“Making Merit” in the Mekong Delta

Aaron Koning collects water samples on Thailand's Yuam River
Aaron Koning collects water samples on Thailand’s Yuam River

Not everyone at the CFL is braving subzero temperatures this winter. Faculty member, Pete McIntyre, is currently working in balmier weather, conducting fieldwork with grad student, Aaron Koning in Thailand, They are looking at fish migrations in the Mekong River and its tributaries.
The Mekong, which flows through parts of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, is a critically important fishery for millions of people, supplying food and commerce. While the main stem of the Mekong is relatively dam free, dams on its tributaries may be cutting off fish spawning habitat and planned future dams could do even more damage. Last night, Pete sent along this dispatch from the field on their run in with a religious custom and its implications for native fish:

“We have been working like crazy in the field and then sampling our fish late into every night. One day while busily collecting water samples from the Yuam River in downtown Mae Sarieng, Aaron and I were surprised to see a woman quietly dabbling in the water on the river bank behind us.  She soon splashed away, leaving behind three orange spots in the water where she had been.  Further inspection revealed that they were fish!
It turned out that the woman had been “making merit” by releasing three brilliantly-colored small fish purchased from a nearby pet shop.

A man "makes merit" by saving a fish's life and releasing it from store-bought captivity to the river. Photo: GraffitiImagery, Flickr
A man “makes merit” by saving a fish’s life and releasing it from store-bought captivity to the river. Photo: GraffitiImagery, Flickr

One of the essential day-to-day activities of Thai Buddhists is to make merit by doing good deeds that will outweigh the bad to allow greater enlightenment in the next life.  One way of boosting this karmic balance is to grant captive animals their freedom.  This approach is often adopted with birds, which are trapped, sold, and released in sequence in cities.
Always sporting field-appropriate headgear, Pete McIntyre makes his own shade in Thailand.
Always sporting field-appropriate headgear, Pete McIntyre makes his own shade in Thailand.

It is hard to be sure what kind of fish she had released, but they were probably either mollies (sourced from the Amazon region) or Betta from another river basin in Southeast Asia (e.g. the famed Siamese fighting fish).  In either case, her act of merit was also a species introduction, but those little orange fish could not have lasted long.  Only ten meters away, thousands of catfish were stacked up behind a bridge piling to take advantage of the no-fishing zone designated by the monks from the adjacent temple.  What a striking example of complex ironies in the modern world–Thai Buddhism offering a refuge area for native species from the intensive fishing pressure that has virtually removed fish from the rest of the river, and also encouraging a supply of exotic species for them to feed upon.  I guess everyone’s a winner?”
 

To see the process of “making merit” in action, click on the video below:

 

2 thoughts on ““Making Merit” in the Mekong Delta”

  1. I’m sure the woman you are talking about must have released a betta fish. these species are extremely strong and can survive even in complex habitat like rice puddles and love to form their own territory. Though the video above shows several species of fish for a pet lover this is a classic ritual.

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