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Overfishing risks food security

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Widespread illegal fishing and rapid population growth are putting the Kingdom's fisheries, which provide the bulk of most citizens’ protein intake, under increasing threat, experts say

HENG CHIVOAN

FISHY FIGURES

  • China

    Fish catch: 1,222,955 tonnes

    Population: 1,266 million

    Kg of fish caught per capita: 0.97

  • India

    Fish catch: 416,490 tonnes

    Population: 1,014 million

    Kg of fish caught per capita: 0.41

  • Bangladesh

    Fish catch: 591,300 tonnes;

    Population: 129.2 million

    Kg of fish caught per capita: 4.58

  • Cambodia

    Fish catch: 245,300 tonnes

    Population: 12.2 million

    Kg of fish caught per capita: 20.09

(Figures from 2000)

AS  Cambodia's population grows, freshwater fisheries are increasingly under threat, with sustained over-fishing putting the Kingdom's long-term food security in jeopardy, experts say.

Last year, the total freshwater fish catch climbed to over 395,000 tonnes. But a decline in the average size of fish species on the Tonle Sap lake has scientists worried about the future of this vital source of protein for millions of the Kingdom's rural poor.

"This is the one of the most intensely fished freshwater areas in the world," said Eric Baran, a research scientist at the Phnom Penh office of the World Fish Centre, an international fisheries research institute.

"The 2.6 million tonnes of fish caught annually in the Mekong Basin represent seven times more than catches of the Northern American inland fisheries sector and more than 10  times the entire fish catch in Australia," he said.

According to Baran, sustained population growth is putting too much pressure on the Tonle Sap's fisheries which are now, he says, approaching their highest sustainable limit. "Between 1940 and 1995, fish production increased twofold, but population increased threefold. We are close to a maximum level of production, but the population keeps growing," he said.

Baran added that Cambodia's reliance on fish as a source of affordable protein makes it particularly vulnerable to a reduction in fish catches. "[Cambodia] is a country where fish production is three times pig production and 20 times chicken production. If it loses fisheries, the agriculture sector will not be able to catch up," he said.

Illegal fishing spikes

A recent rise in levels of illegal fishing has also added to the strain on the nation's fisheries, said Chhom Davy, director of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team. "According to reports from commune chiefs around the Tonle Sap, illegal fishing is on the rise," she said, noting that the activity is spurred on by collusion between poachers and local authorities.

"Middlemen pay officials each month so they can use illegal fishing gear in both the closed season and the open season," she said.

Because we have a lot of rice fields, farmers can grow fish in them and then harvest both ... without any chemical fertiliser.

Cambodia's 2006 Fisheries Law bans commercial fishing from June 1 to September 30 north of Phnom Penh, and from July 1 to October 31 in the south, in order to give fish populations a chance to reproduce and replenish.
But Nao Thuok, director of the Fisheries Administration, said the law was difficult to enforce in a country as fish-dependent as Cambodia.

"Family fishing is free and open all year round," he said. "But the Fisheries Law only allows families to use very small fishing gear. The problem is that people complain they cannot survive and use larger gear in the spawning season."

So Nam, deputy director of the government's Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute, agreed that preventing overfishing is tricky as "the law says what sort of [fishing] gear is legal and what is illegal, but we cannot control all the people using hundreds of types of fishing gear".

"Cambodians are very clever fishers," he added.

Reversing the trend

To combat illegal fishing and promote sustainable fishing practices, the government is shifting its decision-making and law enforcement efforts to the local level.

So Nam said the central Fisheries Administration is focusing its efforts on educating fishermen about the importance of sustainable harvesting.

"Education is very important. One of the aims is to strengthen the community by building the capacity of the community, teaching people to do their own management, conservation and planning," he said.

Over 500 "community fisheries" have been established so far, acting as focal points for law enforcement, conservation and the adoption of new fish cultivation methods.

"We conduct a lot of training with the local authorities to educate them not to support illegal activities," said Nao Thuok. "We call meetings with officials and provide fuel oil so local workers can help deal with illegal fishing."

One innovation has been to encourage the cultivation of fish in Cambodia's extensive rice paddies.

"Because we have a lot of rice fields , farmers can grow fish in them and then harvest both. And they can do it without any chemical fertiliser," So Nam said.

"We are keeping our catch at the maximum level of 400,000 tonnes per year, and increasing production by growing fish. Now there are more large-scale [aquaculture] investments."

Nao Thuok said aquaculture production topped 35,000 tonnes in 2007, a figure he hopes will keep pace with population growth.

"This [amount] will increase exponentially, by about 20 percent per year," he said.

So Nam said the government has a blueprint for the protection of the nation's freshwater fisheries, but that the process of education would be slow. 

"We are quite clear about what we are going to do, but the main concern is resources," So Nam said.

He added, "We have about 30 or 40 staff and five or six million fishermen, so you can imagine how hard the work is."

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