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Fishing communities in peril

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Tha Vichhay, 20, prepares his fishing net for a day's work in Tuol Krosang village, Sa'ang district, Kandal province last week.

Global economic crisis has brought disaster to some Cambodian fishermen as high operating costs and rising debt eat into already meagre profits, experts say.

FISHING communities around the country have been disproportionately affected by the global economic crisis - saddled with debt as operation costs rise and fish yields decline, officials at a workshop on Cambodian fisheries said Tuesday.

The workshop, titled "The Global Economic Downturn and the Food Security for Fishermen in Cambodia", was hosted by the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), an environmental group, and featured representatives from the government and fishing communities.

Though the economic crisis has affected sectors across the economy, fishermen have been especially vulnerable, said Mak Sithirith, executive director of FACT.

Low yields in the past few years have reduced revenue for fishermen across the country, and rising costs of equipment and fuel - driven by external factors - have cut into their profit margins.

"Fishing communities are currently falling deeper into poverty, while the prices of rice, oil and other commodities remain quite high," Mak Sithirith said, adding that the rising price of fish at the market did little to offset these expenses.

In a survey of 1,000 fishermen conducted by the Cambodia Economic Association over the last few months, 90 percent reported debt of some kind, typically to help pay for business expenses, said the association's president, Chan Sophal.

Um Meng, 66, chief of the Patsanday fishing community in Kampong Thom province, confirmed that he and many others in his community had taken on large loads of debt as fish yields declined in the past few years - debt that is compounded with each financial setback.

"We don't have the money to pay [lenders] back, so our debts are now increasing," he said.

Chan Sophal called on the government to provide land grants to some fishermen and support the transition from an overcrowded industry.

Fisherman Um Meng said that some in his province had attempted to take this transition into their own hands, but had been arrested for illegally clearing forested areas.

Sam Nov, deputy director general of the Fisheries Department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, urged fishermen to get more of their catch from private ponds in order to increase fish yields in larger bodies of water.

He acknowledged that many fishermen have resorted to illegal activities, such as clearing forests and wetlands or fishing out of season, to supplement their meagre earnings, but said these activities are "not a good solution" and that they are "devastating fishery resources".

Many fishermen, however, say they feel that they have no choice other than to engage in such activities.

Others, like Kin Sok, 49, the chief of Vatanak village in Kratie province, told the Post outside the workshop that although he and his fellow villagers refrain from illegal fishing themselves, they fear that their resources may nonetheless be in jeopardy from others.

"We do not catch fish during the spawning season because we're afraid they won't be able to breed, but when the fish move downstream, other fishermen who live along the Mekong River catch them using illegal fishing nets and tools," he said.

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