It was an unlikely relationship. I grew up in central Arizona, one of the driest places in the United States. My parents are economists. My two brothers went into finance. Catfish aren’t the cutest or most loveable creatures. Even so, by the time I made it halfway around the world to see my first one, it was love at first sight.
Ever since I can remember, I had a strong interest in animals and the outdoors. I would wake up early in the morning and sneak into the TV room alone to watch reruns of nature programs like Wild, Wild World of Animals and Wild America. As a kid, I spent my free time outside and my summers camping and swimming. In my mind, the best place to be during the hot Arizona summer was near water.
As I got older, I sought out hands-on opportunities to work with animals and ventured further from home in pursuit of them, eventually volunteering at an aquarium in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and later spending summers doing field surveys of the Colorado River.
But it wasn’t until after college that I got into catfish. I received a one-year Fulbright scholarship to study in Thailand. I’d never been to Asia before, but I was curious about Southeast Asia’s largest river, the Mekong, which is home to almost 1,000 species of freshwater fish, and produces an estimated two and a half million tons of fish for human consumption each year. My project focused on the relationship between hydropower development, the needs of local people, and fish conservation.
About halfway through my scholarship, a friend invited me up to northern Thailand, to an area known as the Golden Triangle—a mountainous region where the Mekong flows down from China and Myanmar to form the border of Thailand and Laos. It was there, in a sleepy town called Chiang Khong, that I first saw the catfish that would become my focus from that day forward.
It was not just any catfish. It was a Mekong giant catfish, one of the largest and rarest fish on Earth.
In 2005, fishermen in Chiang Khong caught a 646-pound Mekong giant catfish that went into the record books as the world’s largest freshwater fish. The catfish that I saw that day wasn’t a record breaker, but it made a deep impression on me. It was tied up to a long, thick piece of bamboo, and it had been hauled up into shallow water so that it could be sold. As it struggled against the ropes that held it to the bamboo, water sprayed from it, drenching the crowd that surrounded the fish. A few minutes later, the fish was sold and butchered. It was the last Mekong giant catfish that I saw that year.
As it turned out, 1997 was one of the last “good” years for giant catfish catches in Chiang Khong. The catch dropped from a high of around 70 fish in the mid-1990s to just seven fish in 1997, to almost no fish in the early 2000s. As the catch dropped, my concern grew. I was witnessing the fish quietly go extinct—something that would have been almost inconceivable had it been the world’s largest marine or land animal. No one cared about the Mekong giant catfish.
I began working with fishermen in areas with semi-regular catches of the fish, as well as the Thai Department of Fisheries, the Cambodian Department of Fisheries, and groups like World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society to reduce harvest of Mekong giant catfish, mainly through tag and release of fish caught incidentally by commercial fishermen in Cambodia. I got to know the Cambodian families who caught Mekong giant catfish and spent several weeks each year working with them, visiting their nets, and releasing fish they caught.
In 2005, National Geographic helped me expand this work through the launch of the “Megafishes Project”—a global initiative to find, study, and protect the world’s largest freshwater fish. A megafish, as defined by the project, is any freshwater fish over six feet long or weighing more than 200 pounds. About 30 species meet the criteria, including a diverse assemblage of catfish, carp, trout, sturgeon, stingrays, perch, and cod.
Like the Mekong giant catfish, many megafish are threatened with extinction. In fact, a witch’s brew of pollution, overfishing, and habitat destruction have led to the decline of so many freshwater fish that the current situation has been called a “freshwater extinction crisis.” Incredibly unique and unbelievably large species, like the 15-foot-long Chinese paddlefish and the 20-foot-long freshwater sawfish, are now gone or almost gone, and their demise has largely gone unnoticed.
What more can be done to save these unique fish?
Just as nature shows piqued my interest as a child, television remains one of the most common ways for the public to get a first look at the amazing animals that live in freshwater. It is my hope that my work with National Geographic’s Monster Fish television program will do the same for the next generation of conservationists out there.
I also encourage everyone to learn more about the rivers and streams in their own area. Take your children out camping, swimming, and fishing. Get involved in organizations that work to protect rivers and lakes, like the Waterkeeper Alliance, International Rivers, and the Change the Course campaign on the Colorado River.
Follow groups like the Wild Salmon Center and the Freshwater Fish Specialist Group on Facebook. Or consider becoming a member of the National Geographic Society, a one-of-a-kind organization that has supported my work and the research and exploration of thousands of others for the last 125 years.
I hope that this unlikely story of a boy who grew up in the Arizona desert only to fall in love with a catfish half a world away is proof enough that anyone with a passion for animals can find a way to help protect them. Freshwater fish, though not the cuddliest of creatures, have their own intrinsic value and beauty, just like each of us, and deserve our help.
Fans (or would-be fans) of big fish who would like a megafish photo are welcome to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Dr. Zeb Hogan, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, University of Nevada, Reno, M.S. 186, 1664 N. Virginia St., Reno, Nevada 89557 (sorry only snail mail requests can be honored). Kids—draw your favorite fish on the outside of the envelope for a signed photo. Please also check out Monster Fish Friday nights at 10 p.m. on Nat Geo WILD. Tonight’s episode features the largest catfish in Malaysia, the six-foot-plus wallago catfish.
This post was originally published by Take Part.