfish, gars, stingrays, carp, salmon, perch and paddlefish.

Already Mr. Hogan has a collection of unconfirmed fish stories about 10-foot catfish in Bulgaria, thousand-plus pound stingrays in Southeast Asia and 15-foot arapaima in the Amazon.

While many people say the arapaima is the largest freshwater fish, Mr. Hogan says there is no reliable record of any weighing more than 450 pounds and certainly not more than 650 pounds.

He has his own personal candidates, the Chinese paddlefish in the Yangtze and the giant stingray here in the Mekong.

"I saw a stingray in Cambodia in 2003 that was 4.13 meters long," he said, or about 131/2 feet. "That fish could have been it, but we couldn't weigh it. It was too big."

When he began to spread the word in Cambodia that he was looking for giant fish, Mr. Hogan said, it was the stingray he had in mind. "I thought I'd get 50 phone calls the first week, but nobody contacted us," he said. "So they're more rare than I thought they were."

The giant catfish have been disappearing fast, from more than 60 a year caught here in the early 1990's to a scattered few. Their decline coincides with the completion of the first of a series of dams being built upriver in southern China.

"The damming and the blasting of rapids have changed the habitat and the river flow," said Boonluen Chinarath, 58, the village chief in Hat Khrai, who said he had caught as many as 100 giant catfish in his long career as a fisherman.

"The river rises and falls more quickly than before," he said. "Maybe it's up today and maybe it's down tomorrow."

Many fish cue their migrations to the rise and fall of the water, Mr. Hogan said. The giant catfish are caught in April and May when they swim upriver to spawn just north of here.

The monster fish was one of just three giant catfish caught in Thailand this year.

Before he headed out on May 1, one of the men who caught it, Thirayuth Panthayom, 29, made sure luck would be on his side. He said he prayed at the shrine of the God of Catfish and begged his boat to help him, "Please, Miss Boat, let me catch something today and I'll sacrifice a chicken for you."

He said he had only been out for 15 minutes when he saw the fish smack the water four times with its tail - "Pung! Pung! Pung! Pung!" It took his crew an hour to pull it in.

His father, as owner of the boat, earned nearly $2,000 for the fish from the village fishing association, a fortune in rural Thailand. Mr. Thirayuth, like the other four members of the crew, got $175 of this, which he said he gave right back to his father.

As required by its permit to fish for these endangered catfish, the village association then sold it to the Department of Fisheries, which harvests their eggs and sperm as part of a captive breeding program.

After that, the fish are to be returned to the river, but few have survived the harvesting process, in which hormone injections are administered and the belly is vigorously massaged and manipulated.

The monster fish was returned dead to the fishermen, who cut it into giant steaks and sold it.

When he tried a bit, Mr. Thirayuth said, it tasted soft and sweet and mild.

"It's hard to describe," he said. "You have to try it yourself."

latebloomer: funky like a monkey and as cool as a cat (latebloomer), Sunday, 28 August 2005 15:32 (sixteen years ago) link

"...salmon, perch..."


M. V. (M.V.), Sunday, 28 August 2005 16:04 (sixteen years ago) link

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