The process to open market access for exporting Cambodian “pra” varieties of shark catfishes to China has begun in earnest, after officials from the two countries kicked off formal phytosanitary talks, far earlier than expected.

“Pra” in the Khmer language quintessentially refers to Pangasius djambal, but could more broadly describe many – but not all – shark catfish of the Pangasius (P) genus (“po” types such as P larnaudii and P sanitwongsei being notable counterexamples) or other genera in the Pangasiidae family such as Helicophagus and Pangasianodon, but not Pseudolais.

The negotiations are expected to better outline which specific species will be able to be exported.

The first meeting to discuss a phytosanitary protocol that would allow Cambodian “pra” fish exports to China was held virtually on January 20, between Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Chinese customs officials, with representatives from both embassies in attendance.

Arrangements for the negotiations suggest that the evaluations and other procedures involved will likely last until January 28.

January 20’s conference comes as a surprise, considering that Fisheries Administration (FiA) deputy director Ung Try, who is involved in the negotiations, just earlier this month speculated that meetings would not begin until early April.

The leaders of both countries have signalled their willingness to spur Cambodian agricultural exports to China, and this first meeting is a substantial step towards making this happen, and paves the way to expand fields and open more channels of practical bilateral cooperation.

Sok Raden, president of Cambodian Aquaculturist Association, which boasts more than 400 fish farming households, told The Post on January 23 that a much-craved “pra” fish farming boom has proved elusive, and that the market remains in a relatively weak state.

On the other hand, he contended that a considerable number of people would be encouraged to take up raising “pra” fish if a worthwhile phytosanitary protocol is signed and Chinese buyers offer reasonable prices, adding to the large number of ponds used to produce the fresh water fishes.

“Rest assured, if there’s a lot of market demand, Cambodia can oblige in terms of both quantity and quality.

“Our Khmer ancestors managed to build the great temple of Angkor Wat, why wouldn’t we be able to simply raise ‘pra’ fish? We could definitely do so, were there to be a guaranteed market with willing buyers offering reasonable rates," he said.

Raden suggested other fish for export, such as “andeng” (non-shark catfish of genii such as Clarias, Plotosus and Heteropneustes), “chhpeun” (cyprinid fish of the Hypsibarbus genus, typically Hypsibarbus malcolmi), and tilapia.

The price of locally-raised “pra” fish remains at 4,000 riel ($0.98) per kilogramme on the domestic market, which barely covers production costs, he said, noting that it takes from eight-to-12 months to raise fish weighing 1kg or more.

Song Seyha, owner of a fish farm in Tbong Khmum province's southernmost district of Ponhea Kraek, said he and his peers are eagerly awaiting results of the negotiations, adding that a green light from Beijing would stimulate farming once more.

“Pra” fish farming has entered into a slump, as low market rates erode profitability, he said, noting that the catfishes have adapted to a wide variety of feed, making them relatively easy to raise.

"Breeders are keeping tabs on the news, if China agrees to allow imports, there will be an immediate increase in farming," he asserted.

Fisheries exports last year were valued at $4,099,530 and weighed in at more than 4,000 tonnes, up by over 1,000 tonnes year-on-year, reported the FiA, under the agriculture ministry.

Marine capture fisheries output rose by two per cent, whereas freshwater capture fisheries and aquaculture production fell by seven per cent and 13 per cent, respectively, it said.

It listed major buyers of Cambodian fish as Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore.