kompong svay district, Kompong Thom Province -The Fisheries Department patrols are gone, leaving every boat on the Tonle Sap to fend for itself.
This is the doomsday scenario some locals there—officials and fishermen alike—will relate to you: protected spawning grounds will be fished out and the great lake ravaged by illegal equipment, from fine-meshed nets that sweep up everything swimming to metal scoops that scrape the lake’s bottom clean of every creature.
The doomsayers want back the patrols, which were halted in February when patrol officers were called to Phnom Penh for “retraining” following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s orders to drastically overhaul the fishing lots system and return to the public more than half the waters previously held off limits by lot owners.
But Touch Seangtana, an independent consultant for the Department of Fisheries, offers another scenario: that there are literally a million people fishing the lake’s waters, and very few care whether there are patrols or not, citing a history of ineffectual and often corrupt enforcement practices.
“If the patrolmen we send out lack training, money, support and logistics,” Touch Seangtana asks, “why bother to send them out at all?”
The patrols, or more accurately their absence, have brought into focus a dispute that on its simplest terms is a classic fight between haves and have-nots.
But Cambodia’s fisheries industry is more complex than that, bringing into play not only money, but politics as well. And the Cambodian government is struggling to regulate a situation that has evolved over more than 100 years of colonial mismanagement, civil war, complete abandonment and the ensuing blind rush for the millions of dollars the Tonle Sap has to offer each year in catches.
Officials responsible for managing the fishing industry agree on two points: there’s a lot of money to be made in fishing, and neither the Cambodian government nor Cambodian fishermen are cashing in on it.
How many fish are caught each year? It depends on whose numbers you use. Nao Thuork, Department of Fisheries director, says actual data collected by his department lists 74,000 tons of fish caught on inland waters last year. His own estimate is that between 300,000 and 450,000 tons are harvested each year.
How much money is at stake? Touch Seangtana says the government’s revenue share from the lot owners is at the most a paltry $2.5 million a year. But given the uncertainty of the catch, he says it could be a $100 million to $200 million yearly industry.
Chhoeun Chhoeung, a fisherman from Phsoat village in Kompong Svay district, Kompong Thom province, took a deep sigh when asked about “unusual” fishing techniques.
He says he can’t catch enough fish because other fishermen are using banned tools “while we just use simple ones.” He accused fisherman from Chhnok Trou town, 10 km south and across the Tonle Sap in Kompong Chhnang province, of catching “tons” of smaller bait fish every day.
Earlier that day, Chhnok Trou resident Im Mai also complained about her neighboring fishermen catching too much bait fish. An hour later, she paid $2 for a basket of bait fish to feed the snakehead fish she is raising domestically in a trap next to her floating house and selling for $1 apiece.
Chhnok Trou town is located on the western shore of the so-called “bottleneck” where the Tonle Sap narrows from a lake to the river channel that eventually joins the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. According to fishermen at the town market—the largest in the area—nearly 100 tons of small fish are brought in for sale daily.
Everyone heads out toward the unrestricted areas in middle of the lake this time of year, because the water level is so low many fishing areas on the edge of the water are left dry. And it’s out in these public fishing grounds where accusations of illegal fishing techniques are loudest.
Cambodian fishermen complain about the use of “Manh” and “Yang Cao,” Vietnamese words for trawling techniques. Manh refers to the use of two powerboats at each end of a wide net. The boats pull the net through the upper layers of the water, trapping all the fish in their path. The Yang Cao method consists of pushing a metal scoop in front of a boat, which is also towing behind it a mesh net.
Trawling techniques are not new to the area, but accusations have inevitably increased since the Fisheries Department eliminated patrols. Tuoch Seangtana said most fisherman who own lots want the Department of Fisheries patrol officers to return to the Tonle Sap to protect their rights. He said most fishermen with no land rights do not want the patrols to resume.
But again, Touch Seangtana says the removal of the patrols isn’t so bad.
“Some fishermen were borrowing money from the fisheries officials, and those were the fishermen who were getting the protection,” he said. “And I also think too much of the patrolmen’s focus was on law enforcement, because that’s about all we trained them to do. When the Russians were here [in the 1980s], they taught them a little science. But that’s about it.”
However, Cheam Doeun, a fisherman and also deputy chief of Phsoat village, a group of floating homes located in Phat Sunday commune, Kompong Thom province, said village officials advise fishermen not to use destructive tools and techniques, but that these suggestions are often ignored.
Cheam Doeun and other local officials say they dare not crack down on illegal fishing activities because they fear they will run afoul of Hun Sen’s explicit order to leave fishermen alone in public fishing areas. Speaking at a March 27 meeting at the Ministry of Agriculture, Hun Sen reiterated his order, saying anyone who defied it would face problems.
Chhim Sean, chief of Phat Sanday commune on the Kompong Thom side of the bottleneck opposite Chhnok Trou town, says two areas set aside for spawning, one in Kampong Chhnang and another in Kampong Thom, are being encroached upon both day and night. “Since the removal of fisheries officials, the situation has become very disorderly and uncontrolled,” Chhim Sean said.
He estimated there may be about 50 boats using either illegal seine equipment or Manh and Yang Cao techniques on Tonle Sap waters. Chhim Sean said he instructed people not to use destructive equipment, but said he was often abused by angry fishermen. He said that on one occasion, about 30 boats of fishermen with knives and sticks threatened to attack him and his communal police officials, who he said were unarmed.
Chhim Sean said there should be more fish than usual this year, as is normally the case following a year of heavy rainfall. But he said if the destructive fishing goes on uncontrolled for just three more months, some fish species will disappear.
Tuoch Seangtana disagrees. “Fish species would never be destroyed in just three months,” he said. “Most of the fish species are in shallow water on the edge of the forests. Only small fish are in the middle of the lake. And fishermen were using illegal methods like Yang Cao 100 years ago.”
Touch Seangtana pointed out that baby catfish have returned to some areas. Over the past 10 years, millions of baby catfish were illegally caught and smuggled downstream to Vietnam to be raised commercially.
And even the pessimistic Chhim Sean admitted he had seen the return in small numbers of freshwater croaker and flatfish, top-grade species at the market.
But Nao Thuork says the three species he worries most about are giant catfish, giant barb and dolphins. He said he has received more than a hundred complaints about fisherman using illegal methods, mostly from provinces bordering the Tonle Sap, and the rest from Prey Veng province.
He said the Fisheries Department has been working for several months on a draft sub-decree for to set up a fishing community management system. It is patterned after a pilot program along the coastal region of Ream, where local sea fishermen are allowed to arrest anyone encroaching on their waters.
According to the latest draft copy of the sub-decree, fisherman would have the right to hold a public meeting in order to establish a local commission that could enact statutes and regulations within the framework of Fisheries Department regulations and local laws. The sub-decree encourages family fishing and requires fisherman to report violations to national and local authorities.
While the proposed sub-decree would cover only the public waters, Nao Thuork said some NGOs are suggesting similar local management should be applied to the fishing lots. But Nao Thuork said the idea of putting private lots under community management is “unacceptable.”
Touch Seangtana says the current version of the draft subdecree still entangles the Department of Fisheries too much in local matters.
“I am worried that more involvement of Fisheries officials in this management work will inevitably cause problems,” he said. “Why don’t they leave these works to local communities to make their own decisions?”
Nao Thuork maintains the Fisheries Department only wants to help local fishermen. “This type of community management is brand new, so we want to help coordinate the work,” he said.
Keo Remy, secretary of the National Assembly’s Economics, Planning, Agriculture, Investment, Rural Development and Environment Commission, also wants to see the government retain active, especially in the transition before new regulations are enacted.
“The government must work out some immediate action to prevent destructive fishing,” he said. “Otherwise, this problem is going to haunt us. We can’t wait to make a new law while the lake is being robbed of fish.”
Accusations notwithstanding, no illegal activity was seen by two reporters who, escorted by Phsoat village deputy chief Cheam Doeun, spent a morning checking both Cambodian and Vietnamese fishing boats on the lake near Phsoat village
A group of Vietnamese fishermen working in a fishing lot they own, which is adjacent to a long-established public fishing area, acknowledged destructive fishing was occurring in both public areas and conservation areas.
Suon Thang, 44, said he’s worried about overfishing. “I never lay large seine or Yang Cao to catch fish, or go outside my area,” he said. “I have enough fish to catch in my authorized waters.”
“Don’t fish in public waters,” Chearn Doeun told Suon Thang’s fishermen after an inspection. “Keep it for family fishermen to make a living. Please help conserve fish species. If the fish go away, you and I will have nothing.”