Fish Catch May Be Off 20 Percent

Cambodian fisheries officials estimate this year’s fish catch could be 20 percent lower than last year amid reports of low rainfall contributing to a 10-year low in Mekong River water levels.

The Mekong River Com­mission reported last week that a drought has dropped the Mekong to its lowest level in a decade. The commission said the plunge in water levels is likely affecting the fish catch by reducing the amount of fish larvae that survive to adulthood.

Nao Thuok, director of the Fisheries Department at the Ministry of Agriculture, said on Monday that fishermen may net substantially less fish this year than the 308,750 tons caught in 2003 because of the drought.

“This year’s catch could be between 15 and 20 percent lower than last year because of inadequate water,” Nao Thuok said.

He also said that catches by government-run Dai fisheries— large-scale net fishing operations —in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district could be around

30 percent lower than the catch amount for last year.

The low rainfall, however, is just one of several factors that have been gnawing away at stocks of freshwater fish, which support an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians, NGOs working in fisheries said Tuesday.

“Rampant illegal fishing and ineffective law enforcement are also key in lowering fish populations,” Mak Sithirith, director of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, said Tuesday.

Fishermen also reported this week a serious decline in the amount of fish being netted.

Doeun Phin, 55, who has been fishing in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district her entire life, said Monday that this year’s fish catch is the worst she could remember.

“I am worried every day about catching less fish,” she said. “This year I have caught about 5 kg a night, compared to 10 kg last year.”

Lae Hav, a 60-year-old fisherman in the same district said the size of his catch has plummeted.

“Last year I could get 50 kg a night,” he said Monday. “But now it’s less than 10 kg a night.” Lae Hav said he had started using equipment to catch smaller fish because he can’t catch big ones.

Ngin Navirak, a program officer with Oxfam Great Britain, said Tuesday that overfishing is also hampering fish stocks.

Farmers and fishermen have reported that unpredictable floods and droughts have pushed more people to make their living by fishing rather than farming rice, Ngin Navirak said.

“Before, they knew when the flood was, and they could plant rice,” she said. “Now they cannot guess, so they don’t plant the crop. They just move to do fishing.”

Fisheries reform, which began in 2000, was intended to help reduce poverty, but so far seems to have mostly benefited the rich and contributed to declining catches, said Ngin Navirak.

The reform, introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture, opened up 56 percent of the river that had been reserved for commercial, large-scale fishing to small- and medium-scale fishermen.

The reform also eliminated fees for medium-size operations.

But, Ngin Navirak said, poor fishermen are discouraged be­cause they feel those with money simply pay officials to look the other way when they fish illegally.

Richer fishermen also have been able to take advantage of the drop in fees to buy bigger equipment.

“But the poor still use very small fishing gear,” Ngin Navirak said. “They catch less fish.”

Ngin Navirak and others say dams built upstream on the Mekong, especially in China, and in tributaries of neighboring countries may also be hurting fish stocks.

The Mekong River Com­mission said the dams may not be directly responsible for the decade low level of the Mekong this year. But there have been long-standing concerns that dams already built and under construction could be affecting fish catches in Cambo­dia.

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