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Thai Fishermen Break Ranks, Vow to Resume Hunt of Endangered Mekong Catfish; 'We Need to Make A Living'

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CHANG RAI, Thailand -- Two fishermen who joined in a landmark promise to help preserve the endangered giant catfish in the Mekong river and not catch them any more have returned to the hunt. ''We need to make a living,'' said Ban Hat Krai fisherman Pisit Wanatam, 40, in Chiang Khong district.

Mr Pisit and his friend resumed hunting the giant catfish, orpla buek, early this week.

Last month, a group of 68 local fishermen made a promise to then-senator Thaunjai Deetes, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the Wildlife Fund Thailand (WFT) to stop catching giant catfish.

The fishermen put their seine nets, worth about 20,000 baht each, on sale to symbolise the end of pla buek hunting, which has provided a staple livelihood for Mekong villagers for decades.

The IUCN and the WFT agreed to buy the villagers' fishing gear.The revenue from the sale of the nets was to be used as seed money for a fund to help set up the former fishermen in a new occupation.

Mr Pisit said he had initially held out against promising not catch the giant fish because he did not think it was practical.

''The hunting of pla buek will continue because the ban does not prevent Lao fishermen from going after the fish and local fishermen are not sure how they can otherwise earn enough money to support their families,'' said Mr Pisit.

Catching the giant catfish is said to generate about one million baht a year for the fishing community in the district.

''I tried to deter these two men from hunting the fish, but they didn't listen to me,'' said Poom Boonnak, head of the Ban Hat Krai giant catfish conservation group.

So far, only two of the 68 fishermen broken their promise, said Mr Poom.

Former senator Thaunjai said: ''We could take legal action against them because giant catfish is protected species, but that would be a last resort.'' .

The Rak Chiang Khong conservation group reports the pla buek catch dropped dramatically from 69 in 1990 to only four in 1997. From 2001 to 2003, none were caught and four were netted last year.


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