Tonle Sap Fishing Communities Cast Doubt Over Crackdown

Fishing communities living around the Tonle Sap hailed a pledged crackdown on illegal fishing in the provinces surrounding the lake, but cautioned that the efforts launched last week will fail if they are piecemeal or carried out without sustained surveillance.

Minh Bunly, the Tonle Sap coordinator for the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, said the use of illegal fishing gear had been on the rise in the past few years due to weak law enforcement and the lake’s sprawling public fishing grounds.

“To me, when local authorities are empowered and the crackdown is conducted indiscriminately, it could be effective,” Mr. Bunly said on Wednesday.

Huth Han, a representative of fishermen in Battambang province, said that pairs of trawlers dragging nets equipped with lamps illuminating the water below was a common sight in Ek Phnom district’s Koh Chivaing commune.

“I don’t believe that this crackdown will be effective because I have seen these crimes for years and they are well-protected,” Mr. Han said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, in a directive dated December 13, appointed Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon to mobilize authorities to patrol the sprawling lake, which environmentalists for years have warned is being overfished—often for cash and subsistence—to the point of irreversible destruction.

The government created a working group led by Neth Savoeun, the National Police commissioner, equipped with speedboats and helicopters to patrol the lake.

If that wasn’t enough, Interior Minister Sar Kheng issued a warning last week to the governors of the provinces around the Tonle Sap: Stop illegal fishing or lose your jobs.

Mr. Sakhon, the agriculture minister, said that tough measures were being taken to stamp out fishing crimes.

“Our working groups are cracking down every day. We have assigned military police, National Police and provincial police to investigate and find out who the masterminds are. We have to be tough and make arrests,” he said.

“We are preparing military police and police forces. In case of a big case, we will dispatch speedboats and crack down on it at night,” Mr. Sakhon said.

Work to curb illegal fishing was already happening, he noted.

Last year, officials confiscated 1.4 million meters of small mesh seine, more than 20,000 meters of sbai mong (fine nets), 14,000 meters of plaited bamboo sheets, 389 batteries used to send electric currents into the water, and 153 sets of encircling nets with illuminated lamps, according to Mr. Sakhon. Some 170 cases of fishing crimes were sent to the provincial courts, 143 suspects were arrested, 101 were imprisoned and 163 were fined, he added.

A new committee convened a meeting on Tuesday at the Agriculture Ministry in Phnom Penh, again committing to ensuring that the crackdown was comprehensive. But its effectiveness remains to be seen.

Om Chhim, deputy chief of the Kompong Phluk community fishery in Siem Reap province’s Prasat Bakorng district, said on Wednesday that the operation could not be effective until it was relentless. He said that fishing crimes, such as use of mesh nets and trawlers, were continuing.

“I think that this time the crackdown could be effective because the governors are warned of dismissal,” he said “It can be effective if all institutions are committed.”

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