Small-Time Fishermen Find The Waters Tough Going As They Vie for Catches Against Private Fishing Lots
siem reap – Many fishermen on the Tonle Sap Lake are struggling to make ends meet, as the daily catch on which their livelihoods depend has declined as more and more small boats ply the waters in search of food for a day.
But business is booming for the many owners of private fishing lots on the lake who are netting profits as large as the huge expanses of water they control, a fishing expert said.
This stark inequality, officials said, has raised serious concerns over future competition for the lake’s increasingly scarce resources.
“The amount of fish caught by fishermen from three villages could not compare with that of one private fishing lot,” said Keo Ratha, a community chief in Anlung Raing commune in Pursat province, adding that such disparities had in the past caused conflicts between ordinary fishermen and the private fishing companies.
In 2000, the government reduced the total area covered by private fishing lots in Cambodia by 56 percent to a still staggering 400,000 hectares in order to address the huge discrepancy in catches and profits landed by fishing lot owners and small fishermen, said Nao Thuok, director of the Department of Fisheries at the Ministry of Agriculture.
“Before there were more disputes…. Fishermen came to protest in front of the National Assembly,” said Mr Thuok, noting that such protests had abated and the governments has no plans to further reduce the number of private lots, which he said average around 150 hectares each.
But the situation is not as rosy as it sounds.
According to senior government fisheries expert Touch Seang Tana, when the reforms were undertaken and the lots slashed in size, the private owners kept the most productive parts of the lake and rivers, such as the deep-water areas where catches are most abundant.
Private lots also cover all the areas where rivers flow into the lake as this is where the most fish are concentrated, Mr Seang Tana said, adding there are hundreds of these areas and some lots are situated right in the center of habitat of certain, rare fish species.
Outside the well-patrolled and guarded private lots, uncontrolled fishing by poor fishing communities continues to deplete the stocks of fish available to those who live off the river, and it is a situation that could have social consequences, Mr Tana said.
“Increasing pressure [on fish stocks] could lead to social unrest and fights between owners and communities,” he said.
“There is no more than 10 years [left], or something will happen if we do not change,” he said, giving a rough forecast for when this competition between private companies and local communities will reach a head.
Others share his pessimism.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap program coordinator for the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, said that the roughly half a million families fishing on the Tonle Sap have been suffering from a decline in catch due to dropping fish stocks because of illegal fishing.
“We monitor and receive reports from local fishermen that they catch less fish this year,” Mr Bunly said in a recent interview.
“Two or three years ago they catch at least 10 kilogram per day, but right now only 3 or 4 kilogram per day,” he said, adding that most of the fishermen on the river and lake use their catch only to feed their family, and an increasing number of them going into debt just to keep their families in food.
“Right now the population [of the country] increases so the lot owners should give parts of their fishing area to the people,” Mr Bunly said, noting that some private companies, to maximize their profits, also fish outside their lots, which leads to conflicts with local fishermen.
The French colonial administration introduced the lot system in the early 1900s to organize and tax fishing on the Tonle Sap, which was then hardly exploited. Traditionally adept at fishing, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants were given the rights to exploit the lots in the Tonle Sap by the French and the most productive fishing areas have since always been in the hand of private companies.
Chhuong Nguon who leases a lot in a Pursat province said he paid the government $75,000 to control and fish 500 hectares of the river for a period of two years, adding his lot yielded him 500 tons of fish this season.
Mr Nguon said he too worried there would be less fish for smaller fishermen on the river, and it was already hard to completely stop locals from fishing in his lot.
“They need fish to catch every day to support their family and they don’t grow rice. It is hard to stop them,” he said.
According to Mr Tana, local authorities, fishing lot owner and fishermen needed to find a way to jointly manage resources, which also includes joint-use of parts of the private lots.
For this to happen, he said, local fishing villages and private fishing companies should adhere totally to the fishing ban in the fish breeding season, a rule that fishing communities should enforce themselves. This will however, require a lot of training for the local fishermen, the introduction of an adequate fish catch registration system, and government support to help market the small fishermen’s fish in order for them to earn cash and move beyond subsistence, Mr Tana said.
“Community enforcement is now problematic, poor fishermen are individualistic and not organized, and they don’t know how to make business,” he added.
Sitting on his boat in floating commune of Chong Kneas in Siem Reap province recently, Chea Lina, 29, said his father owns fishing lot no 2 off the shores of Battambang province.
The lot covers several square kilometers and his company employs dozens of workers and seven boats to fish the lot and to close off the entire area with nets, while also patrolling the lot to prevent small fishermen from entering.
“We wait until the fish prices are good and then we go fishing. I always have enough fish in my area,” Mr Lina said, adding that during the main fishing season from January until June he catches around 3 tons of fish per day.
Mr Lina said the catch from his lot has been more or less stable in recent years and increasing market demand has driven up prices from $1,000 per ton three years ago to $1,875 per ton.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soentrith)