Poor fish catch feared as water levels fall to record lows
Continuing low water levels in the Mekong River are affecting seasonal fish reproduction and migration and are likely to result in a significantly reduced fish production this year, officials and fishermen said yesterday.
Pich Dun, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Committee, said the rains this wet season had done little to raise water levels in the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap lake.
“We are concerned about this. The water level is still low, and water cannot flow into the Tonle Sap floodplains,” Mr Dun said, explaining that the seasonally flooded forests around the lake—an important fish habitat and spawning ground—remained dry.
“The fish catch will be much lower than last year,” he said. “The impact will be…when the fishing seasons starts in December and January.”
Fishing communities on the Mekong and the Tonle Sap “will suffer much, and the rest of the country as well because people will have difficulty buying fish to make prahok,” Mr Dun said, referring to the fermented fish paste made by many Cambodians during the fishing season. “Food security next year will suffer from a [fish] shortage.”
Nao Thuok, director of the fisheries administration, said on July 15 that if water levels remained low until mid-August this would destroy the fish reproduction cycle at the major fish spawning grounds along the Mekong in Kratie province. Yesterday, however, Mr Thuok declined to comment on how current water levels would impact fish production.
“Let’s wait a little more to see if the water will rise higher,” he said.
Mr Thuok did confirm that low water levels in the Mekong, and consequently in the Tonle Sap, were impeding fish reproduction and migration, explaining that the density of fry drifting south through the Mekong into the lake was much lower than last year.
“Last week, we found in 1 cubic meter of water 15 baby fish, compared to 27 baby fish per cubic meter last year,” he said.
Data from the Mekong River Commission website, which monitors daily water levels in the Mekong, indicated that levels now—almost midway through the rainy season—were among the lowest ever recorded.
Water levels near Kratie town were measured yesterday at about 14.10 meters, about a meter lower than the levels in 1992, which is considered a baseline “dry year” by the MRC. At the port of Phnom Penh, the river was 4.06 meters deep, compared to about 5.4 meters in 1992.
Mekong water levels have been low so far this year. In an e-mail late last month MRC spokesman Damian Kean wrote that the river’s levels were “the lowest recorded water levels since measurements have been taken.”
Environmentalists in the region have blamed the low Mekong water levels on China, which they accuse of hoarding water in its cascade of dams on the Upper Mekong. But the MRC has said a lack of rainfall had caused current water levels.
Kwan Thiya, a former chief at Kbal Taol village located on the shores of the Tonle Sap lake in Battambang province’s Ek Phnom district, said the water near his village was 2 meters lower than last year, adding that local fishermen were worried this year’s fish catch would be much reduced.
“The fish catch will decline because of the low water,” he said.
Mr Thiya said most fish that were now being caught had eggs, which they could not lay because the flooded forests and plains around the lake had so far not been inundated.
Ly Savuth, the owner of a private fishing lot in Pursat province’s Bakan district, said he also expected his fish production to fall sharply this year because of the unusually low water levels in the Tonle Sap.
“I have worked at fishing lots for more than 20 years, but we have never seen such low water levels,” he said.
Um Meng, who lives in a floating village in Kompong Thom province’s Kompong Svay district, said fishermen in his community were already struggling to find a catch due to the lack of flooding.
“Normally in mid-July most of the plains are flooded, but now in August most of these areas are dry,” he said. “Fishermen here catch only two kilos of fish, compared to 10 kilos the same time last year.”