A bumper harvest of fish this year – estimated at 20 percent above last year’s haul – has raised hopes of high profits, but prices have declined more than 50 percent, some fishermen say.
The machines make our lives easier and prahok more
AT 10am Monday, the banks of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh’s Kilometre 6 commune are in full motion, crowds of all ages gathering on the muddy slopes. Many have travelled from the farthest corners of the Kingdom to get here in time for the start of prahok season.
Prahok, a salted and fermented paste used as a seasoning and condiment in Khmer dishes and the main source of protein for many families, is made with a myriad of tiny silver fish – and the Tonle Sap is the place to find them.
According to the Fisheries Administration, this year’s fish harvest is expected to be 20 percent larger than last year’s and many fishermen agree.
Prak Sokhun, 29, from Takeo’s Tramkak district, plans to make a living for the next 12 months based on prahok. “I paid about US$4,000 for eight tonnes of fish, and I will either sell it or exchange it for paddy rice once I get back,” he says.
As his relatives start packing the fish into sacks, Prak Sokhun motions at them to compress it: “Too much fish this year, and that is not good for my business,” he says. “I hope I can go back home and sell it at last year’s price, but it may be difficult.” From 1,700 riels per kilogram last year, this year’s price has dropped to just 400 riels to 500 riels.
Prak Sokhun learned the art of making prahok from his family, but he started coming to Phnom Penh to buy fish only after he married in 1999.
Every year, he leaves his village to spend at least a week on the muddy shores of the Tonle Sap, with his wife and relatives on hand to help.
After gathering enough fish, he lays them on large plastic cloth with salt and waits for them to dry. Then he packs up the fish, loads them onto his worn-out truck and transports them home to sell. Today is his last day in Phnom Penh – he hopes to be able to leave before sunset, but his truck is stuck in the mud and won’t move.
For their week on the river, many fishermen erect tents and sleep with their families just metres from the water, close to the machines they use during the day to clean and behead the fish. “The landowner also owns the machines. We pay him US$10 every tonne of fresh fish that goes through the machine, and he lets us put our tents here,” Prak Sokhun explains. “The machines make our life easier and prahok more tasty.” Until a few years ago, the fish were cleaned by hand – a time-consuming process that often compromised the freshness of the fish.
All the time, porters shuttle back and forth, carrying baskets brimming with fish from the boats to the machines, or to the farmers. Min Angkea Pich, 26, lives in the area and says prahok season makes him very happy. “I can earn 15,000 to 20,000 riels a day just by carrying these baskets,” he says and hurries back, where a new load awaits.