Archive for Mekong River

Riverside gardens

Village riverside garden in Laos

The months of March and April are the height of the dry season in Laos. No rain breaks the persistent heat and the air is hazy with sun and dust. During this time, the Mekong River is at its lowest water level of the year, shrinking to a fraction of its former self and exposing vast tracts of sandy bank. This dry period of low water is one of two distinct faces of the river that change with the seasons. It contrasts sharply with the wet season of May to October, when the river floods in the rainy monsoons and swells its banks.

Riverside garden in Vientiane, LaosThough this contraction of water might seem dire, both the wildlife and people of the Mekong have adapted to the seasonal pulse of water that dramatically rises and falls over the course of the year (see Life afloat). One sign of this cyclical lifestyle is the riverside gardens that sprout up along the fertile riverbank soil when the waters recede. People plant these gardens with crops like corn and potatoes, onions and herbs. Gardens are a common feature of village life (top photo), and an important source of supplementary food. They can even be found along the riverbank in the capital city of Vientiane at this time of year (lower photo). This dynamic culture of planting is accustomed to the swelling and shrinking of the river. However, changes to the natural rhythm of the water through the construction of water infrastructure can flood gardens out of season, and alter this long ingrained way of life. 

Secrets of the Mekong

Secrets of the Mekong Last month brought a little limelight to FISHBIO’s international conservation program in Southeast Asia. The environmental and conservation news website interviewed our conservation director, Harmony Patricio, about the importance and challenges of studying Mekong River fishes, and about the recently launched Mekong Fish Network. “The world needs to realize that the Mekong is like the Amazon rainforest,” Patricio said of the river’s value. “It’s a global resource of incredible diversity and productivity.” A few excerpts from the interview are below. You can read the full article, accompanied by vivid FISHBIO photos, at

Mongabay: How did you start working in the Mekong?

Harmony Patricio: So many people told me about the amazing fish diversity in the Mekong, how little is known about the lifecycles of most species, how important the fish are for the people living in the Mekong Basin, and how many big changes were on the horizon in Southeast Asia. I had a feeling that the Mekong would be the next hotspot for fish conservation… FISHBIO’s primary goal for our international work is to share our technical expertise in the places where it’s most needed. I felt like the Mekong region, and Lao PDR in particular, had a high need for technical capacity building to support local scientists.

Mongabay: What makes the Mekong River special in terms of fish?

Harmony Patricio: It has the second largest number of fish species of any river on earth, only after the Amazon River. More than 850 species have been described, and researchers estimate there could be over 1200 species. As a comparison, the whole state of California has about 67 freshwater fishes…What’s also special is how important the fish are for the people. There are over 60 million people that depend on the fish for protein and income, and the economic value of the fisheries is as much as $3.8 billion US dollars per year on first sale. So the river’s fish are highly diverse, feed a lot of people, and are worth a lot of money.

Mongabay: What do you hope to achieve with your new project, the Mekong Fish Network?

Harmony Patricio:
The main goal of the Mekong Fish Network is to help people working with fish in the different countries of the Mekong Basin collaborate across national borders and share information so we can better understand what’s happening with Mekong fishes throughout the basin…We also hope to develop and implement standardized fish sampling methods throughout the basin to build a long-term monitoring program that studies how these fish populations change over time. No basin-wide program like this currently exists, and we need it if we want to achieve more sustainable fisheries management, conserve some of these rare or migratory species that are on the brink of extinction, and sustain the river’s productivity that people rely on for food and income.

Read the full interview>

This post featured in our weekly e-newsletter, the Fish Report. You can subscribe to the Fish Report here.

Plodprasop pushes water plans for Northeast, South

Bangkok Post
April 19, 2013

Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi plans to launch two projects worth about 200 billion baht to help manage droughts and floods across the country.

The plan, which could come about within the next three years, would divert water from the Mekong River to vast tracts of the Northeast.

It would also build dykes in southern coastal areas to prevent flooding caused by high sea levels.

Mr Plodprasop chairs the government’s Water Management and Flood Prevention Commission. He said the Northeast is struggling with an insufficient water supply.

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The Mekong River: calling into question the germ theory of disease

American Thinker
March 16, 2013

On our  journey along cost of the South China Sea, it’s now the first day of Tet. About a week earlier, families made their offerings to the Kitchen God asking for a good report to the Heavenly Emperor. The message is to be delivered by a giant carp which transforms itself into a dragon on the way to heaven, Almost 80% of Vietnamese practice ancestor worship and make regular offerings to their ancestors at family shrines in the middle of their homes. (On sampans and junks where space is more limited, the altar is usually in one corner of the small living quarters.) Also before the start of Tet, Vietnamese visit the graves of their ancestors to invite them to the New Year’s celebrations.

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Mekong Environmental Symposium

Mekong Environmental Symposium

FISHBIO recently attended the Mekong Environmental Symposium, held March 5-7 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which gathered governmental decision-makers, scientists, and organizations active in the Mekong Basin region. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the WISDOM Project hosted the event, which brought together researchers studying river ecology, environmental monitoring, hydrology, socio-economics, energy, and climate change. The goal of WISDOM, a collaboration between Vietnamese and German scientists, was to design and implement an online data platform for the Mekong Delta, which contains information from the fields of hydrology, sociology, information technology, and earth observation. The first day of the symposium included the handover of WISDOM to the Vietnamese Government, as well as speeches by representatives from each of the six riparian nations: China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The second and third days of the symposium included many presentations in sessions that broadly covered everything from hydropower development and impacts on river ecology, to capacity building, education, and outreach. Many coffee breaks and long lunches were provided to allow the more than 400 participants to mingle and meet new researchers or strengthen existing relationships. Researchers attended from all over the world, reflecting great international interest in the Mekong River basin. Translators were present for the main speeches as well as private coffee-break conversations, further encouraging trans-boundary discussions. Many speakers noted that the United Nations has declared 2013 the “International Year of Water Cooperation;” thus, the symposium seemed well timed to build upon that effort. We thank the organizers for their impressive efforts to bring so many regional researchers together.

 Mekong Environmental Symposium

 FISHBIO gave a presentation on the Mekong Fish Network (MFN) and the MFN Data Bank, a collaborative project with the U.S. Geological Survey. The objective of the talk was to introduce the audience to the new website and Data Bank created for Mekong Basin fisheries researchers, and to begin gathering feedback from researchers on how the network can foster collaboration and communication. The Mekong Environmental Symposium was broad in scope, and many participants came from scientific fields other than fisheries. This gave us an opportunity to reach out to researchers from diverse backgrounds and emphasize the importance of looking for research intersections in the Mekong Basin. We encourage scientists working on hydrology and water quality to consider how their research may relate to those working on fish biodiversity or ecology. As one speaker put it, there is more than one research nexus in the Mekong Basin. There is the commonly cited nexus of food, water, and energy, but another example is the nexus of development, climate, and governance. A diversity of speakers encouraged people to see these links within their own research. Another speaker called for international dialogue, encouraging participants to see the Mekong River as a “channel of communication” to discuss trans-boundary issues and to develop trans-boundary solutions. The Mekong Environmental Symposium provided an excellent opportunity to utilize that channel to communicate about important issues in hydrology, development, climate change, aquatic ecology, food security, and water resources.

Urban fishing

Fishing in Phnom Penh, CambodiaCockroach for bait

Fishing in Mekong cities looks a bit different than catching fish in rural villages. During a recent visit to Cambodia to train local researchers (see Makeshift lab), FISHBIO staff spotted some anglers trying their luck along the banks of the Mekong  River in the capital city of Phnom Penh. To our surprise, one was ready to slip a cockroach onto his hook to lure ‘em in. Although other animals ususally come to mind when we think of “bait” in the U.S. (see Baitfish), the resourceful use of this hardy pest makes sense in an urban hub of 1.5 million people. Since fish of any size can be used for food, why waste one for bait when there are plenty of scurrying insects that no one would miss? If you’re not squeamish, this looks like more fun than hiring an exterminator.

The Mekong’s uncertain future

The Star
February 3, 2013

A fierce debate erupted at a recent meeting between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand over the US$3.5bil Xayaburi dam Laos is building along the Mekong River, which they all share. The controversy highlights the urgent need for Mekong countries to craft and conform to shared guidelines to both preserve one of the world’s greatest rivers as well as develop their economies.

The Mekong River, which flows from China into mainland South-East Asia, provides food, water and transportation to tens of millions of people. But riparian nations are building a string of dams to fuel their economic development which, studies show, could ultimately damage this ecosystem and stoke bilateral tensions. China already has four upstream, while mainland South-East Asian countries plan to build 11 others, including the Xayaburi.

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Bottling up bizarre Mekong fishes

Mekong fish collection at Can Tho University, Vietnam

Cataloging all of the fish species that live in your backyard can be a massive undertaking if you live in a place as ecologically diverse as Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta. But researchers from Can Tho University in Vietnam are attempting to do just that, and have produced some new scientific discoveries in the process–including a fish with sex organs on its head. While documenting the region’s fish diversity, the scientists are also amassing a collection of voucher specimens for the university. These “pickled” fish, preserved in formalin and stored in jars of alcohol, provide physical evidence to back up the reports of hundreds of species described in the Mekong, and also make a valuable teaching tool for students.

In 2012, Can Tho University researchers participated in a Mekong River sampling project that spanned Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Once it reaches Vietnam, the Mekong fans out into a braid of smaller rivers that meander to the ocean. The researchers in Vietnam spread their survey across a variety of habitats, including canals, swamps, rice fields, mudflats and mangroves. The team deployed an arsenal of different nets and traps to collect fish, and also sampled the catch at local markets. They collected and identified 292 different fish species from the Vietnamese Mekong alone. Of these, 67 had never been found in the Mekong before, including five species completely new to science.  

One of the new species rocketed to instant Internet fame last summer as the “penis head fish.” The males of the tiny fish Phallostethus cuulong, which measure only 3 cm in length, have a sex organ called a priapium under their chin. The male uses a hook on the priapium to latch on to the female, then deposits sperm internally. The female’s genital opening is also located in the throat region, as is the anus on both males and females (Shibukawa et. al 2012). Such unusual anatomy makes for a rather curious execution of bodily functions.

Of the Mekong countries surveyed for the project, Vietnam had the highest proportion of fishes found nowhere else in the region (52%), while Laos and Cambodia each had a much smaller proportion of unique fishes (less than 25%). The scientists think Vietnam’s more distinctive fish diversity comes from its greater variety of habitats, which include estuaries where the Mekong meets the sea. The most common fishes in Vietnam included gobies (54 species) and cyprinids (48 species). Such fishes are mostly small and not commercially valuable, which may explain why so many have slipped under the scientific radar until now. Even if these fishes wouldn’t make it to market, they are still important to science and the balance of a healthy ecosystem–and they deserve to be counted.

This post featured in our weekly e-newsletter, the Fish Report. You can subscribe to the Fish Report here.

On Mekong River, worries about surging trade with China

Voice of America
By Steve Sandford
January 14, 2013

China’s rapid economic expansion in Southeast Asia has led to increasing reliance on the Mekong River for trade. Dams and new ports are expected to help trade in the coming years, but not everyone is welcoming the development.

The Mekong River since ancient times has served as a major transport route. Now, with modern ships and new ports, the river is becoming a key part of China’s rapid economic expansion.

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Mekong River journey: one family’s epic adventure

By Katherine Sather
January 9, 2013

It’s known as the “Mother of Water.” As the 12th longest river in the world, the mighty Mekong River indeed nourishes many. It supports the largest freshwater fish harvest in the world, providing the primary source of protein to more than 50 million people as it runs its course through six countries, including Laos, China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The river’s creatures sound like the stuff of fantasy novels – freshwater dolphins, giant stingrays (as big as your living room!) and 400-pound catfish. But they’re real, and they face an uncertain future.

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