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No river on Earth can compare with the Mekong when it comes to the amount of fish caught. The Mekong river basin, which spans Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and China’s Yunnan province, accounts  for a quarter of the world’s freshwater fish catch. Fishing provides a vital source of food and income for over 60 million people in the region, and fish typically makes up about 80% of the protein household diets.

But overfishing has caused fish populations and catches to fall. Several fish species that are important for food are now listed as endangered, including species unique to the Mekong like the Jullien’s golden carp and the thick-lipped barb.

WWF's conservation work in the Greater Mekong, April 2014: fishermen at work on the Mekong river in front of Koh Preah, Cambodia.
Other species are also threatened by being accidentally caught in fishing gear. These include the Irrawaddy river dolphin and the Mekong giant catfish, the world’s largest freshwater fish. In response, we’ve been working with local communities in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to set up fish conservation areas. These are small stretches of river where no fishing is allowed, providing a refuge for fish to spawn and grow. That helps fish populations to recover, which in turn improves the food security and livelihoods of local people. We’ve been providing support to help communities set up and manage conservation areas, including patrolling for illegal fishing. We’ve also been working with local people to monitor their success – which is crucial for building support from governments and development agencies, as well the communities themselves. Today, there are more than 1,000 of these community-run fish conservation zones in Laos alone. Local people tell us that they catch more fish more easily near the conservation areas, and we’re collecting data to back this up. Meanwhile in Cambodia, there’s been a fall in the number of river dolphins being accidentally caught in community-patrolled areas.