Dwindling Fish Stocks Threaten Food Security

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KIEN SVAY, Kandal Province, Apr 17 (IPS) – Soldier-turned-fisherman Im Vandang is not sure why there are fewer fish in the Mekong river but he is certain that the situation is getting serious.

“I have been fishing in this stretch of the Mekong for ten years,” said Vandang, squatting in his thatched house 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.”

Vandang’s concerns are part of a bigger debate about the state of Cambodia’s fisheries.

It is a vital food security issue given that fish account for 75 percent of the protein consumed in Cambodia — 90 percent in fishing communities — as well as providing livelihood for over a million of people.

So concerned is the Cambodian government that it is considering the introduction of stringent fishing controls, a move that some believe would only further disadvantage the poor.

The road from 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 Khmer New Year in mid-April.

“I am 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 catches. 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.

“This is not the first time that people have talked about declines in fish catches, people were already talking about this as early as 1995,” said Nao Thuok, director general of fisheries 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 added that 12,500 tonnes was the average before 2006 and that it was 2007 that was an unusual year. “There is some decrease in big fish but the total amount, especially small fish, is not declining.’

Mak Sithirith, executive director of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team, an organisation working with local communities on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, disagrees.

He is critical of the accuracy of the government’s figures, which he said only examined the catch from commercial fishing lots. “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 is five or less.”

“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 is 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.”

Experts agree government figures may not be accurate. The Mekong River Commission has only recently started a small-scale effort to monitor catches 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 catches in the Tonle Sap area are 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 catches.”

Vandang heads one of 40 fishing families in his village and the number is declining. “There are fewer families here. Many have sold their land and left the village because there are no fish.”

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 only by examining the situation in Cambodia.

Research conducted by Baird 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 up river 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,” Baird added.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a major new report by over 400 scientists, launched on Tuesday, referred to increasing conflicts and anxieties over the sharing of natural resources in the East and South Asia and Pacific (ESAP) region.

According to the IAASTD report such anxieties and conflicts were ”evident in disputes about fishing rights and water sharing” in the ESAP region where there was a ”need to develop regional co-operation and conflict resolution systems”.

The experts all agree on one thing: the nature of the catch along the Mekong is changing.

Larger species such as cat fish 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 west 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 is prompting the Cambodian government to consider introducing 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 years’ spawning. 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 overfishing. They can protect the resource better than people in Phnom Penh.”

“They know what is going on, if people come in with fishing illegal gear they will stop them. If they have no power then they will not care what happens in their area.”

Sithirth is also adamant that tighter controls will also not address the key governance issues that are driving reductions 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 you have to get your money back and the only way to do this is to maximise the exploitation of fisheries resources.”

Although 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 some fishers who have paid off local fisheries officials.

In addition to overfishing, experts believe that rising pollution levels and increased clearing of flooded forest are also having a negative impact on 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. They cannot migrate if their life cycles are disrupted and there is no replenishment of stock.”

Approximately 87 percent of known dominant fish species in the Mekong migrate.

Are governments taking the issue seriously enough? “The major importance of fisheries in the basin is not reflected in national policies, in particular those dealing with infrastructure development,” said Baran.