Megafish Missions

Nevada Researchers Travel the Globe to Save the World’s Largest Fish

rlifeThe waters of the Uur River in Mongolia are as blue as Reno’s skies on a clear summer day. The river is also home to the Eurasian giant trout, the world’s largest trout. Its continued existence, though, is in question.

“These giant fish are among the proverbial ‘canaries in the coal mine’ for freshwater ecosystems,” says Zeb Hogan, a fish biologist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Known as taimen, the fish reels in tourists that visit the region, people who pay thousands of dollars to catch and release the trout. But it’s not tourism threatening the species—mining and poachers are a cited reason. Tourism, oddly, is what may save the fish. That and what Hogan calls “a faith-based conservation approach.”

Hogan and Assistant Professor Sudeep Chandra, a limnologist in the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, are working with Buddhist monks to develop the region’s catch-and-release industry. Monks have come to accept catch-and-release fishing since the fish get to live. So does the local culture, which is seeing a benefit from tourism. A monastery destroyed by the Stalin regime in the 1930s is being rebuilt with help from a conservation-based nonprofit group, the Tributary Fund. Monks will use the monastery to teach lessons about conservation from a Buddhist perspective. “The first concrete steps are in place,” Hogan says of the arrangement.

Hogan and Chandra’s work in the Asian country is part of a larger goal: to save the largest fish species not just in Mongolia, but everywhere. The two have teamed up with the National Geographic Society for research to explore rivers and lakes around the world for fish such as the taimen and the Mekong giant catfish, which is listed by The Guinness Book of World Records as the Earth’s largest freshwater fish. The scientists will be searching for goliath catfish, giant stingrays, razor-toothed gars, massive carps, caviar-producing sturgeon and predatory salmon, all of which can grow to six feet and weigh more than 200 pounds.

Chandra and Hogan, together with Nevada students, will work with scientists in more than a dozen countries to investigate these fish and determine why their numbers are declining. “Their disappearance is often the first warning sign of over-harvest or other trouble in the rivers and lakes where they live,” Chandra says.

“Despite their size, finding and studying these freshwater giants will not be easy,” Hogan explains. “They are extremely rare and getting rarer. Some are already listed on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species, and with the information gained in this study, more species will likely be listed for the first time.”

Efforts to save these fish from extinction will hinge on many factors, including how well biologists understand their migratory behavior. So the researchers will tag the elusive creatures and track their movements. Earlier this year, they tagged and tracked 38 fish in the Golden Triangle region of Thailand, Laos and Burma.

“This is the first study to examine all of the world’s giant freshwater fish,” Chandra says. “Many of these species have hardly been studied at all, and there has never been a study looking at them collectively. By examining this diverse group, we hope to understand why many species are declining. Our goal is to draw those connections in the hopes that we can better protect them.”

Studies by Chandra and Hogan have earned them international media attention. A 2004 cover-page story of the Wall Street Journal discussed their work in Mongolia. The New York Times featured Hogan in 2002.

Part of the attraction to their work is the insistence that local cultures are preserved along with the species of concern. Chandra advocates for cultural and community-based conservation implementation. The key, he says, is involving the people affected by conservation goals. Their initial success in Mongolia is providing a model for their work elsewhere, including here in the Truckee Meadows. Their research adds a global touch to what students at the University study in class.

“We always have to be grounded in the local community,” Chandra says. “Students, when they come to the University, want to learn what’s going on locally and in the Great Basin. But they also want to learn about what’s going on globally. Global perspectives enriching local experiences—that’s what the University is all about.”

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