FROM THE OUTSIDE Nha Hang Lang Nghe, in Danang, looks like any other respectable restaurant in Vietnam. Tables are invitingly laid out in the shade of a lush garden, and festive traditional art lines attractive brick walls. Families laugh over hot pots, and businessmen clink glasses.
Yet the veneer of wholesome normality masks a dark truth: Critically endangered giant river fish are Lang Nghe’s signature dish. Although it’s illegal to sell them in Vietnam, signs at the entryway entice diners with photos of imperiled Mekong giant catfish (“tasty meat, rich in omega-3”) and giant barbs (“good for men”), while a video showing a 436-pound giant catfish being cooked and eaten plays on a screen inside. Advertisements on social media likewise boast of the delightful flavor of the enormous fish, and of their rarity.
Lang Nghe is part of a growing trend of restaurants across Vietnam that are aggressively cultivating a new, dangerous market for megafish. The species they offer are so rare that the removal of even a few individuals—up to six a month in the case of Lang Nghe—may tip the animals toward extinction. But because wild freshwater fish don’t attract the same attention as tigers, elephants, rhinos, or pangolins, very few people know they’re being targeted—and even fewer are doing anything to stop it.
“The new trade seems to be very pervasive and growing very rapidly,” said Zeb Hogan, a National Geographic explorer and biologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who’s an expert on the giant fish of the Mekong River system. “It needs to be dealt with if these species are going to survive.”
Hogan first learned that the species he studies—mainly the Mekong giant catfish and the giant barb—are being eaten in Vietnam when someone sent him a link to a restaurant’s Facebook post about a year ago. He quickly uncovered dozens of similar ads and related Vietnamese media stories. “Seeing pictures of the fish, I didn’t think the largest and most endangered ones could be coming from the aquaculture industry,” he said. “They were much too big. It looked like they must be coming from the wild.”
Trading Mekong giant catfish and giant barbs violates both international and domestic law in Cambodia. That’s also the case in Vietnam, where several species of megafish, including giant catfish and giant barbs, have been protected since 2008. While Cambodia’s current penal code doesn’t specify a punishment for poaching protected fish, in Vietnam maximum penalties for exploiting those species can result in fines of $88,000 for individuals or $658,000 for businesses, and 15 years in jail. Yet enforcement is weak: No documented evidence exists of any giant fish having been so much as seized from Vietnamese restaurants openly selling them.
Alarmed by the trend, Hogan got in touch with illegal wildlife trade researchers and activists in the region. But no one seemed to have any idea what he was talking about. All were focused on terrestrial or marine species. “Freshwater fish aren’t a priority in wildlife conservation circles,” Hogan said. “They’re hard to study, not much is known about them, and there’s not as much public empathy and support.”
Monsters have long lived in the Mekong, one of the world’s most biodiverse rivers. Starting in the Tibetan Plateau and meandering through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, its 2,600-mile-long, latte-brown vein conceals a fantastical array of nearly a thousand fishes, many found nowhere else. Thanks to the river’s enormity and productivity, about a dozen of them grow to record proportions.
“These are some of the largest, most extraordinary, and iconic fish in the world,” Hogan said. “They’re big enough to strike even the most experienced fishermen with awe.”
Monsters of the Mekong
The 2,600-mile-long Mekong River is one of the world’s most biodiverse waterways. This rich ecosystem, home to more than a thousand species of fish, is a vital source of food and income for tens of millions of people who depend on the Mekong for their livelihood.
There’s the 500-pound giant freshwater stingray—a brown behemoth that glides through the water like a flying saucer—along with the giant devil catfish, a predatory species that looks like a mix between a shark and an alligator. There’s the giant salmon carp, whose perpetually downturned mouth would give Grumpy Cat a run for her money. And the giant barb, a blimp with thick, blubbery lips and scales the size of your palm, sometimes referred to as the 600-pound goldfish. Best known of all, though, is the Mekong giant catfish. Growing up to 10 feet long and 650 pounds, it’s regarded throughout the region as the king of fish.
More than just throwbacks to a wilder, more awe-inspiring time, the giants—as the rarest of the rare—in Cambodia and Laos indicate by their presence that the Mekong River ecosystem, while overfished and degraded in parts, is still functioning well enough to sustain all those less threatened species as well. Protecting the giants means protecting a living Mekong, and everything in it.
Hogan has been studying Southeast Asia’s endangered giant fish since 1997. Because giant catfish and giant barbs are so elusive, in 2000 he began networking with local fishermen and encouraging them to call his partners at Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration whenever they unintentionally caught a giant fish. The researchers would then rush to the scene to measure the fish, tag it, and release it, and the fisherman would get a small payment (not to mention bragging rights) for helping.
For years the system worked well: The fish hot line received up to 10 calls a year, and tagged fish began turning up in locations hundreds of miles apart, allowing Hogan and his colleagues to track their movement and growth. But during the past five years or so, the calls have diminished to just one or two a year—or sometimes none at all.
Scarcity Fuels Demand
“Even though the International Union for Conservation of Nature says we should protect giant catfish and giant barbs, every time people caught them in Vietnam, they were eaten,” said Mai Dinh Yen, a retired ichthyologist from Hanoi National University. “There has never been a case in which these fish were caught and then released back into the river.”
Yet it’s precisely the fact that the fish are almost gone that certain diners covet. In Vietnam, to be able to obtain and afford something scarce—even if, and sometimes especially if, it’s against the law—is a mark of one’s importance, wealth, and power. This mind-set is a major influence behind the sale of illicit wildlife goods like pangolin meat, rhino horn, ivory, and tiger parts, and it seems to be playing a role in the trade of megafish too. Their flesh has been described in the Vietnamese media as having the ability to bring good luck and boost sexual performance.
“Vietnamese people have a saying that the bigger the fish is, the better it tastes,” said Hoang Trong Nghia, manager of Nha Hang Ngu Quan, a restaurant in Hanoi that specializes in the giants. He texts a growing pool of regulars every time one arrives. “Some people even buy giant fish as a gift for a business colleague or for a big family party because it’s so rare,” he explained. “It’s not a common gift, so it’s more special.”
Prices vary by species and size, Nghia said, with giant barbs weighing more than 220 pounds fetching the most—about $80 a pound. “Giant barb is the most expensive because it’s so rare and the quality is so great. Sometimes we even have to bid with other restaurants for it.” The largest fish he ever received, however, was a Mekong giant catfish, caught in Cambodia in December 2016 and weighing 617 pounds. “It looked like a buffalo,” Nghia said.
Fish like that can’t be ordered in advance because they’re so rare, he added—and they must be caught in the wild. This isn’t just a practical consideration: Wildness, like rarity, is a highly valued attribute in Vietnam.
All four restaurants I visited in the country assured me that their giant fish come from the wild. But when I spoke on the phone with Ly Nhat Hieu—who owns Hang Duong Quan, a multibranch Ho Chi Minh City restaurant that specializes in “terrible fish” and boasts a celebrity and VIP clientele—he denied that claim. “I just buy the fish from the market,” he said. “There are many, many fish farms in Vietnam now where people can grow these fish. It’s nothing special, and it’s not the natural fish.”
This runs counter to what’s reported in media stories about Hieu’s restaurant, even including posts on his restaurant’s own website, all of which state that Hang Duong Quan’s fish come from the wild—and his restaurant staff say so too. “The owner even has relatives in Cambodia to find and source the fish for him,” said a waiter at the restaurant, whom National Geographic is not naming to protect his job. “He has a lot of connections in that area, so we have giant fish all the time.” Hang Duong Quan’s largest fish, imported in late 2017, was a 6.5-foot-long, 550-pound giant catfish—a fish, according to the waiter, that “can only live in the Mekong River in Cambodia.”
Thomas Raynaud, aquaculture director at Neovia Vietnam, a French company specializing in livestock and aquaculture management and health, agreed that such a massive fish almost certainly comes from the wild. Mekong giant catfish aren’t farmed in Vietnam, he said, and while there is some farming of giant barbs, their maximum weight seldom exceeds 20 pounds, and production is very low. Farming these species to gigantic proportions would take many years of effort and “is not realistic,” Raynaud said.
Nor are aquaculture-grown giants likely to be imported from other countries. Thailand has a number of well-established Mekong giant catfish farms, but those fish normally weigh no more than about a hundred pounds when sold.
“I’ve never heard of a pond that raised Mekong giant catfish that can grow to 300 pounds or more,” said Naruepon Sukumasavin, director of the administrative division of the Mekong River Commission in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Some Mekong giant catfish, he added, do grow to nearly 450 pounds in government-stocked reservoirs in Thailand, but he knows of no such operations in Cambodia, Vietnam, or Laos.
Giant barbs, on the other hand, are a completely different story, Sukumasavin said. Though the species has been bred in captivity for more than 40 years, those fish are almost always released into the wild—not sold for meat.
Venerated by Some, Trafficked by Others
Cambodia has long been a stronghold for giant fish, partly because of cultural veneration for them. Mekong giant catfish appear in 12th-century carvings on the Bayon temple walls near Angkor Wat, and any fish weighing more than a hundred pounds is widely regarded as having godlike qualities. Many Cambodian fishermen consider it unlucky to catch one.
Phan Sok Phoen, for instance, was horrified last year when he found a 250-plus-pound giant barb in his net on two separate occasions. It was the first time in 10 years of fishing in Tonle Sap Lake that he’d caught one, let alone two. “I was very surprised and very afraid, because giant barb is like a god or spirit,” he said. “I prayed to it, ‘Please don’t harm me!’”
Phoen immediately called fisheries officials at Kompong Luong village, who helped him release the fish. To mark the occasion, he lit incense and said a few prayers, imploring the fish to bless him with good fortune for returning it to the lake.
By choosing to abide by his beliefs, Phoen passed up a big payday. Vietnamese traders began showing up in his community around two years ago, he said, looking to buy giant fish from Cambodian fishermen and presumably transport them to Vietnam. Phoen heard that they bought some 10 giant barbs last year alone. After posting photos of the giant barb he caught on his Facebook wall, a Vietnamese man called him to offer $30 to $45 a pound the next time a monster turned up in his gear. A single fish, in other words, could net well over $10,000. “Why throw out big money?” the man asked Phoen.
Phoen stood his ground, saying he wasn’t interested. “If you sell giant barbs, you’ll lose a family member, lose property, get arrested—things like that,” he told me. “Maybe I’d get money, but my family would get problems.”
While some Cambodians who ensnare giant fish may be scrupulous and superstitious, others are more interested in profit—or are motivated by desperation—and with millions of nets cast in the Mekong each day, the fish run a constant risk of being caught and sold off illegally.
El Sokrey, a fisherman in Chong Koh Chrog Changvar, a Mekong houseboat community near Phnom Penh, epitomizes the circumstances that may drive Cambodian fishermen to break with tradition and law by contacting a Vietnamese trader if they find a giant fish in their net. Sokrey said his catch of smaller river fish has declined steadily since 2008, which has had a devastating effect on his family. He used to earn more than enough through fishing to support his wife and youngest daughter and to pay for new nets and boat repairs. Now he has no choice but to repair his fraying net by hand, and his family is barely getting by.
“I’m so worried about my wife and my daughter,” he said. “I’m a fisherman: I cannot go to the land to find another job.”
Last year, Sokrey netted a giant barb weighing about 90 pounds—the first and only one he’d ever seen—but it was already dead and beginning to spoil. He’d heard of Vietnamese traders but knew they preferred live ones. So he sold the fish to his normal market trader for a meager $2.20 a pound.