by Prosanta Chakrabarty and Matt Davis
In late January to early February of this year, my postdoc Matt Davis and I traveled to Vietnam to collect some marine fishes from markets. Every year I try to make a trip to Asia to collect rare fishes for the LSU fish collection and for phylogenetic study. The large open markets of Asia allow us to collect a diverse number of species in a relatively short amount of time. Instead of hiring a trawler (upwards of $10K a day) it’s easier to hang out on the docks to grab some freebies off the boats. Typically we collect early in the morning and spend the rest of the day processing the fish (voucher, label, tissue sample, preserve, etc.). Because of the great quantity of fish that we were dealing with it really did take nearly the entire day to process the specimens from each morning’s haul. On this trip we collected roughly 400 different marine species and more than 2,000 specimens in two weeks. We also had a couple of days to do some fresh/ brackish water collecting on the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is one of the world’s oldest and oddest rivers and is home to car-sized catfish, giant stingrays, and other behemoths of the fish world.
Vietnam is a long narrow country that spans several biotic regions including the Mekong Delta, South China Sea, and Gulf of Thailand. We saw long stretches of amazing beaches, and miles of huge inland sand dunes directly abutting verdant green rainforest. It is also culturally diverse. We saw signs of socialist pride (the old Soviet hammer and sickle was ubiquitous) and French imperialism (baguettes and wrought iron abound), mixed with an Indo-Thai- Chinese culture found nowhere else. The people were extremely courteous and amiable, sometimes too much so, making for a fun cultural experience. Matt in particular was gawked at constantly for being a giant white man with funny colored straight hair.
Matt and I traveled with four Taiwanese colleagues that had previous experience collecting in Vietnam. It was my first time traveling in Asia without locals to help translate (as the Taiwanese spoke no Vietnamese). This made for some funny and frustrating situations.
During our trip we traveled to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and the beautiful beach towns of Mui Ne and Nha Trang. The first two things that stood out about Ho Chi Minh City included the amazing diversity of food and the incredible numbers of scooters – the many, many scooters. These scooters zoomed past and parted around you like a school of fish. For the most part there were no traffic signals or even traffic patterns, just a free for all of scooters, taxis, and buses. Many large cities in Asia have similar numbers of scooters on the streets, but they all had some semblance of organization. Our Taiwanese colleagues, who ride scooters in Taiwan quite often, would not rent scooters in Ho Chi Minh, and often remarked how “they drive crazy here.” To cross a street in Vietnam you have to walk deliberately into the non-stop flow of traffic keeping a steady pace so that the traffic will move around you. Amazingly it works, although I thought each time that I would be maimed. When we left Ho Chi Minh we ended up on scooters ourselves to travel between fishing ports. Even in these less populated areas weaving in-and-out of traffic and speeding on the “wrong side” was still a common occurrence.
After a while you get used to it, and even I went out on my own a few times with my little rented ”motobike” to relax and blow the smell of fish out of my clothes.
The markets we visited (more than 20 in all) were mostly small artisanal fisheries from local fisherman collecting on the South China Sea. The fishes that we were collecting were not always being sold at the market but were often part of the rubbage pile of bycatch. As in most cases the bycatch piles are chock full of strange fishes that no one would purchase for their dinner. It was in these piles that we collected odd silvery eels, fatheaded jawfishes, fleshy dark deepsea fishes, and numerous other oddities that we ichthyologists crave. The markets themselves were also remarkably diverse matching the diets of the locals. You know if the Vietnamese weren’t eating them that the fish must look very strange.
Matt, who the Taiwanese referred to as “Max” the entire trip, was after some of the fish he studied during his dissertation, in particular the lizardfishes. Lizardfishes include cigar-shaped predatory fishes that dwell along the bottom of the continental slope to depths of around 200 meters. Of particular note were specimens collected of the only mesopelagic lizardfish genus Harpadon, commonly known as the “Bombay Duck” and found only in the Indo-Pacific. (The nickname comes from Indian restaurateurs trying to make the fish sound more appetizing to British diners.) Dried Harpadon is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia, and indeed we often spotted hundreds of dried out specimens lying on the street, a sight that would make Matt cringe each time. In the end we managed to procure quite a few fresh specimens, including a potentially new species that exhibits sexual dimorphism.
Near the end of the trip we went out collecting on the Mekong Delta. It took some work getting to the Mekong and hiring a boat but once aboard we would ask our driver (ask as in point to a boat and to a picture of a fish) to take us toward the small fishing boats trawling the Mekong. It was by trading with boatman that we collected some of the most interesting freshwater and brackish water specimens. Nearly every specimen collected is new to the LSU collection, and some are certainly new to science. The products of the trip will be additional materials for our on going projects on the family level phylogenies of some notable deepsea, bioluminescent, and otherwise poorly studied Western Indo