Fighting to Save Cambodia's Giant Catfish Cambodia is home to the Mekong Giant Catfish, the biggest species of freshwater fish in the world. In the second of a two-part National Geographic Radio Expedition installment, Michael Sullivan reports on the efforts of a young American conservationist to save the species from extinction.

Fighting to Save Cambodia's Giant Catfish

Fighting to Save Cambodia's Giant Catfish

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Cambodia is home to the Mekong Giant Catfish, the biggest species of freshwater fish in the world. In the second of a two-part National Geographic Radio Expedition installment, Michael Sullivan reports on the efforts of a young American conservationist to save the species from extinction.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In this part of the program, we're following one man's pursuit of a giant catfish. The hunt has taken us to Cambodia. The country is known for magnificent ruins, but also for leftover land mines and the genocidal history of the Khmer Rouge. None of that deters some people from visiting another Cambodian feature: the Mekong river. It's home of the biggest species of freshwater fish in the world. On today's National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Michael Sullivan begins at the ruins of Angkor Wat.

(Soundbite of voices)


By 8 in the morning, the temples in Angkor are already packed with tourists, hoping to beat the rush and the searing tropical sun; French tourists, Korean tourists, even a few Americans. Zeb Hogan is an American, a 32-year-old biologist from Arizona, who's come here frequently in the past decade. But he's not here to admire the ruins. He's here for the fish.

Mr. ZEB HOGAN (Biologist): Well, this is great. So you can actually recognize the species that are here on the wall, but you can see that there's a bump-headed carp, a giant carp, needlefish, two men here with nets, and then women that are smoking fish. It's amazing. In terms of dependence on fish, the species of fish that we see, it was obviously very important back then, and it's still important now.

SULLIVAN: We turn a few more corners, slide past a few hundred more tourists, and arrive at another elaborate stone carving. Hogan grins as he points to a spot halfway up the wall. This is why he's come.

Mr. HOGAN: Here we have the dog-eating catfish. You can tell it's a catfish because it doesn't have scales. This particular fish is very large, and it's eating what looks like a goat or maybe perhaps a deer.

SULLIVAN: But the goat is 20, 30 pounds. How big do you reckon the catfish is?

Mr. HOGAN: Well, that's a good-sized catfish, and it's probably about eight feet, eight or nine feet long, maybe 500 pounds.

SULLIVAN: That's a big fish, and it's big fish that Hogan is studying as part of an ambitious project to identify the largest freshwater fish in the world, a project that will take him to five continents.

(Soundbite of boat)

SULLIVAN: Today he's taking us out on the Tonle Sap River, near the capital Phnom Penh, to an area of commercial fishing nets. It's a place where he stands a good chance of seeing the fish he is most passionate about, the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish.

Mr. HOGAN: Every time I see them, I get excited, so, I mean, I've probably seen 30 or 40 fish over the last 10 years, and every time I see one, I get goose bumps.

SULLIVAN: In May, a fisherman caught one that weighed 648 pounds, and that's a record for a freshwater fish anywhere.

Mr. HOGAN: The giant catfish is important because it's an amazing fish, largest fish in the world. They're incredible. But the other reason is because the giant catfish and the other large fish are a warning of what's going on with the river, because they are the most vulnerable.

(Soundbite of boat; nets being cleaned)

SULLIVAN: What's happening on the river this morning is housecleaning or net cleaning, actually. Eight men hauling in a 100-foot-long net, whacking away with long wooden sticks to dislodge debris.

(Soundbite of nets being cleaned)

SULLIVAN: Hogan spends a lot of time out here, some of it spent buying, tagging and releasing larger species he believes to be under threat, in hopes of studying their range and migration patterns. The height of the fishing season is close and the nets should be getting full about now, but they're not, and Hogan and the fishermen are getting worried.

Mr. HOGAN: What we're seeing this year is different than I've seen every other year I've been out here. This year, we haven't had a single river catfish in these nets, a single giant barb. We've only caught one giant catfish, and I hope there's some explanation, besides the fact that these fish are gone.

(Soundbite of voices)

SULLIVAN: The day before we arrived in Cambodia, a fisherman did catch one, not on the Tonle Sap River, near the commercial nets, but here on the Mekong in Kompong Cham province, some 60 miles from the capital. We weren't there to see it, and neither was Hogan. By the time he got there, the fish had died, but it was still worth talking to the man who caught it. The fisherman's house is set back a few dozen yards from the muddy Mekong, where the children and the cattle take their evening bath as the sun sets. The fisherman, Ishmael(ph), says the 400-pound catfish fought hard after getting caught in his net.

ISHMAEL (Fisherman): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Ishmael says he'd never seen one before. Some of his older neighbors remember seeing plenty, but not lately.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: `We used to see them every year,' an older man says, `but they started disappearing at the time of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.' The fishermen gathered around nod in agreement, and it's not just the Mekong giant catfish that's becoming more scarce, they say, but the other big species, too. Hogan thanks the men for their time. They promise to call him if they catch another.

(Soundbite of vehicle; horn)

SULLIVAN: The giant catfish capture was front page news in the Cambodian newspapers. It's protected under Cambodian law and technically illegal to catch or sell, but fishermen have been allowed to catch and sell a few to the fisheries department or Hogan to help them with their research. A few weeks ago, the fisheries department head, Sorlim Song(ph), decided that practice would stop. Back in Phnom Penh, he is adamant his decision is the right one.

Mr. SORLIM SONG (Fisheries Department): If you catch, you have to release. No buying, no paying, no any ...(unintelligible). Because if you buy the fish, people try to cut in to sell you, so fisheries department not allowed to buy. When you catch, you have to release. If you catch it and then you don't release, if we know, we will catch you, make a report, send to the court.

SULLIVAN: Early the next morning, we're out on the Tonle Sap River again with catfish chronicler Zeb Hogan, who wonders and worries about what the new policy might mean for his work.

Mr. HOGAN: Things could get harder for me. I'm working with the fishermen to try to get information from them, and if they are reluctant to talk to me, then it's very difficult for me to collect that information. Obviously, if I go out and I start asking people, `Hey, do you ever catch these endangered giant species of fish?' and now it's a crime, who's going to want to admit to that?

(Soundbite of voices)

SULLIVAN: But Hogan says he appreciate what Sorlim Song is trying to do, which is to preserve the Mekong giant catfish any way he can.

(Soundbite of children)

SULLIVAN: It'll take a few weeks for the new policy to take effect, and a good thing, too, because the day before we're set to leave, Zeb Hogan gets a phone call. A Mekong giant catfish has been caught on the Tonle Sap just outside of Phnom Penh. It's about 250 pounds and it's still alive. By the time we get there, Hogan and the fishermen have put the giant catfish in a huge plastic tank filled with water, a makeshift catfish intensive care unit. Children mill about, poking each other and pointing. They've never seen a fish this big. Oxygen and antibiotics are pumped into the tank with help from a small generator to try to keep the fish alive.

(Soundbite of voices; generator)

Mr. HOGAN: It's actually really strong, but the thing that worries me is if you see the fins, the fins are all chewed up, and even that can be enough to kill a fish through infection. I hope it survives. If the fish dies while it's in this tank, I'm never going to hear the end of it.

(Soundbite of boat)

SULLIVAN: About an hour passes; then Hogan decides he can't risk waiting any longer. He tows the plastic tank into the middle of the Tonle Sap and jumps into the river.

(Soundbite of voices; water splashing)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: Several helpers slide the giant fish out of the tank and into the water. Hogan wraps its arms around it and gets a fin prick for his trouble. Then he and the fish disappear under the muddy brown surface. He reappears about a half-minute later on the other side of the boat, about a dozen yards downstream. And he's clearly happy, treading water in the Tonle Sap on a fine November morning.

Mr. HOGAN: He went straight down.

Unidentified Man #4: Oh, straight down.

SULLIVAN: The fish took him deep under the boat, deep enough for his ears to pop twice, Hogan says, before he let go.

Mr. HOGAN: He's strong.

Unidentified Man #5: Strong.

Mr. HOGAN: Well, that felt good.

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. HOGAN: Maybe that one will survive.

(Soundbite of boat)

SULLIVAN: This fish might make it short term, but Hogan has his doubts about whether the species will survive much longer. Overfishing, development and new dams upstream are putting pressure on the catfish and on many other species in the Mekong basin as well.

For Radio Expeditions, I'm Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society, and if you want to find photos of the Mekong giant catfish, go to

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