Better Laws, Cooperation Urged for Fisheries

With the huge fishing areas of the Tonle Sap lake and Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, researchers estimate Cambodia could potentially pro­duce more than 400,000 tons of freshwater fish a year, worth up to $200 million.

But the majority of fishermen are still poor, and only $2.4 million was generated from inland and marine catches last year, according to a report by an NGO.

Fishery experts say a lack of good legislation, poor management and hostile relationships among stakeholders are keeping Cambodia from fully developing its fisheries—and keeping most fishermen in poverty.

In recent months the issue of fishing rights has become increa­singly problematic. Small-scale fishermen are often chased out of fishing areas meant to be open to locals for subsistence fishing by fishing lot owners, sometimes with the help of local authorities.

Experts say conflicts between commercial fishing concessionaires and local fishermen will not be solved until laws and regulations defining rights and use of aquatic resources are put in place. And exploitation of fisheries will not stop until people at community level participate—or are al­lowed to participate—in managing the resources.

At a national workshop on fishery management Wednesday, fishery reform advocates said it is time to stop overlooking the fishing industry and institute proper management policies. The only way to develop the fishery sector and improve food security, they said, is to introduce a community based management system, and the laws to support it.

“The important thing is that people who have rights to access fishery resources should take responsibilities to manage them,” said Jorgen Jensen, chief of the Mekong River Commission’s fishery project. He said the number of people using fishery resources needs to be limited to ensure that the ecosystem is protected and that the fisheries are a sustainable source of food and income.

At 75.6 kg per person annually, Cambodia is one of the highest per capita consumers of fish and fish products in the world, according to a report issued by Oxfam, an NGO working with the Mini­stry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery on policy making. For most of poor Cambodians, fish and other aquatic animals are im­portant sources of food and additional income, the report states.

Another study released at the workshop found that about

15 percent of the country’s 11 million people depend on the Tonle Sap fisheries for their livelihoods.

The Oxfam report says a re­cent scientific study estimates the total annual inland catch at about 300,000 to 400,000 tons, with the commercial value at $150 million to $200 million. However, official estimates on both inland and marine catch by the Agriculture Ministry’s Fishery Department range between 19,600 to 111,100 tons per year in the past, generating only $2.4 million in 1999.

“The disparity in catch estimates and value suggests that the importance of inland fisheries has been overlooked by the government,” the report, prepared by researcher Wayne Gum, states.

The two-day workshop was the first time representatives of fishing communities, NGOs, central and provincial authorities and international donors gathered to share their experiences on pressing issues and find common ground on developing the fishery sector.

This comes a month after Prime Minister Hun Sen intervened in conflicts between commercial concessionaires and community fishermen over fishing lots, demoting fisheries officials and demanding that more fishing lots be turned over to the public.

Many fisheries advocates at the workshop said fisheries management is weak and that only selected legislation has been implemented in favor of the powerful. Illegal and destructive fishing practices are widespread, and there are no formal mechanisms of solving fishing rights disputes, they said.

Sem Sorm, a fisherman from Kom­pong Thom’s Stung Sen district, said fishermen in his village are no longer able to fish in major fishing areas on the Tonle Sap because local authorities sold the areas to businessmen in 1998 and burned their fishing equipment.

“We are suffering because we could not fish to eke out a living,” he said. “[Fisheries officials and local authorities] connive in strangling the people.”

Ieng Sarn of Kompong Ch­hnang’s Cholkiri district said two men were shot dead and one injured in his community by arm­ed men guarding a fishing lot.

Jensen said villagers are not without blame. An increasing number of villagers, he said, are moving to the forests to cut trees and build houses. “This would destroy eco-system of fisheries resources,” he said. “We need to guarantee sustainable development in fishery sector.”

Fishery experts said the government needs to properly mark the boundaries of commercial fishing lots, open-access areas and other special resource areas. Fisheries officials should also be trained based on well-defined job descriptions, they said.

The best way to manage the fisheries, they said, is an ap­proach that involves local com­mu­­ni­­ties, the commercial fishing in­dustry, NGOs and fisheries officials.

One fishery expert said the co-management system would in­crease the responsibilities of people who benefit from fishery re­sources and reduce destructive and exploitative uses of a limited natural resources. “We really need fisheries reform,” he said. “And how [we] develop policies should be based on people’s needs.”

The Agriculture Ministry’s fishery department is now working on legislation that would allow fishing communities to help manage the fisheries. Sam Nov, de­par­tment’s deputy director, said an office of fishing community development was established to resolve conflicts and involve local fishermen in decision making.

Chhan Tong Yve, secretary of state for the Agriculture Ministry, said the government is working hard to ease fishing conflicts and ensure sustainability.

“We’re reforming fisheries sector,” he said at the workshop. “My ministry and the government are cutting fishing lots to give them out to community fishermen.”


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