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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Winds of change blowing through the prahok market

Winds of change blowing through the prahok market

Nhem Yon, still spry at 70, trims fish heads as she always has, by hand. There will be less trimming for her to do this year, even though the overall catch has increased almost fifty percent.

P

rahok is the national delicacy known to all Cambodians. Reporter-photographer

Bou Saroeun recently travelled along the Tonle Sap River to speak to the makers

of the famous fish paste.

Sitting in the sunshine, on the muddy banks of the Tonle Sap River surrounded by

the smell of prahok, 70-year-old Nhem Yon, a veteran prahok maker since French colonial

times, is busy chopping off the heads of fish.

"This year's fish is more expensive than last time. I have no hope of making

the amount that I expected," she says with a shake of her head.

Her plight was typical of producers of Cambodia's national delicacy spoken to by

the Post.

In the 1998-99 season, the price of prahok rose because of a 40 per cent decrease

in fish stocks due to illegal fishing and lower water levels. This year, a crackdown

on illicit fishing and increased water levels has boosted fish numbers, but the price

remains high.

According to Nao Thouk, Deputy Director of the Fisheries Department, Cambodia's freshwater

catch has increased about 50 per cent over the previous year.

Most Khmer families make at least one jar of prahok each year, with consumption per

person pegged at 6-8 kg per year. Along the Tonle Sap River 9 km north of Phnom Penh

along Route 5 where an ethnic Cham community lives, farmers from areas like Svay

Rieng, Prey Veng, Kampong Cham, Kampong Speu and Kandal gather to make prahok.

Nhem Yon and her 42-year-old daughter Mak Roeun hail from Kampong Speu province.

For years they've produced about 200 kgs of fish paste, but with higher costs this

year's output will drop.

Ket Ran, 45, and other prahok makers from Takeo province sat next to Nhem Yon hoping

the price of fish would drop so they could make more prahok.

As buyers arrive from near and far, their high spirits drop when prices prove to be well above previous levels, making it difficult or impossible to buy the quantities they are

used to.

Ran, a vendor from Trapang Andeuk, expected to take home 2.5-3 tons of prahok for

resale. She says this year she'll have to settle for only one ton.

Loek Sovan, 49, a prahok maker from Kampong Cham, used to make about 6 tons per year

to sell in the market and exchange for rice. Now she worried that her buyers would

complain about the cost.

The cost of the fresh fish depends on the daily catch, but this year even on days

when a lot of fish are caught the price remains high - between 250 and 400 riels

per kilo.

Fish numbers have increased because flooding allowed fish to migrate further to breed

and lay eggs.

A crackdown on illegal fishing techniques such as taking very young fish, using explosives

and other weapons has also helped.

Fishing concession owners are happy with their catch. Sep Sokharith, 45, owner of

fishing concession 2C in Phnom Penh, smiled as he told how his daily catch fetches

a better price than last year's, but even he felt the price of prahok was too high.

He said the cost had increased because of the speed with which prahok could be made

using machines to cut off the fish heads. The quicker the first catches of fish were

processed, the quicker stocks became depleted, making the fish expensive.

"The fishing business depends on nature. If nature provides, we will get a lot,

but if nature faces problems, we will lose," he said.

On average Sokharith's concession netted about 300 tons per year.

Mrs Mohamad, owner of concession 1D in Phnom Penh, said her business had turned sour

despite the big increase in fish stocks. She was philosophical and didn't want to

shut the business because she had no job to move to.

"Fishing is like finding a needle in the sea. Sometimes we are lucky and sometimes

we are not."

Sek Ngoun, owner of fishing concession 2D said if the water level stayed high and

the crackdown on illegal catching continued, the fish yield could come back to 1980s

levels.

Along the banks of the Tonle Sap river, young and old alike participate in the time-honored tradition of prahok preparation, using foot-power to mash the small fish into a paste that will later be allowed to ferment, giving people throughout the country (and beyond) their beloved sauce for yet another annual cycle.

The Fisheries Department, however, was still concerned about the future.

Nao Thouk said the dams built on the Mekong's tributaries had cut the amount of water

coming into the river by 15 per cent.

This could damage fish spawning grounds on both the upper and lower Mekong. The big

impact was on the Tonle Sap where the water could not reach the flooded forest areas

used for fish feeding and spawning.

Another threat came from people cutting the flooded forest areas to grow other crops,

such as rice and beans, Thouk said.

"The fish experts calculate that if we lose 10 per cent of the forest, this

would mean losing 10 per cent of the fish."

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