The Mekong River provides renewable energy and food security for a population of more than 60 million people in six countries: China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Seasonal rains flood the river’s floodplain and delta. This flood pulse fuels what is likely the world’s largest freshwater fishery in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, with >2 million tonnes of annual harvest valued at ~$2 billion. Hydropower development is crucial to the region’s economic prosperity and is simultaneously a threat to fisheries and agriculture that thrived in the natural-flow regime. The Mekong is testament to the food, energy, and water challenges facing tropical rivers globally.
We hypothesized that high fisheries yields are driven by measurable attributes of hydrologic variability, and that these relationships can be used to design and implement future flow regimes that improve fisheries yield through control of impending hydropower operations. Hydrologic attributes that drive strong fisheries yields were identified using a data-driven approach that combined 17 years of discharge and standardized harvest data with several time-series methods in the frequency and time domains. We then analyzed century-scale time series of discharge data on the Mekong and associated hydroclimate data sets to understand how current dams, independent of climate, have changed key drivers of the fishery since the early 1960s. Finally, we used estimated hydrologic drivers of the historical bag net, or “Dai,” fishery on the Tonle Sap River—the largest commercial fishery in the Mekong—to design better fisheries futures by comparing designed flows to current and pre-dam (natural-flow) regimes.