With the annual fishing season having recently begun, fisheries officials are already warning that the overall catch will be lower than the 2006-2007 season, based on low water levels and a lack of sufficient flooding during the rainy season.
According to the government’s Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute, or InFREDI, the rise in the water level, which usually begins in June, came roughly 40 days late, and as a result adversely affected the breeding of baby fish—something which indicates a lower overall catch.
“There must be less fish to be caught this year because the Mekong water level is lower than last year,” Fisheries Administration Director Nao Thuok said.
“The flood came one month late, so it affects the growth and reproduction of the fish.”
Nao Thuok said that this year 17 baby fish were counted per cubic meter swimming downstream in the Mekong River on their way to the Tonle Sap lake several months ago—as compared to between 22 and 29 per cubic meter that were recorded last year.
Cambodia’s inland fish catch is exceptional by global standards. In terms of magnitude, it follows only China, India and Bangladesh—each of which is far more populous—making Cambodia the most intensive-catch-per-person freshwater fishery in the world.
This figure says nothing of its importance within Cambodia. In addition to providing 12 percent of national GDP and livelihoods for millions, the Cambodian fish catch represents three times the country’s pig production and 20 times the chicken production.
Last year, the nation’s 63 dai fisheries along the Tonle Sap caught their highest volume in a decade, but Nao Thuok said to expect far less this season.
“If the water level would rise to more than 9.95 meters, there would be enough flooding for the Tonle Sap river,” Nao Thuok said.
The peak water level at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers measured just 9.65 meters, down from 9.85 last year.
Eric Baran, a WorldFish center research scientist, said Wednesday that it is too early to make an accurate assessment of the expected catch for this season.
He said experts will be in a better position to make estimates at the end of January, which is the traditional peak of fishing season and the most important month for the catch.
“December is only the beginning,” he said, adding that there will be a big fish migration at the very end of the month prior to the full moon in early January.
“At the moment, it is normal that fisheries are not active,” he said. “The moon is not ready, and the fish follow the moon.”
Heng Mono, chief for Phat Sanday commune in Kompong Thom province, said that the level of fish has been on the decline over the past several years, making it difficult for fishermen to eke out a living.
“The water level is one meter lower than last year in the [Tonle Sap lake], so there is not an abundance of fish as before,” he said.
According to the WorldFish center, however, the fish catch fluctuates from year to year based on numerous environmental and social factors. In recent years, the Tonle Sap’s ecosystem has been shifting, and some fish populations have replaced others. Essentially, there are more small fish, like trey riel, and far fewer of the larger species.
So far, the species that have been able to survive have been plentiful enough to replenish the fish supply, but Baran said he couldn’t be sure whether that would still be the case in five years’ time.
While the timing of floods has varied in the past, a top official at InFREDI said Wednesday that the main concern now is the increasing abundance of dams in places like Laos and China that are altering and blocking waterflow.