Profs Nab Grant to Study One of World’s Largest Fisheries

October 04, 2013 - News Release

Three University of Guelph researchers will receive a three-year, $750,000 grant to help study a threatened ecosystem that sustains millions of lives in Southeast Asia.

Funding from the freshwater security program of the Belmont Forum in Washington, D.C., will enable Profs. Kevin McCann, Department of Integrative Biology, Neil Rooney, School of Environmental Sciences, and Evan Fraser, Department of Geography, to study the Tonlé Sap ecosystem in Cambodia, one of the world’s largest inland fisheries.

The seasonal flood pulse system in the Mekong River and Tonlé Sap Lake provides the primary source of fish, rice and protein for millions of Cambodians.

New and proposed hydroelectric dams, modernization and climate change threaten to alter that water cycle and the fishery.

“Everybody and their brother fishes in Cambodia,” said McCann, holder of the Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Biodiversity.

Fraser holds the CRC in Global Human Security.

A former post-doctoral researcher with McCann, Rooney holds an appointment on campus sponsored by the Saugeen Ojibway-U of G faculty partnership.

The researchers will develop models to better predict impacts of threats on the ecosystem and on the people living in the watershed.

McCann says their work will also help in understanding and conserving other tropical fisheries.

The Guelph scientists were attracted to the project because of the novelty of the ecosystem – it has an Alice in Wonderland-like growth cycle – and the lake’s biodiversity.

During the monsoon season, the Mekong backs up and the Tonlé Sap Lake fills a basin about 16,000 square kilometres in area and about nine metres deep.

In the dry season from November to May, the lake contracts to about 2,700 square kilometres and only about one metre deep. Its water drains into the Mekong River, carrying many fish with it.

People living around the Tonlé Sap have adapted their fishing styles to this annual cycle. During the dry season, many people grow crops such as rice on the exposed rich floodplain.

About 150 species of fish live in Tonlé Sap, compared to about 50 in Lake Ontario. McCann says it’s the aquatic equivalent of the Costa Rican rainforest for its variety of living things.
Scientists and policy-makers are concerned about the effects of hydro development throughout the Mekong basin. Starting in southern China, the river flows past Myanmar, Laos and Thailand before crossing Cambodia and Vietnam to empty into the South China Sea.

So far, little information exists about the fishery or the ecosystem. “It’s species-rich and information-poor,” Rooney said.

“We know the number of species in the lake, and we can guess what they eat but we really don’t know. We need to know who eats who in order to hypothesize responses to climate change and hydroelectric shifts.”

The Guelph professors will work with researchers in France and the United States, with Conservation International, and with two new U of G post-docs: Bailey McMeans, ecology; and Krishna KC, food security.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, or

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