A LACK of political will to push for reform and powerful vested interests are threatening
the future of Cambodian fisheries, according to sources at the Ministry of Agriculture,
Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
Some observers draw a parallel with the problems plaguing the Forestry Department,
and argue that Cambodia's fisheries are being overexploited while government remains
unable to collect revenue or regulate the sector.
Much of Cambodia's fresh water fish catch is illegally exported to Thailand and Vietnam,
where the fish is then packaged for re-export to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore,
Hong Kong and China.
Though fishery officials and foreign experts were unable to provide an exact figure,
they agreed that "a large percentage" of the catch is smuggled out of the
"The export market is not at all under control," says one source at the
Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
The Ministry of Finance agrees.
"Smuggling is a big problem," says Minister of Finance Keat Chhon.
"There is a complete need for restructuring the Fisheries Department, to ensure
the [future] existence of our fisheries, " said Touch Seang Tana, a fishery
advisor with the Project for Management of Freshwater Capture Fisheries of Cambodia.
"The fishery production from large and medium scale commercial fisheries is
at least double of what was thought before," says Nicolaas Van Zalinge, a fishery
biologist and the Mekong River Commission's (MRC) chief technical advisor to the
"If anything, these are conservative estimates," says Van Zalinge, explaining
that MRC's figures do not include catches from the thousands of small fishermen who
operate - unlicensed - throughout the country.
Late last year the project presented the Department of Fisheries (DOF) with a preliminary
report of its findings, announcing "higher than ever previously estimated"
catches, totaling between 90,000 and 120,000 tons per year.
Sponsored by the MRC through a grant from the Danish aid agency DANIDA, the project
was set up three years ago to establish a reliable data-collection system of local
fish production and freshwater fish stocks.
Experts and officials agree that the data is vital in ensuring the proper management
of Cambodian fisheries.
"We need to find out what is the situation of the fish stock, and, on the basis
of that, take appropriate measures and adjust the laws accordingly," says van
Zalinge, explaining that the ultimate objective of the project is helping the DOF
improve the way in which it manages the fisheries.
More importantly, the government uses these estimates to set the minimum bids for
fishing lot licenses, which are auctioned off every two years.
Unexpectedly, when the MRC presented the data on fish catches, the DOF balked, refusing
to recognize the validity of the results.
"First the Fisheries department appeal for international aid to find out how
much fish is caught, but when the results come out they say they agree with the scientific
methodology but they don't agree with the data," says Touch Seang Tana.
The director of DOF could not be contacted for comments by Post press time.
Following the DOF's refusal to accept the scientific results of the MRC's study,
some cried foul play, alleging that the department's position aims at protecting
the interests of big fisheries' operators.
MRC and MAFF officials downplay the dispute, attributing the discrepancies to different
methods of data-collection.
Until now, the DOF has followed a census approach, which entails collecting catch-data
from each fisherman and each gear- a mammoth task, not feasible or reliable, according
to the MRC.
MRC officials also agree that accepting the new data is a question of gradual adjustment
on the part of the DOF.
"If you are suddenly faced with a group that says that your catches are much
higher, I think it takes a little bit of time to adjust; it's not easy to swallow,"
says van Zalinge.
Despite the conciliatory tone, MRC experts defend their estimates. They say that
although their findings are preliminary and are based on data compiled in the Tonle
Sap Great Lake and River inundation zone - an area where 80% percent of freshwater
commercial fishing production is located - these figures are the most reliable data
on catches compiled to date by the DOF.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries maintain it stands fully behind
the MRC's finding.
"I support the MRC wholeheartedly," says May Sam Oeun, the undersecretary
of state of MAFF responsible for Fisheries and a US-trained fishery expert.
"I recommended to the Department of Fisheries that we cannot simply say 'no'
to the MRC numbers," says May Sam Oeun, acknowledging the current stand-off
between MRC and the top management at the DOF.
While stopping short of addressing the allegation of official collusion with business
interests, May Sam Oeun admits that the stakes are high. "This is big money
business, " he says.
Setting up a medium-scale commercial fishing operation can cost up to $200,000 in
equipment alone, according to informed sources.
In addition, some of the lots are quite expensive, with licenses acquired for more
than $100,000 for a two-year concession.
"The industry has large financial backing from private investors," says
May Sam Oeun.
The system of fishing lots is not new to Cambodia. It was first established in 1872
and has changed little since, experts agree.
Once every two years, the lots are offered through competitive bidding in auctions
administered by the DOF together with the governor of each province.
Routinely, officials at provincial fisheries departments complain of wide-spread
"To be able to monitor the auction process effectively, all private fishing
operations should be forced to register in an association or with the Ministry of
Commerce," warns Touch Seang Tana.
He argues that the present lack of regulation facilitates irregularities in the sector.
While a 1950s Fisheries Law is in effect, officials at the MAFF and at the DOF maintain
it is somewhat obsolete.
According to the ministry, a proposal was sent to Food and Agriculture Organization
in 1993, requesting technical and financial assistance to revise the legislation.
To date, funding has not materialized. Some say because the proposal was not given
priority at the highest levels of the DOF.
But the ministry rejects the allegation, saying that it needs to collect more data
prior to tackling a revision of the legislation.
"I need some data to support 200 and plus articles of the law," says May
Sam Oeun, explaining that the Fisheries Law deals not only with fish stock, but environment,
ecology and industrial processing.
Privately, however, insider sources maintain that MAFF does not fully control the
DOF-especially when it comes to collecting revenues.
In 1996, the Ministry of Fisheries reported $4.5 million in revenues from the auction
of fishing lots in several provinces, according to May Sam Oeun.
"Last year the price of bidding increased between 20 and 64 percent, compared
to the previous year," says May Sam Oeun.
But despite this increase, the Ministry of Finance is not satisfied. "The government
is not receiving what it should from granting fisheries' concessions," says
At present, one must give a 40 percent deposit up front to enter a bid. But according
to ministry officials, operators who are awarded a concession often fail to settle
the balance, disappearing with the catch or claiming spurious financial losses.
Last year, the DOF received several complaints from operators seeking compensation
from the government on the basis that their fishing efforts had been hampered by
alleged security problems.
According to May Sam Oeun, a proposal was sent from the MAFF to the Ministry of Finance
(MOF), requesting a tax cut to compensate certain operators for their alleged losses.
According to DOF sources, the MOF rejected the proposal, but still failed to receive
part of the revenues from the MAFF.
"The government needs to set up proper rules and monitoring mechanisms,"
says Touch Seang Tana. "These revenues should go to the national budget."
According to the MRC, today there are approximately 280 licensed lots in Cambodia-a
number slightly lower than the 300 reportedly operating in the 1960s.
Since the 1993 election, the government has privatized most of its fishing lots.
"There are only three state-owned lots left," says May Sam Oeun.
According to the MOF and the MAFF, the government is planning to privatize all remaining
state-owned fishing operations in the near future.
But May Sam Oeun argues that the government should retain one of the lots for research
"We know so little about our fish stock, its feeding and reproductive habits...
why give it all up to commercial exploitation," says May Sam Oeun, adding that
he is lobbying the government to establish a Research Institute with MRC's help.
Among the fishing enterprises the government wants to privatize is a large exporting
"Kamfimex continues to export, but the Ministry of Finance doesn't know how
much," says one informed source.
The MRC has also a keen interest in determining how much fish is exported.
"Export market needs to be controlled by the government because it may compete
with the local consumption," says Touch Seang Tana.
"At present, there is no clear record on exports," he says, adding that
the MRC hopes to be able to send officials to border checkpoints to monitor all fish
"We want to know what's happening to the fish, how it's being processed, what
is the marketing, what are the channels - because in the end this project will have
to advise on management of the fisheries," says van Zalinge.
At present, Cambodian authorities charge a 10% tax at the border for unprocessed
fish. But, the government says it is trying to raise the value of its fisheries'
exports by opening up fish processing plants inside the country.
"The ministry is trying to attract foreign investors to this area," says
May Sam Oeun.
However, experts argue that foreign investment in this sector is unlikely, as most
commercially viable species have dramatically decreased in numbers due to the overexploitation
of the last decade.
"From 1979 to 1989, between 5,000 and 10,000 tons of fish per year was exported
to Vietnam," says Touch Seang Tana.
Having collected catches information by species, the MRC is now able to compare its
findings with data collected in the 1960s as far back as the 1930s and 40s.
"We've seen major changes with certain species of big fish completely gone or
caught in much smaller quantities," says van Zalinge.
"By increasing the number of fisheries, big fish tend to decrease quickly because
it spawns later in life, and many don't get a chance to reproduce before being caught,"
van Zalinge explains.
Despite the decline in large species-with catches at half of the 1960s levels-smaller
species are still in abundance.
MRC warns, however, that any intensification in production may lead to a dramatic
decrease in many species, possibly depleting stocks to a level that could threaten
food security in the country.
"In Cambodia, still everybody can eat fish-an essential ingredient in the diet
of most Cambodians," says van Zalinge, but pressure from population growth,
unregulated exports and commercial over-exploitation may, in the long-run, strain
stocks and drive prices up.
Experts agree that although catch levels may be stable in time, the fish stock may
still be at risk.
"Fish production may remain the same over the years, while the actual size of
the fish will decrease, ultimately leading to an intensification of fishing to meet
the demand," says Touch Seang Tana.
In this respect, large commercial fishing operations are not the only concern of
MRC. Small, family-run fisheries also pose a threat to sustainable development.
"It is our impression that the number of fishermen, especially of family-fisheries,
has increased tremendously since the 1960s," says van Zalinge.
"Fishing gears are cheap to make, and people who have no work tend to drift
into fisheries," he explains, saying that people traditionally have had "open
access" to the lake.
Among these small-scale operators, illegal fishing is a growing problem.
"Dynamite fishing, mostly in Stung Treng and Battambang, is widely practiced
by soldiers, " says van Zalinge.
Another popular but harmful method - electro-fishing - is widely used in wetland
"This method kills a lot of fish, but a great deal sink to the bottom before
the fishermen can collect it," says van Zalinge , explaining that the practice
is now spreading to the Great Lake.
MRC officials, however, admit that they have little factual information on illegal
"In Kandal, Prey Veng, Takeo and Kompong Cham, illegal fishermen enjoy protection
of police and sometimes officials from Fisheries Department itself," says Touch
Seang Tana. "It is very difficult to collect information on these fishermen-for
obvious reasons," adds van Zalinge.