It’s the smell. The smell of prahok-making time in Cambodia.
Since last week fishermen have been netting huge amounts of Trey Riel, the small fish used to make the much-loved fish paste prahok, and officials and fishermen said yesterday that this year’s catch is expected to be better than last year, while fish prices are lower than the previous season.
Nao Thuok, director general of the Cambodian Fisheries Administration, said, “This year the fish used to make prahok will increase by more than 20 percent [compared to last year],” adding last year fishermen caught about 12,500 tons of Trey Riel during the two-week fishing period, while this year he expected the total catch to reach 15,000 to 16,000 tons.
Mr Thuok said the increase was due to favorable rains and flooding conditions and strict enforcement of the fishing ban during the breeding season, which lasted from July to August.
He explained that only during two weeks per year fishermen can catch Trey Riel, as this is the time when water levels drop and the species migrate en masse from the flooded forest of the Tonle Sap Lake, Mr Thuok said, adding that the first week usually occurs at the end of December, while the second week is at the end of January.
Oum Cheang, a 54-year-old villager from Kompong Speu province’s Kong Pisei district, said she had traveled to the Chraing Chamreh commune’s fish landing area in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district with 20 other villagers in order to buy a year’s supply of Trey Riel fish.
“[Fish] costs around 1,500 riel per kilo. Last year it cost around 2,000 riel per kilo,” she said, adding, “In the five, six years before it was around 500 or 600 riel per kilo.”
Ms Chheang said she bought 80 kg of fish, which she cleaned on site yesterday, and would pot the fish with around 400 grams salt per kilo of fish, with the salt being more expensive than fish—in order to turn it into the pungent fermented fish paste that is used in Khmer dishes year-round.
“We cannot cook without prahok. It makes the taste better, especially when we have not much food we can use it with only rice,” she added
Slesh Ya, a fisherman who catches fish on the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong River near Phnom Penh, said Trey Riel makes up around 21 percent of Cambodia’s annual inland catch—the species was less abundant than last year and prices are lower too.
“The fish price is down, but it doesn’t mean the number of fish increase. It is cheaper because the number of buyers is down,” Mr Ya said.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap Lake Program Coordinator for the NGO Fisheries Action Coalition Team, said Trey Riel had increased in the lake due to enforcement of the breeding season fishing ban. He said however, that considerable illegal fishing was still “allowed” by the government.
“If the fisheries officials had the clear measures to crack down on illegal fishing the fish would increase a lot and not only the fish used to make prahok,” he said.