May 6, 2013, 6:29 am
Jeff Opperman, a senior freshwater scientist with the Nature Conservancy, is taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip down the Mekong River in Southeast Asia with his wife and two children, ages 8 and 10. Previous posts can be found here.
In my last post, I described how our attempts at fishing in the Mekong River had produced meager results, which was somewhat puzzling because the Mekong produces the largest harvest of freshwater fish in the world, by far.
As a father, this was frustrating; catching fish was the top priority of my 10-year old son, Luca, and I was determined that he fulfill that goal. But as a river ecologist, our low success rate had me curious about the status of fish populations in this river.
And it wasn’t just that I’m an inexperienced angler trying to catch fish in a big, complicated river (and using a rod and reel in a place where people generally use nets and traps). We’d spent one afternoon with experienced fishers — using the right equipment — and we’d hauled in a pretty small catch for the effort. Were Mekong fisheries in decline?
We had reached the southern border of Laos, an area called Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands.” Here the Mekong, which for thousands of miles has flowed as a single, muscular channel, abruptly shatters into a twisting labyrinth of land and water. The eighth biggest river in the world, it becomes a tapestry of lesser rivers and streams — here a channel the size of the Potomac, over there the Hudson, and flowing between them and across a rocky island is something the size of my backyard creek. Hundreds of these channels weave between and across thousands of islands that range in size from a minivan to Manhattan.
We stayed on Don Khon, an idyllic island of rice paddies, palm trees and small hotels with restaurants that cantilever over the river. Our “floating bungalow” bobbed gently with passing boats. I had arranged to spend the afternoon with a pair of experienced fishermen, hoping to address both my personal fishing frustration and professional curiosity.
We boarded the fishermen’s narrow wooden boat and motored upriver through the maze of islands.
We stopped on a tiny island, more like a sand bar with some patches of thick shrubs. One of the fishermen began to throw a cast net while the other, a man named Bewm who was acting as the guide, showed us how to throw a cast net.
To prepare for a throw, the net is rolled up and distributed across various body parts. The proper position for casting requires both hands, one elbow, a shoulder and a few teeth (to grip the retrieval line).
To cast, you wind up your body and then explosively open up, somewhat like a discus thrower. Ideally, the net unfurls into space to form a perfect circle just before hitting the water’s surface. The outer edge of the circle is weighted, causing the net to rapidly sink to the bottom, trapping anything in the water or on the river bed within its circumference.
After a few casts, Bewm pointed to the net and then back and forth between me and himself and said, “Same same?” I was on deck.
My attempts were not quite as comical as I’d feared, but I certainly wouldn’t want to depend on me to catch dinner without a lot more practice. Luca went next and, like most fishing-related activities, he seemed to have more innate skill than I do.
Our semi-attempts, along with continuous casting from the other fishermen, had netted a grand total of one fish, so we climbed back in the boat and continued upriver. We pulled alongside and tied up to a huge chunk of concrete in the middle of the channel – a French colonial-era navigation marker that a flood had pushed onto its side.
Bewm rigged up his rod, which featured thick line and a massive reel. He looked at Luca’s rod, good for bass and sunfish, and said something as he shook his head smiling. My wife, Paola, who speaks Lao, translated, “He says you’ll be in trouble if you hook something big.”
Bewm opened a jar, filling the air with a putrid smell. From the jar, he molded lumps of a white pasty substance onto the hooks. Paola asked him what it was and then said, “I’m not really sure, but I think he’s describing some kind of fermented fish product.”
Luca began with the serious rod while I fished with his. Right away I felt a hit. I set the hook and, filled with far more enthusiasm than skill, began reeling in hard. Too hard. The line snapped. Luca looked at me with thinly veiled disapproval.
Then Luca’s line tugged and he set the hook and began reeling, with far greater patience. But then the line snagged. Bewm jumped in to take over and eventually reeled in a very modest catfish. He held it up for me to photograph and then he cupped it in his hands. We heard three sharp cracks, like the sound made by snapping dry branches for kindling. He dropped the fish to the bottom of the boat and we saw the he’d broken off its spiny dorsal fin and both pectoral fins. The catfish wriggled under the boards like a snake.
Luca looked at me aghast. He was fine with eating what we caught, but to him this seemed excessive suffering. I tried to explain how people approach fishing from very different perspectives.
“You love looking at fish and think a lot about how they’re treated, but he’s just pulling in food. Those fins are really sharp and he’s probably received some bad cuts before. He’s probably trying to protect us and he knows that the fish is gonna end up being eaten, so why risk getting a cut? You get cut on your hands, and it’s pretty hard to fish like these guys do.”
It wasn’t cruel, it was just life in a place where food comes straight from the river.
After a few hours we headed back to the hotel, and we still only had the two fish. My disappointment in the meager catch — and the fact that Luca still officially hadn’t reeled in a fish — was tempered by the golden afternoon light that painted in rich colors the world of water and island, trees and temples.
We sat on the hotel deck over the Mekong and ordered some Beer Lao and mango milkshakes. Bewm slipped into the river just below us and continued to work his cast net in a steady repetition: throw, retrieve, repack, throw again. After a few hours of fishing side by side, we had reverted to our real roles — we were just visitors, now watching the sunset and sipping our drinks as we watched the fisherman work long into the evening. He wanted us to have enough fish for dinner.
Eventually he had enough for all of us to eat dinner. The fish was bony, but otherwise delicate and delicious.
After dinner Paola interviewed Bewm about fishing and I took notes. Bewm related how it was harder to fish now, that there were more people fishing and they were pulling in smaller hauls and smaller fish. He noted that the tourists liked to eat fish and wondered if that demand was what was driving the decline. He said that most of the fish that people catch here — from small fish up to the increasingly rare big ones — are all coming from Tonle Sap, the huge Cambodian floodplain lake hundreds of miles downstream from here.
Through Paola, I asked him what he thought about the proposed dams, including Xayaboury, which had just started construction a few months earlier. He replied that a lot of people supported the dams but he was worried about whether the fish could continue moving up and down river past the dams.
“Did you know that there are two or three proposed dams between here and Tonle Sap?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t. I’d be really worried about dams that would block us from Tonle Sap.”
This conversation and my other fishing experiences had given me just a few anecdotal data points. In a week, I had an appointment with Eric Baran, one of the leading experts on Mekong fish and fisheries, who works for the World Fish Centre in Phnom Penh. I hoped that Eric could give me a fuller perspective.
There was no question the river was still capable of great productivity. For most of its thousands of miles south of China, the Mekong was undammed, and the annual flood pulse still inundated vast floodplains, which are the engines of productivity in a river system.
We said goodnight to Bewm. As if to illustrate the river’s productivity, the lights outside the restaurant were enveloped by a cloud of thousands of caddisflies; there must have been a mass emergence of the winged adults from larvae that live and grow in the river. The caddisflies coated various surfaces near the lights. An ant colony had discovered the bounty, and a column of red ants was ripping apart the delicate winged insects and methodically hauling them away.
It wasn’t cruel, it was just life in a place where food comes straight from the river.