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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Grenade fishing endangers 'Irrawaddy Dolphins'

Grenade fishing endangers 'Irrawaddy Dolphins'

G ood relations between Laos and Cambodia may be undermined by the continuing use

of explosives by Cambodian fishermen on the Mekong river.

Along with

depleting fish stocks, there is the making of a major environmental controversy

as the grenades and mines are also killing the rare Irrawaddy


The practice is proving disastrous for the livelihood of fishing

communities on the Lao side of the border. It is illegal in both countries but

the laws, strictly enforced in Laos, are ignored in Cambodia.


observers think it has the potential to become a serious bilateral problem and

the issue is thought to have been discussed when Lao Prime Minister Khamtay

Siphondone visited Cambodia last November.

The only remaining dolphins in

Indochina live primarily in the Mekong between Stung Treng province and

Champassak province in Laos.

Although a concern of local Lao communities

for many years dolphins have only recently received regional


As one NGO worker worker in Vientiane put it: "The Irrawaddy

dolphin is an 'indicator species', they are a good measure of the health of the

water ways that they inhabit.

"The fact that they face possible

extinction, says something about the state of the Mekong and its tributaries,

and that is a problem that will affect millions of people throughout the


The problem was acknowledged last April by the Lao

government press. A front-page article in the newspaper Pasason Van Arthit said

dolphins were "not as they should be because the Cambodians are throwing bombs

into the river and selling the fish that they catch."

Thousands of kilos

of fish had been caught this way.

Reliable NGO sources in Laos said local

people had confirmed fish stocks going down 20 percent over the last 3-4 years

and in some areas as much as 50 percent.

Lao fisherfolk place their

survival on fish from the Mekong and its tributaries but their traditional

fishing methods are losing out to a more forceful Cambodian


Explosives are readily available under the counter in markets

throughout Stung Treng province, in northeast Cambodia.

The preference

is for dynamite and grenades, although salvaged mines placed inside soft drink

cans are often used.

In a report on the Mekong released last year one

Lao fishermen said: "If this dynamite fishing continues, then I will have to dig

ponds and breed fish.

"There is still enough fish for everybody in the

river, but for every one we catch, the Cambodians catch over 500."


Mekong Currency devoted several chapters to the impact of explosives fishing on

the river between Laos and Cambodia.

The report was compiled by the

Bangkok-based, Project For Ecological Recovery and discussed the state of the

Mekong in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

In addition to declining

catches, the report said local Lao people are also against explosive fishing

because of its detrimental effects on the river's dolphin


Although sightings of the Irrawaddy dolphin in the Mekong and

its tributaries in Vietnam and Cambodia go back to the fifties, its existence

was only verified by foreign organizations in 1991.

Several studies of

the dolphin in Indochina were disrupted by war, which for a long time rendered

the entire area off-limits to research.

Another NGO, Earth Island

Institute (EII), is also concerned about dolphins and the general impact of

explosive fishing.

In a letter to the Phnom Penh Post last August EII's

regional director requested the personal intervention of King Sihanouk. Ian

Baird said explosives fishing had been used increasingly over the past ten


"Between January and May 1993, I personally heard 10-20 'bombs'

going off a day in the Mekong river along the border," said Baird in his


"I have also seen the 'bombing' with my own eyes on numerous

occasions. It indiscriminately kills both juveniles and mature fish, and only a

small proportion of the fish that die can be retrieved when this wasteful method

is used."

Sometimes the victims can be the "bombers" themselves-often

young children specially recruited for the task.

Baird's claims about the

prevalence of explosives fishing matched those already made by UNTAC naval

patrols in Stung Treng.

In Laos, several tourists and other foreigners,

who visited the most southern area of Champassak near the Cambodian border over

the last year, said the same thing.

The history of explosives fishing

dates back to the Vietnam war, according to the Project for Ecological


As both Lao and Cambodian fishing people ran out of nets they

took advantage of the abundance of military hardware.

The practice

stopped in 1975 only to be reintroduced after the Vietnamese invasion in 1978.

Some NGO officials believe the situation worsened after the signing of

the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 which freed up large amounts of military


King Sihanouk has spoken out about the problem and issued a

directive last August to the provisional overnment saying this fishing method

should be stopped.

He asked the government "to take concrete measures to

stop fishermen from using explosives in the Mekong river in Stung Treng


But any such measures would be difficult to enforce. Stung

Treng is one of the most isolated and least populated provinces in Cambodia, and

the presence of large number of bandits, Khmer Rouge forces, and land mines

makes it one of the most dangerous.

More seriously, Lao communities have

reported that those doing explosives fishing are Khmer police and military


Unpublished EII reports have claimed that in the past

soldiers from the Cambodian People's Armed Forces had promoted explosives

fishing and sold explosives to those who wanted to do it.

Some also

suspect that the provincial government in Stung Treng is loathe to crack down on

the activity because of the taxes they make on large fish


Efforts by the provincial government in Champassak to solve the

problem have been unsuccessful.

Sources in Vientiane claim Laos is now

seeking a bilateral diplomatic solution but are concerned not to let it damage

wider Lao-Khmer relations, especially Cambodia's offer to give its land-locked

neighbor access to the sea.

In the meantime, the problem joins the

growing list of threats to the Mekong's fragile ecology, including increasing

pollution, tourist development and dam construction.



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