In the Tonle Sap, an Increasingly Difficult Catch

Siem Reap province – Fishermen in Chong Khneas commune on the edge of the Tonle Sap lake were busy moving last week, as dozens of boats towed floating houses and floating cages teeming with fish to the lake’s shores to avoid the strong winds of the rainy season.

Life on the great lake has always required people to adapt to the strong seasonal fluctuations in water levels and currents.

In recent times, the floating fishing communities on the lake have had to deal with a declining catch in wild fish, and many have now turned to farming fish in large reed-matted bamboo cages that float beside their homes with the help of buoyant empty oil barrels. “Life for more and more fishermen is becoming hard,” 25-year-old fisherman Mainh Naren said.

“The fish catch is going down year by year. Now after the [wild] fish are gone, we have to keep and feed fish,” Mr Naren said of his farmed fish in nearby cages.

Families who do not know how or cannot afford to keep these homemade fish farms are finding it increasingly difficult to live off the natural bounty of the lake. While those who have turned to intensive breeding in cages also face the problem of a declining catch in the future as they must use small wild baby fish fry to feed their stocks of farmed fish, said Mainh Lorn, the 55-year-old village chief of village number seven in Chong Khneas commune.

“The biggest fish we can catch is 5 to 7 kilos, Mr Lorn lamented, “In the Tonle Sap there is no more big fish anywhere,” he said.

“Now most small fishermen catch around 10 kilos per day. Twenty years ago a small boat would catch up to 100 to 150 kilo per day [of fish],” he said, adding that in those days fishermen would every so often net huge fish weighing up to 40 or 60 kilograms.

Many of the approximately 350 ethnic Vietnamese families in Chong Khneas commune have turned to breeding fish in last 10 to 15 years, while the remaining 650 Cambodian families in the floating commune have mostly continued to catch wild fish for their daily consumption, Mr Lorn said

“Cambodians like catching wild fish and keep most fish for the family, they don’t make business,” he said, adding that the fish farming techniques originally came from Vietnam and were therefore adopted more rapidly by Vietnamese families in the area.

According to the village chief, an overall rise in the number of fishermen over the last 20 years and illegal fishing methods are to blame for the shrinking daily catch.

“We have a lot of illegal fishing, some fishermen catch fish during the breeding season. That’s why the fish catch declines,” Mr Lorn said, referring to the government ban on all fishing activity during the breeding period from June until September.

“Nowadays, different kinds of fish disappear one by one,” he said, adding pessimistically that “the next generation will never see the big fish again.”

Nao Thuok, director-general of the Fisheries Administration, said Sunday that fish stocks in the Tonle Sap had not declined significantly and the catch in total this year was in fact better than other years.

But the sense of diminishing fish stocks was more likely the result of the annual catch now being shared among a much greater number of fishermen, and private companies, than at any other time.

“This season, I can’t estimate now, but this year there were many fish in the fishing lots,” Mr Thuok said, referring to privately-managed sections of the lake and Tonle Sap river that are farmed by private firms that have obtained exclusive rights from the government.

Referring to a continuing abundance of large fish in the lake and river, he added, “If you don’t believe you go and visit the market.”

Senior government fisheries expert Touch Seang Tana said small fishermen on the lake are unable to cope with a decreasing catch and rising fuel prices. Large-scale fishing operations, however, are doing relatively well, he said.

But the problems for the small fisherman means pressure on the roughly half a million families living along or on the Tonle Sap, Mr Seang Tana said, adding that local authorities and fishing communities needed to work together to stop illegal fishing, which had depleted stocks and caused the demise of dozens of fish species.

“There are a lot of problems with ecological change and fish decline in the Tonle Sap,” he said.

“Local people know their areas well and know who is fishing illegally, but how can they afford to buy fuel to patrol? How can they approach illegal fishermen if they don’t get government support?”

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