The fish population in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake has declined significantly from a year ago, fishermen in the country’s Kampong Chhnang province said Friday, citing the construction of dams in the area and climate change, among other factors.
Shortages have led to an increased price for fish in the region, making it harder for residents to put food on the table or make prahok, the fermented fish paste that is a staple of the Cambodian diet, according to Sim Sopanha, a member of the provincial Fishing Network nongovernmental organization.
“Villagers can barely catch any fish,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that although fishermen have made a collective effort to only use sustainable methods, such as rods and legal nets, to ply Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, the population has still declined.
“The fish have been affected by hydroelectric dam construction and climate change, causing their numbers to drop,” he said.
The Tonle Sap, a combined lake and river system that swells in the rainy season, has supported fishing communities living in floating villages of moored houseboats for generations. Many villagers depend on fishing for subsistence and their livelihoods.
Sim Sopanha did not provide details about which dams were responsible for the decrease in fish or specify how climate change had affected the population.
But he said he disagreed with the provincial Fishery Department’s assessment that an increase in fishermen working the Tonle Sap had led to the decline.
“A report from the Fishery Department says there are too many fishermen [on the lake],” he said.
“However, the children of many fishermen have immigrated for work [overseas], so I am confident the fish numbers are declining [due to other reasons].”
Other fishermen on the Tonle Sap told RFA that illegal catching methods, flooding and increased immigration of ethnic Vietnamese to the region had contributed to the fall in the lake’s fish population.
They also said new settlers to the area had been cultivating flooded forests that traditionally have served as fish spawning grounds.
In order to meet market demand, fishermen said they have been forced to raise fish in ponds with feed enhanced with chemical preservatives and supplements.
Som Phirun, an official with the Kampong Chhnang Fishery Department, said “several factors had affected the fish” in the Tonle Sap this year—most notably lower water levels that have killed eggs in connected rivers where they spawn.
He said scientific studies would need to be carried out so that authorities could put mitigation efforts in place.
Last year, fishermen collected around 40,000 tons of fish on the Tonle Sap, an increase of 10,000 tons over the amount in 2013. Figures for 2015 to date were not immediately available.
In June, a nongovernmental worker told RFA that corrupt local officials who patrol the area around the Tonle Sap are encouraging illegal fishing in the lake, despite a 2006 law that prohibits it, and benefiting from bribes to look the other way.
A villager from Kampong Chhnang also told RFA that local police officers targeted villagers’ legal fishing nets and destroyed them, but left illegal nets untouched.
According to the 2006 law, those who fish illegally in Cambodia may be subject to one to three years in prison and a fine between of 5 million-50 million riel (U.S. $1,224-$12,240).
The government withdrew all licenses for large-scale fishing lots in the Tonle Sap in February 2012 after concerns arose that the lake was being overfished, according to an article in The Cambodia Daily.
Nonetheless, officials have been known to accept bribes in the Tonle Sap Lake area in return for allowing illegal fishing in part of the Tonle Sap where commercial fishing is banned.
In February, a Cambodian journalist was beaten to death by a group of fishermen in Kampong Chhnang province’s Cholkiri district for a series of articles he had written exposing illegal fishing.
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