At least 100 fishery-related conflicts have erupted in the last year, and government officials are blaming weak law enforcement and poor management of a highly centralized fishing industry on escalating violence in Cambodia’s lucrative fishing lots.
“Fishing disputes [are] one of the hottest issues right now,” said an NGO Forum representative Wednesday. “The government needs to pay more attention.”
Four local fishermen and three Cambodian fisheries officials have been killed in fisheries-related disputes so far this year.
In one incident last year, about 200 locals in Ek Phnom district in Battambang province ripped down a Fisheries Department office to protest the arrest of four local villagers accused of using illegal equipment in their fishing lot.
Unregulated growth of fishing lots, centralized fishing policies and a surge in local populations have contributed to the increase in confrontations, officials said.
“The fisheries law is very outdated and unsuited to current society,” said Touch Seang Tana, a specialist at the Fisheries Department. “Demarcation of fishing lot boundaries is still being conducted by private individuals.”
Fishing lot boundaries are managed by the Ministry of Agriculture in Phnom Penh. Touch Seang Tana said ministry officials need to clearly demarcate fishing lots and turn control over to provincial authorities, leaving inspection duties up to commune and district officials who are more familiar with local fisheries.
In recent years, the growing climate of peace has allowed government officials to reclaim and widen their areas of control in the region around Tonle Sap Lake. But many of those same areas have been used by locals since the Khmer Rouge presence there restricted government authorities from establishing adequate control.
Fisheries Department Director Ly Kim Han, who is responsible for managing fishing lots, acknowledged that local fishery owners who expand their lots are contributing to the problem, but that fishermen should still respect legal fishing lot borders.
“The lot owners banning locals from entering the fishing lots is the right act,” said Ly Kim Han. “Some locals have illegally made their business out of fishing these lots.”
He said the Fisheries Department has been trying to resolve fishing related disputes, and has allocated fishing grounds for local use to prevent further disputes from occurring.
Local villagers, particularly in fishing areas on Tonle Sap lake, have complained that lot boundaries often cut off any access to the water for fishermen.
And unregulated subdividing of lots by their owners has added more confusion to questions of ownership and fishing rights on waters that can produce thousands of dollars worth of fish each month. A large portion of these catches are exported, though fishing remains the most important means of supplementing the Cambodia diet.