The Ministry of Agriculture will ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to lift a ban on snakehead fish farms to reduce reliance on foreign food sources and raise the income of farmers, officials said on Thursday.
Newly appointed Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon proposed the plan on Wednesday during a meeting with officials from the ministry’s Siem Reap provincial department.
If approved, the move would reverse a 2004 ban put in place after fishermen complained that river fish populations were being devastated in order to feed the ravenous snakehead. The species are notoriously indiscriminate carnivores; videos online show the species devouring mice, frogs and goldfish.
Ministry spokesman Lor Reaksmey said the fish farms would be required to use commercial fish food, citing comments from Mr. Sakhon.
“We will not allow farmers to catch fish in lakes to feed snakehead fish,” he said on Thursday. “We will produce food for the fish.”
Mr. Reaksmey said that the minister believed lifting the ban would allow for a fresher, domestic source of protein for Cambodians.
“We have to stop the import of fish, meat and low-quality chicken legs because these things destroy the health of our Khmer people,” he said.
Mr. Reaksmey said the minister would write a letter to the prime minister on the topic “soon” and that the ministry hoped to have the ban lifted this year.
“We have to prepare a detailed report because we suspended farming for a long time,” Mr. Reaksmey said, adding that the ministry had been gathering information from its counterparts in Vietnam, where snakehead fish are widely farmed.
Authorities have regularly raided illegal snakehead farms and fined those attempting to transport snakehead fry in the decade since the ban went into effect.
Nao Thouk, secretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry, said fish farmers would be required to use processed fish food to prevent additional strain on natural fish stocks.
“We banned people from farming snakehead fish before because we didn’t have the commercial foods for the fish,” Mr. Thouk said.
Since no domestic companies currently produce suitable fish food, Mr. Thouk said the product would have to be imported from Thailand and Vietnam.
Though Mr. Thouk said that farmers would not be allowed to use native fish stock as feed, he declined to say how the ministry planned to enforce the rule.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap program coordinator for the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), said lifting the snakehead farming ban had the potential to raise the living standard of farmers.
But he was skeptical that farmers would be willing to pay for expensive imported fish food when they could find free feed in the country’s waterways.
“I think that if government allows people to farm snakehead fish, it would affect the fish in natural lakes, especially in the Tonle Sap river,” he predicted.
“People will catch fish in lakes or in the Tonle Sap river to make food for the snakehead fish. If they buy food for their fish farming, they will go out of business,” Mr. Bunly said.