koh kong town – While the government crackdown on illegal logging may be helping save the forests on this southwestern tip of Cambodia, the number of unemployed loggers switching to fishing may be contributing to another problem—overfishing, officials and fishermen said last week.
“It’s very hard to fish now,” said 29-year-old Khhut Srey of Village Number 4 in Koh Kong town. “My husband catches only a few kilograms for a day of fishing….I owe a lot of money to neighbors because the income from fishing does not offset the money we spend on petrol for our boat.”
Several fishermen in Khhut Srey’s village said their catch totals only about 30 percent of last year’s. They blame everything from Thai trawlers that poach in Cambodian waters to bad weather that makes the seas too rough. But Ney Ol, bureau chief at the Koh Kong Department of Fisheries, said he believes a new, major factor can be found in the province’s initiative to stop illegal logging.
“When they cracked down on the logging, many workers came back to work as fishermen,” Ney Ol said. “The number of fishermen has increased and they are overfishing the stocks. Secondly, they use modern [fishing] equipment. Previously they used [smaller fishing nets] and did not catch too many fish.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the crackdown on illegal logging in January 1998. The crackdown included military SWAT teams that swooped into problem areas such as Koh Kong and destroyed logging equipment and sawmills.
The government hailed the crackdown as 95-percent successful, while environmental watchdog Global Witness has called it only 50-percent successful, with big operators allowed to continue.
Nao Thuok, deputy director of the fisheries department at the Ministry of Agriculture, said the theory that former loggers have contributed to overfishing may be true based on figures that show both the total catch and number of fishermen are increasing in Cambodia’s sea waters.
“People who say that fish are down might be right because the fishing amount for each fisherman is down due to more fishermen,” Nao Thuok said Monday.
And it’s not just fish, says 19-year-old crab farmer Moeun Chun. “Crab fishing is not as common so I’m wondering why they have disappeared….I cannot make a living from crabs .”
Koh Kong Governor Yuth Phouthang agreed that the crackdown on illegal logging has resulted in more people fishing for their livelihoods than before. But he also is quick to stress that the use of modern fishing equipment, especially by the Thais, continued to pose problems as well.
“Cambodians use small boats to fish but Thais use modern equipment,” said Yuth Phouthang.
The larger boats, equipped with sophisticated electronic equipment, trawl for fish in the border waters between Koh Kong and Thailand’s Trat province.
“We are still not clear about the sea border,” said Ney Ol. “Who is stronger wins [the argument],” he said, adding that Cambodian fishing boats dare not enter Thai waters, where a vigilant navy frequently makes arrests.
Despite the differing reasons for the reduced catch per fisherman in Koh Kong, everyone agrees that it has been a hard year.
“Now it is so terrible,” said Hoer Devy of Village Number 4, adding that her family likely will be facing food shortages this year. She also is wondering how her family will repay the money she borrowed to put fuel in her small boat.