Mekong fisheries that feed 40 million are in freefall. So where’s the outcry?

WWF Freshwater
4 min readMar 5, 2024

By Richard Lee, WWF Global Freshwater Communications Lead

Fisher checking his nets in the Mekong Delta © WWF-US/Abel Valdivia

Imagine the protests if rice paddies that fed 40 million were disappearing! Or the clamour from farmers and politicians if beef herds that fed 40 million were dying off! And yet there’s barely a murmur about the rapid decline in the Mekong’s inland fisheries, which — you guessed it — are critical to the food security of 40 million people?

The statistics are staggering. And they are being highlighted today at the World Fisheries Congress. Mekong fishers net at least 2.3 million tonnes of wild freshwater fish each year. This accounts for 15% of the world’s annual inland fish catch — making the Mekong the largest inland fishery on Earth.

This wealth of fishes is a priceless food source for people across the Mekong, particularly those closest to the poverty line. Incredibly, 2/3rds of households — actually over 40 million people — in the Lower Mekong basin alone are dependent on the fishery. Indeed, inland fishes and other aquatic animals account for more than half the animal protein consumed by people in this part of the basin — ranging from almost 50% in Laos and Thailand to a whopping 80% in Cambodia.

Once again, imagine the outcry if all these people were dependent on chicken farms whose flocks were disappearing!

Drying fish in Tonle Sap, Cambodia © Zeb Hogan

And there’s more. The average consumption of fish from wild capture freshwater fisheries across Asia is 1.99 kg/capita/year. Any idea what it is in the Mekong region? Twice as high? Five times as high? Ten times as high? Nope! Over 16 times as high at an average of 33.4 kg/capita/year. But Cambodia is even higher — 25 times higher!

And these fishes are also packed with micronutrients, including lysine, which is essential for growth. It is estimated that Cambodians currently get around 56% of their animal lysine from fish, while women in Cambodia and Viet Nam also get 41% of their calcium, 25% of vitamin A and 10% of iron from fish and fish products.

You get the picture. The Mekong’s fisheries are vital for millions of people. So why are they collapsing before our eyes? I guess that’s part of the problem: for decision makers, the Mekong’s fishes — and their fate — are largely out of sight and out of mind under the murky surface of the river.

But as a new report from WWF and 24 local, regional and international partners makes clear, these fisheries are in freefall. Long-term research shows an overall decline in commercial fish catches in the two decades up to 2016, while fish populations in the previously, incredibly productive Tonle Sap Lake fell by 88% between 2003–2019.

It’s not that we don’t know the causes of this decline. The primary drivers are environmental: poorly planned hydropower dams, dikes and other river infrastructure, habitat loss, conversion of wetlands for agriculture, pollution and sand mining. Unsustainable fishing practices have played their part but fishers themselves recognize the risks and consequences of overfishing and can offer solutions.

And that is a critical point: fishers and communities along the river have never forgotten the Mekong’s fishes because their lives are intertwined. It is decision makers who need to remember the value of the Mekong’s fishes and fisheries to the people of the region. It is decision makers who need to factor freshwater fisheries into development decisions about the basin because losing them will undermine food security, livelihoods and hopes for sustainable development.

Our first-of-its-kind report is an attempt to raise the alarm about the increasing threats to the world’s greatest inland fishery. To make some noise on behalf of the millions of people who depend on these fisheries. And showcase the solutions that exist in order to drum up the urgent action that is needed to safeguard them.

The Mekong’s fisheries are irreplaceable. The people of the region cannot afford to lose them. We cannot allow them to continue slipping silently away. Isn’t it time there was a local, regional and global outcry about the Mekong’s disappearing fisheries?

Mekong fisher © Thomas Cristofelli / WWF-US



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