Giant 'Swamp King' Fish Rescued From Flood

In a six-hour mission, locals saved the critically endangered fish and rereleased it back to its home.

If you thought being a fish out of water was bad, try being a giant catfish caught in the wrong pond.

In mid-December, villagers from the coastal Phatthalung province in southern Thailand spotted a Mekong giant catfish thrashing in a local pond. The river mammoth, estimated to weigh about 200 kilograms, is well known on an individual basis. In fact, locals call the animal the "swamp king," and they were alarmed to see that it was stuck in a small pond after heavy rains flooded the area. Enter villagers to save the day.

With the help of a giant net for the giant fish, the locals hauled the stranded swimmer out of the water and onto the trailer of a motorbike. They raced more than 3 kilometres to release the fish back into its watery home, wetting the animal down along the way. (Some catfish can survive out of water for a few minutes.) From start to finish, the rescue took more than six hours.

"It swam away," says big fish biologist and National Geographic explorer Zeb Hogan, who viewed the video of the rescue. "We sort of assume it survived." Hogan hosts Monster Fish on National Geographic Channel.

THE PLIGHT OF THE CATFISH

As the name suggests, the Mekong giant catfish can only be found in the Mekong River system in Southeast Asia. The lack of whisker-like barbells on its face distinguish the migratory swimmer from other members of the shark catfish family. The Mekong catfish can live to be more than 60 years old and grow to the size of a grizzly bear, making it the world's largest scaleless freshwater fish. One fish caught in Thailand in 2005 weighed 293 kilograms and stretched 2.7 metres long.

Local people view the Mekong giant catfish as sacred, and tradition dictates that eating the creature's flesh can instil knowledge or longer life. But many people also prefer to see them stay alive.

"There's a respect for large fish, there's a respect for large animals," Hogan says. "It didn't surprise me that this video was in Thailand and the people did this."

Hogan adds that traditionally, there were elaborate ceremonies that went along with catching giant catfish. There's also a museum dedicated to the oversized swimmers.

"It's fish royalty," Hogan says, mentioning that in Cambodia, the creature is referred to as the "royal fish."

The Mekong giant catfish is critically endangered, so it's now illegal to eat or harvest this species. According to annual data, their numbers have shrunk 90 percent in the last decade alone, and there might only be a few hundred of the swamp creatures left. They thrive in places with plentiful algae and river invertebrates, which are threatened by habitat destruction.

Main man-made threats are historic overfishing, entrapment of the animals as untargeted bycatch by fishermen, and pollution. Dam-building projects have further restricted the fish's natural home. As an officially protected species, intentional harvesting is banned and local fishers have pledged to stop catching the fish.

Still, their numbers continue to decline.

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