He waited 10 years, but what a catch (The Straits Times, Tuesday 12 June 2012)


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He waited 10 years, but what a catch

By Siau Ming En

Fishermen have to endure long waits before they reel in a catch but few arguably wait 10 years to land a whopper.

But that was how long Dr Zeb Hogan, host of National Geogrpahic Channel documentary Monster Fish, took to track down the Mekong giant catfish.

Since 1997, the marine ecologist had spent time in northern Thailand, waiting for fishermen to haul in that catfish.

It was not till 2007, when Cambodian fishermen caught a 2.4m-long one, that he finally manage to tag what is believed to be the world’s largest catfish.

The American conservationist was in town last weekend to lead 40 Singaporeans on a tour of Pulau Semakau, the world’s first offshore landfill. It was organised by the National Geographic Channel and the National Environment Agency (NEA).

The host of Monster Fish, whose fourth season is being shot, said painstaking work is common in his area of research.

“There are so many times when we go somewhere and have an idea of the work we want to do, but we can’t find the fish,” said the 38-year-old based in Oregon.

It helps that he “loves travelling, learning about new fish, going to new places with the television show and my research”.

The remote areas he visits come with extreme weather conditions.

He recalled a trip to northern Australia three years ago when conditions were extremely hot and dry.

He wanted to take a cool dip but his hopes were dashed by the sight of five to six bull sharks swimming in the vicinity.

These sharks haev been known to attack humans.

“Extreme conditions, yes, but I don’t want to have a near-death experience,” said Dr Hogan, whose passion for the outdoors and animals started from young.

“When I was in junior high and high school, I did things like the science club and volunteered at an aquarium,” he said.

“I think a lot of children are curious about animals, and for some, they lose that feeling after a while, but I never lost it,”

But he started thinking about conservation only after a trip to Thailand in 1997.

He saw a Mekong giant catfish for the first time that was netted by fishermen there.

It dawned on him that it could be extinct before people worldwide had a chance to see it.

“That made me sad, we had all of these fish that people don’t even know about and they could be gone,” he said.

He was also surprised by the biodiversity at Pulau Semakau.

“Semakau Island is being used by Singapore as a landfill, but when you’re out there, it doesn’t feel like a landfill at all,” he noted.

The island, where landfilling started in 1999, receives about 1,773 tonnes of incineration ash and 557 tonnes of non-incinerator waste daily. In 2005, the NEA opened the place to the public for recreational activities.

Dr Hogan said he saw different species of fish, crab, giant clam and starfish, but what really took him by surprise were stingrays.

“I wasn’t really expecting them but I saw a few they were really brightly coloured and fairly large,” he said.

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