Illegal fishing and demand for catfish in Vietnam are drastically reducing the population of Mekong catfish in Cambodia, according to fisheries officials who say overfishing has been so severe there may soon be no catfish in the rivers.
“It’s a quite alarming rate,” said Touch Seang Tana, a consultant to the department of fisheries who has studied the life cycle of the Mekong catfish, or Pra catfish, for more than 20 years.
Mekong catfish have been a staple of the Cambodian fishing industry for years, accounting for 30 percent of fish production in the 1940s and 1950s.
During that period, Touch Seang Tana said, Cambodia exported about 50,000 tons of processed Pra fish to regional markets in Indonesia, Singapore, China and Hong Kong.
Since then, the catfish population has plummeted. Today, catfish account for only three percent of fishermen’s catches.
The fish are also smaller. While Pra of 10 kg and more were common years ago, today they are mostly 1 and 2 kg.
Each year, Touch Seang Tana said, tens of millions of Pra catfish juveniles, or fry, are caught and smuggled live to Vietnam where they are raised to maturity in ponds.
The fish fetch high prices in international markets, especially in Australia. Vietnam raises 20,000 tons of Pra each year for export, Touch Seang Tana said.
Adult Pra catfish are also under pressure from Cambodian fishermen using illegal traps. As the fish migrate upstream toward their spawning ground in Kratie province, many are caught in traps.
Sam Nuov, deputy director of the fisheries department, said his department is searching for ways to conserve the species.
“These Mekong catfish species are becoming extinct,” he said. “We have to stop illegal smuggling and manage the fishery better.”
Sam Nuov said that he will raise the catfish problem at the Mekong River Commission fisheries meeting in Laos later this month.
He said he will be asking for stronger Vietnamese cooperation to stop the smuggling of catfish fry from Cambodia. “If Vietnam cooperates with us there will be stability of catfish species available for us and the whole Mekong basin,” he said.
As catfish populations decreases in the wild, more are being raised in aquaculture ponds in Cambodia.
Sam Nuov said 3,000 tons of the species are being raised in Cambodian aquaculture projects today, but he added that the amount is too low to supply domestic demands.
Chan Tary, a fisherman on the Tonle Sap river, wants the government to do more to conserve the catfish. During the 1980s, he said, there were plenty of the Pra catfish for everyone.
But today, he said, there are less and less, and he isn’t interested in pond-raised catfish.
“The Pra fish from the wild is much better and tastier than those from the pond environment,” Chan Tary. “I want to eat wild fish.”