Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday ordered Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun to fire five senior fisheries officials around the Tonle Sap Lake who are accused of failing to prevent illegal fishing in the area.
The order comes after numerous calls from the prime minister for authorities to crack down on illegal fishing and protect fisheries around the lake, whose unique ecosystem is vital for fish-breeding and feeding millions of Cambodians who are dependent on the food for protein.
“In order to ensure the investigation work, I order Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun to remove the chiefs of the fishery administration cantonments in five provinces,” said Mr Hun Sen during a speech in Svay Rieng province, where an annual fish releasing ceremony on the Vaiko River was taking place. “The heads of these five provinces must be removed and replaced with new ones, because these five leaders have acted carelessly.”
The five cantonment heads who have been ordered to step down are Ky Vannarith in Kompong Thom, Tim Savuth in Siem Reap, Seng Piseth in Battambang, Seng Sun Huot in Pursat and Keo Thay in Kompong Chhnang.
Mr Hun Sen did not say who would replace the officials but said their poor records on halting illegal fishing had led to his decision.
“There is no proof of wrongdoing yet, but their previous mistakes discovered during the crackdown is more than enough,” he said, adding that Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin had been appointed to head a new committee mandated to assess the damage caused to fisheries on the Tonle Sap Lake by illegal fishing.
He also noted that sustaining a healthy population of fish is essential, with 60 percent of Cambodians relying on fish as a main source of protein.
Mr Sarun and Nao Thuok, chairman of the Fisheries Administration, could not be reached for comment, and Sam Nov, vice chairman of the fisheries administration, said he did not know when the officials would be officially removed and replaced.
Contacted yesterday Mr Vannarith declined to comment on his removal. Chan Youttha, secretary-general of the Tonle Sap Authority, a body mandated to conserve the lake, declined to comment on what the officials had done wrong, but expressed hope that their removal would pave the way for an independent investigation into illegal fishing and the destruction of flooded forests around the Tonle Sap Lake.
“There must have been some fisheries offenses,” he said. “But we cannot assume they have done something wrong before an investigation is conducted.”
Mr Hun Sen’s decision comes after officials in Kompong Thom last year demolished 16 man-made reservoirs covering 3,600 hectares of floodplain in the province on the grounds that the reservoirs damage the lake’s fisheries and its unique flood patterns and ecosystems.
Despite the decision to axe the five officials, authorities have made moves of late to crack down on illegal activities.
The Tonle Sap Authority last month said it had seized fishing equipment from nearly 400 locations, including 23 bamboo traps spanning the Stong River in Kompong Thom province’s Stong district alone. The traps are typically used with “brush parks,” small branches placed in the water to attract fish and crabs.
In Pursat a man was also arrested on June 6 and charged with illegal use of a brush park.
Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor recently warned that the lake could turn into an ecological “desert” in a matter of years if its floodplains and fisheries were not protected.