koh khnhe, Kratie Province – Half the houses in this village are deserted. Pale dust from the dirt road coats staircases falling into disrepair. Scraps of wood beneath them weather. Tractors used to cart timber are slowly rusting.
“They’ve gone, all of them,” says Soung Sophy. “You drive your car here, you won’t meet people. There are just houses.”
“There’s no economy,” says Lut Sarim, 26, helping Mr. Sophy, also 26, load blocks of concrete onto a tractor for small repairs to their house. “Some people—they plant rice. Some plant jackfruit. Some don’t have jobs—like me, now.”
The middlemen who once bought luxury wood rarely visit anymore, say inhabitants of Koh Khnhe, a commune in the north of Kratie’s Sambor district, on the banks of the Mekong River. The sleepy rural area had seen a rush in the timber trade amid more than a decade of rampant deforestation, but the money dried up as the most valuable luxury wood grew scarce.
About 15 percent of the country’s forests were cut down during a 10-year period that ended in 2013, according to satellite data. The illegal logging continued afterward, exhausting district after district, moving into more and more remote corners of the northeast.
With the wood gone, residents started to leave. Some took jobs at Phnom Penh garment factories, according to Mr. Sophy and Mr. Sarim, while others found day labor as itinerant cassava planters.
Some of those who stayed now take to the Mekong River at night, armed with a car battery and two leads, twisted from jumper cables, say locals, NGOs and fisheries administration officials in Kratie.
Motoring into secluded stretches of water, they electrocute fish.
Helicopter patrols and an ongoing crackdown on illegal fishing—mostly on the Tonle Sap river and lakes—have yet to slow an uptick in such activity on the Mekong, says Mok Ponlok, deputy chief of the Kratie Fishery Administration cantonment.
The offenders have a network. They take to the waters only after authorities are gone, calling each other by mobile phone when patrollers motor back to stations on the river, he says.
“It is like pushing away the water weed,” Mr. Ponlok says. “It comes back again.”
Now, with a crackdown on illegal logging in the northeast slowing the trade of luxury hardwood across the border, there are more of them, he says.
“Most of them are former workers hired to cut down trees, who returned home during the logging crackdown. They have nothing to do except to buy illegal fishing gear to catch fish,” Mr. Ponlok says.
There has been illegal fishing on the Mekong for decades. Locals eager for fast cash use heavy, prohibited gear—gill nets, electrocution equipment and sometimes dynamite—to bring in kilogram after kilogram of fish.
The effects are devastating.
“They take the fish—big and small, young and mature—all the fish. The electricity kills fish eggs in the deep ponds, and sterilizes the mother fish,” says Ek Chamroeun, of the NGO Fisheries Action Coalition Team.
“The effects—the fish go extinct. The losses are very strong.”
The World Wildlife Fund and the Fisheries Administration in 2006 established 16 outposts on a 180-km stretch of the river from Kratie to the Cambodia-Laos border to stop the fishing. The outposts are manned by nearly 70 locals, dubbed “river guards”—men from villages along the riverbank who patrol tens-of-kilometers-long stretches of water on canoes with 13-horsepower outboard motors.
But the illegal fishermen, says Mr. Ponlok, can easily outmaneuver the river guards. Their networks alert them to patrols, and the fishermen’s 18-horsepower boats, bought with the profits of their catches, can outrun the guards.
Last year, 21 fishermen were apprehended and sent to the Kratie Provincial Court, he says. Twenty-seven more fishery communities also reported illegal fishing, but said they lacked gas to run patrols.
Illegal fishing, like logging, is fast money, Mr. Ponlok says. Villagers say a kilogram of fish can bring in $2.50 to $4 in Kratie. Those who fish legally—putting a small net in the river—can bring in a kilogram or two a day. Those who electrocute fish can bring in 10.
It’s not a traditional practice. In villages like Koh Khnhe, residents used to plant rice, net fish and tend fruit trees, says Pho Bunleu, 38, a mother of four. Life was slow.
And then, suddenly, they were earning an income. Stacked under her house are blocks of dark wood—some of it highly valued Thnong. A cubic meter would go for $150 to $200 a few years ago, when there were buyers, she says, shyly flashing two gold teeth as she talked beneath her house beside the riverside road.
For nearly a year, though, there haven’t been any buyers. But it isn’t easy to go back to rice and jackfruit. Ms. Bunleu says she misses the money.
“We don’t have any way to solve problems within the family now.”
She’d electrocute fish if she could, but she says she can’t afford the car batteries. All she has is a small gill net.
Like the wood, however, the fish and fishermen may not last long. Catches have been declining from Stung Treng to Kratie—especially, notes a recent report from the Mekong River Commission, catches of large-sized fish with a good market value.
In many places on the Mekong, says Mr. Chamroeun of the fisheries NGO, the fish already are nearly gone. The losses, he says, have led to desperation.
“In places where the crackdown hasn’t reached, above Stung Treng, people are electrocuting fish day and night,” he says. “They gather together to do it.”
Meanwhile, in Ms. Bunleu’s village, those who have stayed to fish the river to exhaustion are fewer than those who have left to become itinerant laborers.
“About 50 percent have left the village,” she says.
Of those who remain, the ones who fish outside the law are the only ones left with any money, she says.
“I have nothing to electrocute fish,” Ms. Bunleu says. “But those who electrify them—they get a lot. Fish now sells more than anything here.”