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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Fisheries law reform caught in troubled waters

Fisheries law reform caught in troubled waters

The prime minister's pledge in 2000 to reform the Kingdom's controversial fishing

lot system has been only moderately successful, a recently released study says. While

corruption and inequality have been curbed, the report claims that illegal fishing

methods and anarchy have taken their place.

"Fisheries officers are leeches that suck the people's blood, and they are the

dogs that guard the fishing concessions," said Hun Sen in an October 24, 2000,

speech in which he apologized to the country for abuses of fisheries officers and

fishing lot owners for illegally appropriating fishing areas.

But Blake D. Ratner, regional director of the Greater Mekong Region of the WorldFish

Center, said in a January statement that the policy shift had accelerated a crisis

in the sector, with open access and very poor law enforcement leading to exploitation

and a surge in illegal fishing.

"[The reforms] are inadequate if not complemented by efforts to improve governance

by establishing appropriate legal authorities and rights, the strengthening of the

accountability of public officials, and the removal of barriers to the economic viability

of community management," Ratner wrote.

Nao Thouk, Director of the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and

Fisheries told the Post on February 7 that there remained some illegal fishing activity,

but it was not widespread.

"I acknowledge that there is illegal fishing, but there has been a crackdown

on large scale operations in the last two years," said Thouk.

According to Thouk, qualified fishing families received 0.7 hectares of fishing area

after the government ordered the release of commercial fishing lots, and that there

were 111,000 families within 440 fishing communities across the country.

"We have received good results from the reform; villagers received direct benefit

from fishing and growing rice," said Thouk.

He added that due to proper management at the local level, and the crackdown on illegal

fishing, the fisheries department predicts that this year, the catch will increase

between 20 and 30 percent.

But conflicts continue between commercial fishing lot owners and families dependent

on public fishing areas for income and sustenance.

"People are still using illegal fishing methods in the upper Tonle Sap, after

a dozen fishing lots were released to the villagers," said El Seng, 54, owner

of fishing lot number 9 in Kampong Chhnang.

He said that some private fishermen continue to catch fish by using electricity and

underwater fishing nets designed to block fish migrations.

"I think that the illegal fishing activities have had a serious impact to the

commercial fishing lots like mine down stream," said Seng. "The barriers

block the fish's migration, and as they are hidden under the water they difficult

to find."

Seng has spent the past ten years of his life as a commercial fisherman, and he pays

an average 100 million riel ($25,000) per year to operate his fishing lot area, measuring

about 350 meters by nine kilometers.

Today there are 164 lots on the lake, covering an area of 852,900 hectares, according

an August 2005 report by Cambodian Inland Fisheries of WorldFish Center. 540,000

hectares - representing 56 percent of the former total area of fresh water fishing

lots nationwide - were released for public access in a series of decrees from 2001.

Thouk said that the commercial fishing lots made at least $2 million each year, and

the value of exported fish was at least $30 to $40 million per year.

But Blake said that while the fishing lot system that governed Cambodia's inland

fisheries for most of the last century was instituted in a time of relative abundance,

these days, fishers complain of declining stocks and increased competition.

Blake's report said that even the Department of Fisheries assessment notes the widespread

perception that corruption is leading to the protection of many of those involved

in illegal and destructive fishing that is threatening the sustainability of fisheries.

Cambodia's Inland Fisheries of the WorldFish Center's publication said that fishing

lot owners were also reported to be refusing to release areas assigned for public

fishing, often with the support of military, and this has lead the conflict between

villagers and fishing lot owners-including government officers and military.

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