This year’s record-low Mekong river water levels will reduce the fish catch in Tonle Sap lake by almost a third this year, severely affecting fishing communities around the lake, senior officials said yesterday.
Only days after the commercial fishing season started on Oct 1, Fisheries Administration Director Nao Thuok warned that this year’s catch would suffer as continuing low water levels in the Mekong have left much of the Tonle Sap fish breeding grounds either dry or only partially flooded.
“There is a definite decline. I think [the fish catch] will decrease by 30 percent” compared to last year, he said. “The fish are less, and people who depend on fishing for a living will definitely have their livelihoods affected.”
Pich Dun, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Committee, warned that the Tonle Sap population would suffer from a loss of income and food this year.
“For more than 80 percent, they depend on fisheries…. We know there will be a severe impact on the people around the Great Lake,” he said, adding, “I hope only 10 to 20 percent [of the population] will be affected.”
“The government should take some measures for this problem, also together with the development partners,” Mr Dun said.
Mekong river water levels have been at a record low throughout the year, with data from the Mekong River Commission website showing water levels near Kratie town yesterday were about 15.4 meters, only slightly above the levels in 1992, the driest year on record. At Phnom Penh Port, the river was 6.7 meters deep, compared to about 6.9 meters in 1992.
Environmental campaigners in the region have blamed the low Mekong levels on China, which they accuse of hoarding water in its cascade of dams on the Upper Mekong. But Mr Dun and the MRC have said scant rainfall in the region caused the low water levels.
Yesterday, however, Mr Dun acknowledged that officials were not sure about how much water China was keeping in its dam reservoirs and how this was affecting Mekong levels. “We don’t know exactly,” he said.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap coordinator for fisheries NGO FACT, said the expected drop in the fish catch would further increase pressure on the 1.8 million fishermen on the lake, as they are barely able to eke out a living on current wild fish stocks.
“Fishermen’s livelihoods will be even harder if there is a decline in fish catch,” he said, adding that about 80 percent of fishermen had taken on debt in order to afford fishing gear and daily food.
Srun Darith, deputy secretary-general of the government’s Council for Agricultural and Rural Development, said that although Cambodia’s fish consumption per capita was “the highest in the world,” he was not yet concerned that the expected decline in fish catch would affect access to food. He said the government’s efforts to increase production from fish farming could buffer any shortfall.
“We don’t rely on inland fisheries alone. Aquaculture keeps increasing,” he said.
According to the government’s Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute, 78 percent of Cambodia’s fish production between 2001 and 2009 came from inland fisheries, most of which were in the Tonle Sap, while aquaculture contributed 9 percent to the total fish production of about 575,000 tons.
Eng Kim Chhour, 57, a fisherman from a floating village in Kompong Thom province’s Kompong Svay district, said yesterday water levels in the lake were more than 1 meter lower than in other years, effectively halving the local catch.
“I think the catch could decrease by about 50 percent,” Mr Kim Chhour said, explaining that with his 300-meter-long fishing net he now caught only 3 kg of fish per day, compared to 10 kg last year.