Fish farmers in Twantay Township, just south of Yangon proper, are struggling to deal with an invasion of suckermouth catfish, which threaten to take a bite out of farmers’ productivity.
Suckermouth catfish are native to South America but have been sold and bred around the world as aquarium fish. However, they are small and not marketable as food for humans. They are also resilient – they feed on plants, insects, and other fish – and reproduce quickly.
According to the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), the catfish entered Myanmar’s streams and rivers when they were discarded by local aquarium owners. They made their way into fish farms during the chaos Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
In addition to competing with farmed fish over food and space, suckermouth catfish also injure farmed fish with their sharp, toxic spines.
In one village BANCA investigated, the catfish had destroyed 8,000 acres of freshwater fish farms that had primarily been growing mrigal carp and labeo rohita.
One fish farmer told the Myanmar Times that 20,000 of the township’s 30,000 acres of fish farms have been invaded by suckermouth catfish, adding that local authorities have mainly left the problem for farmers to resolve themselves.
“We have sent letters to the Department of Fisheries. A few days ago, some Chinese nationals came and took a look. They said that they will let us know whether the catfish are marketable or not. We haven’t gotten any replies,” fish farmer Aye Min told the Myanmar Times.
Tun Win Myint, head of Yangon Region’s Department of Fisheries, confirmed the lack of government assistance, saying: “Fishpond owners must cleanse their own ponds themselves. Our department has given instructions. Currently, no one has officially contacted our department about this.”
As farmers await instructions on how to quickly rid their farms of suckermouth catfish, the Myanmar Fisheries Federation is urging them to stop waiting and tackle the infestation head-on by removing the pests from their farms one by one.
“These sucker fish must be cleared by the fish farm workers themselves. There are many ways to carry out a clearance operation. We also will require experts, but the farm workers must also act,” said Hnin Oo, deputy chair of the federation, adding that failure to act could cut productivity and cause fish prices in Myanmar to skyrocket.
Farmers have begun removing the catfish from their farms and putting them in separate ponds to be poisoned with chlorine or just ignored.
While the infestation appears to be confined to Twantay, BANCA has said the catfish are spreading throughout the country and may have already reached Bago Region and Inle Lake in Shan State.