Fishways show the way in Mekong basin

21 JUNE 2018

A project led by CSU researchers has shown that fishways can be successfully added to irrigation structures to allow fish to swim upstream around obstructing migration barriers such as dams, weirs and levee banks.

  • * The building of fishways is set to expand rapidly across the Mekong River basin as a result of CSU research.
  • * Fishways are engineered to allow fish to swim upstream around obstructing irrigation ’barriers’ such as levees, weirs and walls.
  • * The research has attracted an additional $1.6 million from the Australian and US governments for the expansion of fishway construction from Laos into Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
  • * Australian small businesses have featured prominently in the project and contributed greatly to success

Lao child watches fishwayA project led by researchers at Charles Sturt University (CSU) has shown that fishways (shown left) can be successfully added to irrigation structures to allow fish to swim upstream around obstructing migration barriers such as dams, weirs and levee banks.

This project is now set to be dramatically expanded in South East Asia with extra funds from some major aid agencies.

The research team, led by Dr Lee Baumgartner from the CSU Institute for Land, Water and Society, set up its first fishway, also known as fish ladders, in Pak Peung village in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) near the mighty Mekong River.

  • Listen to Dr Lee Baumgartner


“The fishway has allowed native freshwater fish to move upstream around a major levee bank that was built to enable rice production to expand around the village," Dr Baumgartner said.

“After construction the levee bank, and regulator, has hindered fish migration into vital floodplain wetlands.

“Fish form a vital part of people’s diets across much of the developing world, including those living in the huge Mekong River basin of South East Asia.

“But the freshwater fish in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are under pressure, as the building of hydroelectric dams and expanded irrigation works hinder the migration patterns of these fish.”

Now that fishways have been proven in Laos over the past ten years, Dr Baumgartner is keen to see more structures in place across the Mekong valley.

“With $800,000 from the Australian government matched by a similar amount from the USA, we are now set to expand the building of fishways from Lao PDR into Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“We hope that this will arrest reported major declines in native fish stocks in the Mekong basin, and help revive village-based fishing industries across the region.”

The project has already had some unexpected benefits, particularly for Australian businesses and the people of Lao PDR.

“We have engaged strongly with Australian private businesses who have supported the project through the design and construction of critical infrastructure, which was built in Australia and shipped to Lao PDR for installation. It is a true public-private partnership,” Dr Baumgartner said.

“The project has also received support from the highest levels in Lao PDR, with scientists and technical people from fisheries and irrigation agencies heavily involved in the project from the start.

“In addition, the National University of Laos now teaches about fishways to its students, who have also helped us with our research. And Pak Peung village has now become a major centre of interest for fishways, with visitors from across the country.

“To top it off, a few years ago, a Lao government delegation was invited to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome to give a presentation on the fishways project to an international audience.

“We had no idea that in 2006, when our team was formed, that ten years later a group of Lao scientists would be seen as global experts on fishways.”

But perhaps the greatest compliment for Dr Baumgartner came last year from an elder in Pak Peung village.

“She said to me: ‘Ten years ago you said to us you were going to build a fish ladder, a ladder for fish. I thought you were crazy! I now know you were not crazy!’”

The fishways project has been funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research with support from NSW Fisheries, United States Department of the Interior and the Mekong River Commission .

Key project partners are the National University of Laos, the Lao Living Aquatic Resources Research Centre, the Lao Department of Irrigation, and the Myanmar Department of Fisheries.

Media Note:

For interviews and pictures with Dr Lee Baumgartner, who is based in Albury-Wodonga, contact CSU Media.

See this release for further information on the fishway project and how CSU students have also participated.

This project will also feature in the upcoming Fish Passage 2018 conference being hosted by the CSU Institute for Land, Water and Society, between Monday 10 and Friday 14 December 2018 in Albury, NSW, Australia.

Photo credits: All photos by Jim Holmes.

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