Across the globe, over 60 million people in Southeast Asia are depending on the resources from the Mekong River to survive. But rapid development is threatening a portion of the river basin. Reno-based scientists will be studying the eco-system there.
Zeb Hogan has been all over the globe searching for the world’s largest freshwater fish. He's also an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development funded a five-year project for scientists from UNR's Global Water Center to study the biodiversity of the Mekong River basin. The project is called, "The Wonders of the Mekong: A Foundation for Sustainable Development and Resilience."
Q. Where is the Mekong River located?
The Mekong River, it flows about about 4,000 km from the Tibetan region in China, down through China, through Myanmar, northern Thailand, northern Laos, through Cambodia, and then to the Vietnam Delta, and out to the South China Sea. The Mekong River is the most productive river on earth; over 2 1/2 million tons of fish are harvested from the Mekong River every year.
Q. Can you describe some of the issues facing this body of water?
A. It’s very important to people living along the river. Right now, because of development and increased population pressures, climate change, there is a lot of pressure on the River. There’s threat that fish catch might decline, the biodiversity of the river might decline, primarily from over harvest, from climate change, and also, perhaps, especially from hydropower. The Mekong River is being dammed right now and a lot of the fish that live in the Mekong River are migratory, so it’s unclear how these dams being built on the Mekong are going to impact the migratory fish.
Q. How will these changes affect people living in the region and also worldwide?
A. There are over 60 million people that live in the Mekong River basin; they have some of the highest per capita fish consumption rates in the world. It's all the people living in the lower Mekong River basin that depend on fish for food; they’re most at threat. But if you think that you don't have a connection to people over there, if you've ever eaten fish from Walmart or from Trader Joe’s— sometimes they're called Basa Catfish—you'll see strange names, but if you look at the packaging, they're actually catfish that are being imported from Vietnam.
Q. You’re really no stranger to that part of the world; you travel quite frequently for your show, Monster Fish. As an aquatic biologist, what do you find so fascinating about fishing, and that part of the world in particular?
A. As a fish biologist, it’s a great place to work because fish are so important in the region. So when I come over and tell people ‘I'm a fish biologist, I'm interested in studying the fish,’ that makes perfect sense to them because you see fish everywhere. Everyone recognizes the importance of fish. I’m also interested in the conservation of aquatic biodiversity, and just to give you an example, you could go to a fishing net outside of Phnom Penh in Cambodia and with one haul of that net the fisherman there might catch 100 different kinds of fish. Whereas maybe here in Nevada—not to say the fish are important here in Nevada—if you were to throw out a net, you might catch three to five different kinds of fish. The number and diversity of fish in the Mekong River is truly incredible. In fact, there are more species of giant freshwater fish in the Mekong than in any other river on earth. There are seven or eight species of fish that grow over six feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds.
Q. There’s going to be a new administration in charge in about a month and there's been a lot of speculation about how policies and funding relating to the environment could be affected. As a scientist what are your thoughts about that?
A. So if you look for example in the Mekong region, for this project in particular, I think it's little bit too early to tell what's going to happen. But you have a region where they're almost a thousand different species of fish. Some of them very unique. Some of the world’s largest fish. Some fish that are incredibly important to people for their livelihoods. Activities to promote the good management and conservation of these fish are going to help, not only that the health of the river, but also the people living in that region. Likewise for example, with issues relating to climate change—the Mekong Delta— it's the rice bowl of Southeast Asia, home to one of the largest catfish fisheries in the world. And with climate change and predicted rise of sea level, there could be salt water intrusion into that area, which could have real negative impacts for the catfish fishery, for rice production. So a focus on these issues of biodiversity, climate change, is incredibly important in this region.