Traditional fishermen bring their catch ashore at a floating village on the Mekong.
Cham fisherman La Ruo, 45, lives with his wife and eight children in a fishing community
on the bank of the Mekong River just north of where the Tonle Bassac diverges. The
fishing community, where the family has resided for seven years, is a sprawl of plank
walkways, narrow beam bridges and ramshackle shanties. Some dwellings sit on stilts
above the water's ebb, others bob on huge styrofoam cubes. Children, dogs and chickens
weave along the skinny boards and clamber over boats, rafts and piles of fishing
gear. Dozens of wooden fishing boats are tethered nearby, awaiting their daily duty.
Rou doesn't speak about such things as "sustainability" or "resource
management." For him, and the millions of other Cambodians dependent on fishing
for sustenance and livelihood, life is more closely tuned to the ancient aquatic
rhythms of the country's waterways.
Each day at 4 am Ruo motors his diesel-powered longboat three hours south on the
Mekong to reach the prime "clean water" fishing areas. He says he makes
between 15,000 and 20,000 riel each day - just enough to get by.
"It is a difficult way to live," Ruo told the Post. "We all help to
catch and clean the fish. When we can't catch fish any longer, we will have to move
In recent weeks, however, the government has approved the first fisheries law in
12 years. The new legislation is designed to preserve and promote the traditional
fishing family's way of life. According to Nao Thuok, director-general of the Department
of Fisheries, approximately four million - or 29 percent - of the country's population
are employed in fishing-related occupations.
As it states in Cambodian Aquarian Reforms by John Kurien, So Nam and Mao Sam On
of the Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute (IFReDI), the country
is undergoing a "transition from fishing lots to community fisheries,"
and the new laws are meant to help.
The Fisheries Law adopted by the National Assembly on March 31 prescribes maximum
penalties of five years jail and a fine of up to 50 million riel ($12,500) for illegal
fishing or for misappropriation or destruction of wet conservation areas and fisheries
The new law covers all saltwater and freshwater fisheries.
Its list of serious crimes includes taking or destroying freshwater flooded forest
and saltwater mangroves, destroying fisheries by constructing dams, or eliminating
lakes, ponds, or rivers, and destroying coral reefs or sea grass, or deepwater spawning
Other offenses are destruction by fire or poison, and fishing by prohibited means,
such as electrocution, bombing or hi-tech methods, or any fishing in conservation
areas or during prohibited periods.
"We have a Fisheries Law now and I think the law is good because it covers all
illegal fishing activity, and all fisheries, and it will help to protect the environment,
fish resources and natural habitat," said Ly Thuch, chairman of the National
Assembly's Commission on Economy, Planning, Investment, Agriculture, Environment,
and Water Resource.
He said that whether enforcement of the law will be effective will depend on the
human resources of the government, such as good governance, which is a government
Thuch said there had been no fisheries law since 1993 and the new law is a positive
step toward conservation of fish and their natural habitat which have been declining.
Commenting on the Fisheries Law, Sin Pinsen, a Funcinpec parliamentarian, said corruption
and lack of law enforcement remained a big challenge and the government will need
to make a real commitment.
Opposition MP Son Chhay said some provisions of the law had given power to a newly
established Fisheries Administration which has a judicial role.
"I think the Fisheries Law still has many holes and it would allow bribery between
[people engaging in] illegal activity and Fisheries Administration officials if there
is no specific provision added to the subdecree that will be issued by the Ministry
of Agriculture," Chhay said.
He said the law defined all lakes and ponds as state assets, yet has no clear provision
to stop a person eliminating them by filling them with soil for personal business.
Chapter 3 of the Fisheries Law states that along with rivers, permanent flood plains
by the Mekong and the sea, such as lakes and ponds, are fishing areas and state assets.
The law says "the boundary of fishing areas must be defined by subdecree and
the use of fishing areas for purposes other than fishing will be decided by the government
and under the request of Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries."
Chan Tong Iv, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries,
told the National Assembly on March 29 that illegal fishing and the misappropriation
of flood forests continue because the ministry does not have speed-boats and other
equipment to fight against fisheries crimes, either in fresh water or salt water.
"We have the law now and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
will try to have effective law enforcement to protect the natural resources of fisheries,"
said Tong Iv. He said the Ministry was discussing the equipment issue with Keat Chhon,
Minister of Economy and Finance.
Tong Iv agreed with a parliamentarian that Thai and Vietnamese fishing boats were
poaching fish in Cambodian waters.
He said between 100 and 150 Thai fishing boats were registered with Cambodian local
fisheries officials to catch saltwater fish each year but very few fishing boats
from Vietnam were registered.
Chhay said the government "must urge fisheries officials to be more responsible
in their areas of work to stop all kinds of illegal activities."
He also criticized the new Fisheries Law for continuing to require licenses for the
transport of fish from one province to another for commercial purposes.
"I think the 1993 Constitution committed Cambodia to a free-market economy,
so there should be no transport restrictions on local business," Chhay said.
But Thuch said there was no requirement for a license to transport less than 200
kg of fish, so the restriction would not affect household businesses.
Chhon said the law had taken a very long time to draft because the government needed
to take into consideration many recommendations from the stakeholders.
"The government has been drafting the fisheries law since 1999, respecting the
processes of good governance in order to have an effective law," Chhon told
the National Assembly on March 28.
IFReDI, charged by the Department of Fisheries with sustainable development of inland
fisheries in Cambodia, issued a policy brief in early February saying the issues
and challenges in sustaining fishing livelihoods are environmental and ecological.
IFReDI wrote that activities such as dam construction, deforestation, agricultural
pesticides and land development all have indirect and direct impacts, as do over-fishing
and the use of illegal and destructive gear.
Larry Strange, Executive Director of the Cambodia Development Research Institute
(CDRI), said in a speech on February 14 at the National Conference on Fisheries Resources
in Sihanoukville that recent CDRI research had found that natural resources have
degraded, fish production is declining, the clearing of flood forests has had a negative
impact, and that illegal fishing techniques and uncontrolled use of open access areas
remain a major challenge.
"Weakness in the law and regulatory enforcement compound these problems,"