By Andrew Nette
KANDAL, Cambodia, Apr 9 (IPS) - Im Vandang, a former solider turned fisherman, is not sure why there are less fish in the Mekong River, but he knows the situation is getting serious.
“I have been fishing this stretch of the Mekong for ten years,” said Vandang, squatting in his thatched house in Kearn Svey district here in Kandal province, east of the Cambodia’s capital. “For the last few years, the number of fish in the river has definitely been going down.
“I used to catch a lot. Now I am lucky to catch three kilos a day. I have just come back from a morning’s fishing and caught nothing,” he rues.
Vandang’s concerns are part of a bigger debate about Cambodia’s fisheries.
It is a vital food security issue given that fish account for 75 percent of protein consumed in Cambodia, and 90 percent of protein in fishing communities. Fishing is also a key means of livelihood for over a million of people.
So concerned is the Cambodian government that it is debating the introduction of stringent fishing controls, a move that some believe would only further disadvantage the poor.
The road from the capital Phnom Penh to Vandang’s fishing village is filling up with people heading out of the capital, the beginning of a mass exodus as people return to their provinces to celebrate the Khmer New Year in mid-April.
“I’m a fisherman but now I have to buy ‘prahok’ from the market,” he says, referring to the pungent fish paste that is a staple condiment for virtually all Cambodian dishes.
There have been several stories in the Khmer press about the rising price of ‘prahok’ due to declining fish catch. Im Vandang says that the cost of small fish, known as ‘trey riel’, the core ingredient of ‘prahok’, has increased nearly 200 percent in the past 12 months.
WORRIES GO A LONG WAY BACK
“This is not the first time that people have talked about declines in fish catch. People were already talking about this as early as 1995,” said Nao Thuok, director general of Fisheries Administration at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Phnom Penh.
He confirmed that the fish catch declined in 2007 to about 12,500 tonnes, down from 28,000 tonnes in 2006. But he added that 12,500 tonnes was the average before 2006 and that 2007 was an unusual year.
“There is some decrease in big fish but the total amount, especially small fish, is not declining,” he added.
Mak Sithirith, executive director of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), a non-government organisation working with local communities on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap (Great Lake), disagrees. He doubts the government’s figures, which he said only examined the catch from commercial fishing.
“There are 2.1 million people on the Tonle Sap floodplain, most of whom are fishers and many of whom depend totally on fishing for their living. For us, working in the community and looking at the household fishing catch, we can definitely say it is going down, without a doubt.
“Ten years ago they would catch ten kilos of fish a day. Now it’s five or less,” he added.
“It is difficult to rigorously document a decline in overall catches,” said Eric Baran, research scientist with the World Fish Centre in Phnom Penh. “What is clear is that the catch of individual fishers in declining, but this has to be balanced by the fact that there are many more people fishing.”
“Is it true that each individual fisher is catching less? Yes. Is the river less productive than before? We don’t know because there is no monitoring on a basin-wide level,” Baran explained.
Experts agree that government figures may not be accurate. The Vientiane-based Mekong River Commission has only recently started a small-scale effort to monitor catch that will result in some figures in a few years. But this will only provide a micro sample.
“Despite the myth of declining fisheries, fish catch in the Tonle Sap area is greater now than at any other time in the past,” Baran stated in a recent article, based on field research he and another consultant carried out. “However, the increase in population has outstripped the increase in fisheries production resulting in a diminishing catch per fisher. Overall, this trend is set to continue.”
“There are more people engaged in fishing but you have to acknowledge that people are moving out (of fisheries) as well as in,” noted Sithirith. “The flow is going both ways. People are moving out of fishing communities due to declines in catch.”
The number of fishing families in Vandang’s community – he heads one of 40 fishing families here – is declining. “Many have sold their land and left the village because there are no fish,” he added.
Ian Baird, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia in Canada, believes it is not possible to rule out overall declines in fish catch by examining the situation in Cambodia alone.
Fisheries research he has conducted with fishers in the upper Mekong Basin in Laos points to big declines over the last decade.
“The impacts are more serious than people think, but you cannot necessarily see them by focusing only on Cambodia,” said Baird. “You can see them at the tail end of the migration upriver, but no one is measuring or monitoring this.”
“To say that heavy fishing is not having an impact is ignoring everything that local people in the upper basin are saying,” he pointed out.
CHANGES IN FISH CATCH
The experts all agree on one thing: that the nature of the catch is changing.
Larger species such as catfish are being replaced by smaller fish like the ‘trey riel’ that spawn in the Tonle Sap in the wet season, migrating to Laos and Thailand at the end of the wet season.
“Undisputedly the nature of the catch is declining with every year,” said Baran.
“Importantly, big species that live many years are getting replaced by small, short-life species that react instantly to environmental change. “The system is becoming more and more variable and less and less predictable.”
According to Nao Thuok, the situation the Cambodian government is looking tighter controls on fresh water fisheries. “We are thinking of introducing limits on fishing gear because there are too many people fishing, so that fish cannot migrate upstream for the next year’s spawning,” he said.
“We will discuss this internally and ask the Prime Minister for his approval. It will be very difficult to implement, but the only way to keep fisheries sustainable and keep big fish coming back is to limit the catch.”
“This is a typical way of dealing with the problem and it does not work,” countered Sithirith. “What it will result in is fishers having to pay to fish to get around the restrictions, and this will only benefit the wealthy. Community management is the best way to stop over fishing. They can protect the resource better than people in Phnom Penh.”
“They know what is going on. If people come in with illegal fishing gear, they will stop them. If they have no power, then they will not care what happens in their area.”
Sithirith is also adamant that tighter controls will also not address the key governance issues that are driving the reduction in fish captures. These include irregularities in the way that commercial lots are allocated and illegal fishing techniques, including electrocution.
“We know that some of the larger operators bribe local government officials to get a fishing lot. If you have paid a lot of money (to get a lot), you have to get your money back and the only way to do this is to maximise the exploitation of fisheries resources,” he added.
Although Im Vandang and his fellow fishers cannot say exactly what is causing reduced catches on their stretch of the Mekong, they believe it has something to do with illegal fishing techniques employed by those who have paid off local fisheries officials.
DAMS ADD TO WISHING WOES
In addition to overfishing, rising pollution levels and increased clearing of flooded forest are also hurting fisheries. The other major issue is hydropower development on the Mekong mainstream tributaries.
“Dam building will affect the water regime in the Mekong, including the flow in and out of the Tonle Sap,” said Sithirith. “We are worried that there will be less water flowing in and out of the Great Lake, meaning less flooding of forest areas and reduced fisheries numbers.”
“Dams are definitely a major threat to fisheries resources because they block fish migration, reduce water quality and alter flooding patterns,” said Baran. “There is a trade-off between dam construction and hydropower generation and irrigation. The more you gain on one, the more you lose on the other.”
“Fish in the Mekong have a biological cycle. They need to migrate to feed and breed,” he added. They cannot migrate if their life cycles are disrupted and there is no replenishment of stock.”
Some 87 percent of known dominant fish species in the Mekong migrate.
As to whether governments are taking the issue seriously enough, Baran said: “The major importance of fisheries in the basin is not reflected in national policies, in particular those dealing with infrastructure development.” (END/IPSAP/AN/JS/MPR/090408)
(IPS Asia-Pacific is a partner organisation of the Mekong Programme on Water, Environment and Resilience – www.mpowernet.org.)