A fisherman caught the giant stingray on the evening of June 13, said Chea Seila, a member of a joint American-Cambodian research team known as the Wonders of the Mekong that is documenting freshwater fish. The fisherman then contacted her team the following morning, Seila said. The stingray was weighed, then released.
Before the catch, locals had told the researchers that they were seeing large “black shadows underneath the water at night,” Seila said in a phone interview. “They thought they were spirits. I think they were the stingrays,” she said.
Nearly a third of all freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction, according to the World Wildlife Fund; since 1970, populations of freshwater fish weighing 66 pounds or more have declined by 94 percent. In 2020 alone, 16 species were declared extinct, including the Chinese paddlefish.
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“I was concerned we would see [more extinctions] before we would see records broken,” said Zeb Hogan, a 48-year-old biologist who has spent his two-decade career researching large freshwater fish. “The fact that this record-breaking fish was found is mainly significant, because it shows that there is still hope for these fish,” he said.
Hogan had just finished writing a manuscript for his book “Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Fish.” In his draft, Hogan describes how in 2005, locals in Thailand had found the then-largest freshwater fish. But last week, Hogan had to update it, after hearing from the Wonders of the Mekong team in Cambodia, which he directs with help from the US government. (The Wonders of the Mekong is funded by the US Agency for International Development.)
The 661-pound stingray is also the fourth large freshwater fish to be found in that area of the Mekong River since April 22, when Hogan’s team started asking local fishers to report any big fish they see. That suggests the area — near the fishing village of Koh Preah, 140 miles northeast of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh — could be a breeding ground for freshwater stingrays that needs to be conserved. “I think we can call it a stingray hot spot,” Hogan said.
Cambodian officials are now planning an international workshop that will seek to involve experts from Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to discuss how to better protect the surviving freshwater fish in the area, Hogan said.
The Mekong, which at an estimated 2,700 miles is longer than the Mississippi, snakes down mainland Southeast Asia across the four countries, meaning conservation efforts must be coordinated. Cambodian officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Hogan spoke by phone from a vacation in Hawaii with his family. When asked whether his family was okay with his working during his holiday, Hogan shrugged it off.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life focused on this topic,” said Hogan, who has hosted a show called “Monster Fish with Zeb Hogan” on Nat Geo Wild. “So I wouldn’t miss this for the world. And, yeah, my family’s on board, too.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this report, Chea Seila’s name was missed. This post has been corrected.