Mekong River Fish Ecology: Information Gap Assessment and Capacity Building in Southeast Asia

Science Center Objects

The Mekong River is one of the great rivers of the world, recognized as having a freshwater fish diversity second or third to only the Amazon and Congo basins, rivers of much larger drainage area.

Local fisherman harvest fish from the Mekong River
Local fisherman harvest fish from the Mekong River

The Science Issue and Relevance: The Mekong River is one of the great rivers of the world, recognized as having a freshwater fish diversity second or third to only the Amazon and Congo basins, rivers of much larger drainage area. The Mekong is about 4,900 km long; it originates in western China (where it is named the Lancang) and traverses through Southeast Asia where it forms the border between or passes through parts of five countries representing the lower Mekong Basin (LMB): Myanmar, Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Mekong undergoes an annual flood pulse that flows and ebbs with the pronounced wet and dry seasons. Increasing hydropower development in the Mekong basin, especially large-scale dams under construction or planned on the mainstem and major tributaries, poses substantial ecological threats. Of particular concern are potential impacts to the highly migratory fish fauna, which is exploited as one of the world’s most important freshwater fishery resources for over 60 million people living in the region. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s International Technical Assistance Program (DOI-ITAP), with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), participates in inter-governmental activities to provide scientific expertise to partner countries, through its Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong (SIM) program. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collaborate with scientists from other DOI bureaus (e.g., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USFWS) to provide technical assistance on diverse issues concerning fishery resources and hydropower development.

Navigational lock on the Xayaburi Dam
Navigational lock on the Xayaburi Dam

Methodology for Addressing the Issue: In 2015-2016, teams of scientists represented by the USGS and USFWS met with various governmental and non-governmental organizations to review fisheries issues in the LMB and evaluate existing information, available data resources, infrastructure, technical expertise, and to identify priority research needs. The principal client was the Living Aquatic Resources Research Center (LARReC) of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI), Lao PDR. Additionally, DOI scientists consulted with other Lao PDR ministries and departments, the region-wide Mekong River Commission (MRC), scientists with the National University of Laos (NUOL) who are currently developing a graduate program in fisheries, and several other organizations involved in the research and management of fishery resources. A series of reports were developed and then consolidated to provide both short- and long-term strategies for building capacity and prioritizing research to address fishery issues. Concurrently, interns representing LARReC and NUOL were detailed for three months to DOI facilities in the U.S., where they gained hands-on technical training with DOI scientists.

Future Steps: DOI scientists will continue to work with LARReC, NUOL, and other agencies as opportunities arise, to consult and advise on study designs, research plans, fishery monitoring, data acquisition and management, and other capacity-building needs. Additional collaborations may be in the form of workshops, exchange of technical experts for advanced training, development of technical working groups, and other forms of inter-governmental coordination.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collaborate with scientists from other DOI bureaus
Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collaborate with scientists from other DOI bureaus (e.g., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USFWS) to provide technical assistance on diverse issues concerning fishery resources and hydropower development.