For years, residents of Russei Keo district’s Kilometer 9 village, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, have noticed a continual decline in their fish catches, fueling desperation among those who rely on fishing to earn a living.
“From year to year, the number of fish we catch always goes down. So far this year, we caught only 30 percent of last year’s catch,” said Sui Yoeu, 45, who has been fishing on the edge of the Tonle Sap river for the past two decades.
Mat Sary, 42, the owner of a designated fishing lot in Kilometer 9, gave a similar account.
“This year, we only caught 40 percent of last year’s catch,” he said.
But in contrast to residents’ reports of shrinking fish stocks in Kilometer 9, recent figures from the Department of Fisheries show an increase in levels of fish caught north of the region in the last months of 2004.
“Between October and December, 36,500 tons of fish were caught in the Tonle Sap lake, compared to only 21,000 tons over the same three-month period last year,” said Nao Thouk, director of the Fisheries Department. Those figures were measured by the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body sponsored by a variety of donors.
But experts say the fisheries department’s statistics are misleading and do not necessarily reflect fisheries in areas south of the Tonle Sap lake.
Chim Yea, an independent fisheries consultant who works with NGOs, attributed the department’s reports of a bumper catch to natural yearly fluctuations in fishing yields.
“To accurately study trends in fisheries, you should not compare data from year to year…. They don’t mean anything,” Chim Yea said. “Series of data must be studied over a period of five to ten years.”
Long-term figures on fish catch trends have never been compiled in Cambodia, he said, though there are studies from the 1960s that suggest an overall downturn.
French researchers during that period recorded many large fish in the catches, but today most of the fish caught are small, said Chim Yea, noting that the data indicates that fish stocks are being depleted.
While a greater volume of fish may have been caught during this season, as indicated by the Department of Fisheries’ data, it does not mean there are more fish in the rivers, Chim Yea said. Those figures may simply mean more people are fishing and for longer hours.
Touch Sean Tana, member of the Council of Ministers’ economic, social and cultural observation unit, echoed Chim Yea’s comments.
Floods and drought have made it hard for villagers to rely on farming alone to survive, and farmers are turning to fishing, he said.
But, Touch Sean Tana said, one of the biggest threats to Cambodia’s fishing industry is the draining of wetlands around the Tonle Sap lake, which provide protected breeding grounds for a wide variety of fish species. Those wetland areas are now being drained to be used for farmland.
While the Department of Fisheries may have recorded increased fish catches in the Tonle Sap lake, villagers in Kilometer 9 and elsewhere may continue to see shortages because illegal barriers set up by local fisherman prevent many fish from migrating south, Chim Yea said.
This season’s hauls likely consisted of fast-replenishing species of smaller fish, “but the larger species, which have more economic value, are decreasing sharply,” he said, citing the data gathered by French researchers in the 1960s.
Cambodia’s fishing sector, in fact, had long surpassed the maximum sustainable level, he added.
The Asian Development Bank has also expressed concern for the sustainability of Cambodian fisheries, and downplayed the significance of annual improvements in catch sizes.
“The Tonle Sap is being exploited beyond sustainable limits,” the ADB said in a 2004 report. “Further deterioration may have unpredictable consequences because capture fisheries do not usually decline at regular linear rates; they can collapse suddenly due to over-fishing.”
“Such a collapse,” the report summarized, “would have serious social and welfare consequences and result in the loss of a large number of indigenous fish species.”
Conservation around the Tonle Sap lake is key to safeguarding fish breeding grounds, the report noted.
“That is not very difficult to do,” Touch Seng Tana said.
“First we have to stop converting wetland into rice paddies. Second, we have to start regenerating mangrove areas that have been encroached upon,” he said.
Nao Thouk concurred, and said such policies were already being implemented in some wetland areas in Siem Reap province.
But with increasing development and a rising population, it is unlikely that small projects will make a substantial difference.
Though more effective national policy is essential, Chim Yea said that communities will have to get involved in conservation efforts, too. “People have to change their habits and take responsibility for the resources that feed him.” he said.
But with the situation as dire as it is now, he said: “This is unlikely to happen until it’s too late.”
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)