Plans for constructing a series of hydropower dams on the Mekong River could threaten already endangered species in the diverse waterway.
At an outdoor market in the Lao capital, Vientiane, fish sellers hack chunks off native Mekong fish, some which are more than a meter long. Customers examine stacks of fish and fish steaks before orders are placed and the meat chopped and dumped into plastic bags.
Douangkham Singhanouvong is head of capture fisheries at the Lao government's Living Aquatic Resources Research Center.
"Their livelihoods depend on the fish in terms of the consumption and also the income generation."
About two-thirds of the 40 million people living along the Mekong
depend to some degree on its fisheries, worth an estimated $2.5 billion
But Cambodia, Laos and Thailand plan to build 11 hydropower dams on the Mekong, nine of them in or bordering Laos.
Fisheries experts say the dams would deplete wild fish stocks by
blocking fish migration and threaten already endangered species.
A group of Irrawaddy dolphins splash and play in the Mekong about 50 meters from a tour boat on the Cambodian border. It is estimated there are fewer than a hundred of them left. Environmentalists say if Laos goes through with plans to build a dam just upstream at the Don Sahong area, the dolphins would be at increased risk of extinction.
Jeremy Bird heads the Mekong River Commission, which works to manage river resources between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Bird says it is inevitable that some species would be lost if plans to dam the Mekong go ahead. He says balancing the pros and cons of hydropower dams is the biggest challenge facing the Mekong basin.
"We're talking about the livelihoods of millions of people but we're
also talking about a huge potential resource of hydropower, which can
not only provide foreign revenues to the countries, but can those
revenues can then be used to finance other development programs and
help countries meet their targets on poverty alleviation and other
Dams on rivers feeding the Mekong have already affected local populations and disrupted fish migrations.
Fisheries experts say damming the Mekong would force fishermen to rely more on aquaculture to make up for their lost wild catch.
At a large fish farm along the Mekong in Vientiane, tilapia swarm to the surface of their floating cages as food is shoveled into the water. Suchart Ingthamjitr, a program officer at the river commission's fishery program, says fish farming already helps fill demand.
"The price of wild fish is higher than cultured fish. Yeah. But, the problem of wild fish is seasonality. Yeah, you can catch and have the wild fish depend on the time of year. But, for tilapia all year round you can buy it in the market."
As the sun sets on the Mekong, fishermen try their luck. Environmental and fisheries experts say damming the Mekong will change some of their traditional ways.