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He wants the Big One to get away

Scientist Zeb Hogan measures a giant carp in 2003 on the Tonle Sap River, about 6 miles north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Associated Press
Published September 6, 2005


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - Floating down the Mekong in his dinghy, Zeb Hogan is on the ultimate fisherman's quest: to find the world's largest freshwater fishes.

The American biologist's search will take him to 10 rivers, including the Nile, Amazon and Mississippi, looking for about 20 species of hulking fish such as the goliath catfish, Chinese paddlefish and North American lake sturgeon - not to catch them, he says, but to save them.

"These big, amazing creatures all over the world, they might be goners, on their way out," he says.

Right now Hogan is on the Mekong that flows through the Indochinese peninsula, looking for a stingray said to weigh more than 1,300 pounds - as much as a full-grown longhorn steer.

He knows it's out there; he photographed one in 2002. And smaller stingrays abound. As he passes villages on riverbanks, he sees children playing with severed stingray tails.

The 2,600-mile Mekong is known for its diversity of river creatures, as well as their size, to judge from places along its banks named the Pool of the Giant Catfish or the Pool of the Giant Carp. In May, fishermen in Thailand landed a Mekong catfish that weighed 646 pounds and was 8 feet, 10 inches long. It's believed to be the largest freshwater fish ever caught and measured. It ended up on dinner tables.

Hogan, 31, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has worked on the Mekong since 1996. On his voyages, "The main question I'll be asking everywhere is what were populations like in the past, what are they now?" He thinks "you'll see a pattern that these populations of these large fish species are declining - a lot."

Along the way, Hogan and his assistants pepper fishermen with questions and pictures of their quarry.

The fishermen may not have caught or even seen the fish, Hogan said, but often will say they have heard about it being somewhere else. "Theoretically, that's supposed to lead us to where the fish are."

Not always. He says fishermen are hesitant to admit they've hooked a big one, for fear of running afoul of restrictions on hunting rare species. The penalties are small, but the fishermen don't want the bother.

He expects to finish in December 2006 and give his fish counts to the World Conservation Union, which compiles a Red List of Threatened Species.

"The most exciting part for me," says Hogan, "is that no one's done this before."

[Last modified September 6, 2005, 03:15:21]


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