June 15, 2005

Rare Catfish Released Into Cambodia River

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- Four endangered giant catfish were released Wednesday into the Mekong River after seven years of captivity in hopes of boosting the population of the species, which has fallen sharply in the last two decades.

Calling the rare fish "an omen of luck and prosperity," their owner, Ing Vannath, said he wanted to repay that good fortune "by returning them to their natural habitat to allow them the chance to swim freely," according to a statement from the World Wildlife Fund.

The four adult fish weighed between 99 pounds and 110 pounds each and measured about nearly five feet long. The species - believed to be the world's largest freshwater fish - can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh as much as 660 pounds.

The Mekong giant catfish, or Pangasianodon gigas, can be found living wild only in the Mekong and its tributaries and is listed as critically endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.

Its population has fallen by about 90 percent in just 20 years due to overfishing, dam building and navigation projects.

Ing Vannath said he bought 13 baby catfish from a fisherman in 1997, unaware they were an endangered species. Seven died in his pond and he donated two to a Buddhist pagoda. He handed the remaining four to the World Wildlife Fund last year.

"I decided to hand over the fish to WWF because I thought they will die if I keep raising them by myself," Ing Vannath said as conservationists released the fish into the Mekong and one of its tributaries, the Tonle Sap, in the capital of Phnom Penh.

Concerned that the fish may have trouble adapting to life in their natural habitat, the WWF fitted them with tags to warn fishermen they must be released back into the river.

"Subsequent capture and release may demonstrate that the fish have not only been able to survive but have also managed to retain their instinct to migrate to reproduce," said WWF Director-General Claude Martin.

There is no penalty in Cambodian law for keeping the fish in captivity.


On the Net: http://www.wwf.org/