A government task force charged with curbing illegal fishing on the Tonle Sap lake caught 40 fishermen after they briefly clashed with authorities on Tuesday evening over the seizure of their illicit gear, officials said on Wednesday.
Nao Thuok, secretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry, said about 80 police, military police and fisheries officials aboard speedboats seized three trawlers after descending on a fishing area in Pursat province’s Krakor district at about 6 p.m. on Tuesday.
The fishermen—armed with axes and knives—attempted to fight back, and officers “shot about 10 or 20 bullets into the air to scare them,” Mr. Thuok said. The 40 fishermen were sent to the Pursat Provincial Court on Wednesday.
Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon, Interior Minister Sar Kheng and National Police Chief Neth Savoeun surveyed the sprawling lake by helicopter on Wednesday as a part of monthly inspections. Mr. Sakhon said they saw evidence of widespread illegal fishing activity.
“We can see a lot of illegal fishing gear, such as tiny mesh nets in the lake, especially in Kompong Chhnang, Kompong Thom and Pursat provinces,” Mr. Sakhon said.
Mr. Kheng, who has warned the governors of provinces that ring the lake that they would lose their jobs if they did not halt illegal fishing, has called them to a meeting on Friday in Phnom Penh, he said.
Speaking at City Hall on Wednesday, Mr. Kheng said that Kompong Chhnang and Kompong Thom provinces remained rife with illegal fishing, and that the task force needed to continue stamping out the use of illegal gear.
Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree setting up the task force. It has arrested 52 fishermen and impounded 21 boats since January 1, according to Mr. Thuok.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap program coordinator for NGO Fisheries Action Coalition Team, said that if the task force was truly committed to stamping out illegal fishing, they would continue ramping up their enforcement operations.
Illegal fishermen “are no longer as adamant as they were before,” he said. “They look scared.”
Environmental groups have long warned of overfishing on the Tonle Sap, with some saying that damage to fish stocks is already irreversible.