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Government, experts differ on fisheries outlook

A man casts a net into the Mekong River from the back of a fishing boat near Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich island.
A man casts a net into the Mekong River from the back of a fishing boat near Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich island. Heng Chivoan

Government, experts differ on fisheries outlook

Government officials presented a rosier outlook for the Kingdom’s imperiled freshwater fisheries than that espoused by scientists and conservationists at a global workshop on fisheries, food security and nutrition that wrapped up in Siem Reap on Friday.

In his opening remarks, Deputy Prime Minister Yim Chhay Ly claimed the government has strengthened enforcement of the Fisheries Law.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia ... has paid close attention to conserving natural resources for development and building capacity for conservation,” he said, in an 11-minute speech that covered the threats to Cambodia’s fisheries, noting their importance to the national economy, migration and food security.

Eng Chea San, the director general of the fisheries administration, speaking on the sidelines of the conference, backed up Chhay Ly’s position, stating that since the start of the year authorities have confiscated some 1.5 million metres of illegal fishing nets.

“We have done a lot of cracking down on illegal fishing activities,” he said.

The comments, however, did little to challenge the assessment of many leading experts: that thanks to a combination of overfishing, climate change, deforestation and the destruction of wetlands, Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake – one of the most productive inland fisheries on the planet – is at serious risk of out-and-out failure.

When asked about the administration’s outlook for the Tonle Sap lake in light of fires which last year consumed a third of the 640,000 hectares of wetlands in the Tonle Sap Biosphere, Chea San downplayed the severity of the disaster.

“We count only the flooded forest [burned] during that time, it’s about 10,000 [hectares],” he said.

Read more: A wetland laid to waste

By comparison, Conservation International (CI) has estimated that 230,100 hectares of wetlands – a total that includes grasslands, flooded forest and secondary forest – were burned. Conservationists and scientists view the wetlands as an integral part of the Tonle Sap’s fish production as many species of fish are thought to spawn in the seasonally flooded habitats.

Reached for comment, CI’s Dr Tracy Farrell said that while a finer analysis would be needed to break down their burn estimate – the figure quoted by Chea San “seems way off”.

Still, Chea San maintained that the damage was “an amount where it is not such a big effect”.

Chea San also noted that with European Union assistance, the Fisheries Administration is devising a new plan for fisheries conservation and climate change adaptation that will be ready “very soon”.

In prepared remarks, Aymeric Roussel, the European Union delegation’s natural resources management and rural development attaché, emphasised the importance of fish in Cambodia’s society and food security, noting that 45 percent of all Cambodian households are involved in the fisheries sector.

“Nevertheless ... fishing communities remain often associated with poverty, vulnerability to external shocks, marginalisation,” he said, adding that the fisheries remain “exposed to strong external and internal threats, such as hydropower development, change in land use, pollution, overfishing”.

Between 2014 and 2020, Roussel said, the government will have received €112 million, or about $131.77 million, to make fisheries more sustainable, as well as to develop the aquaculture sector – for which the Fisheries Administration launched a development strategy last year.

Yumiko Kura, the country director for WorldFish – an international nonprofit research organisation that focuses on fisheries on aquaculture – noted that even so, aquaculture would not recoup all of the losses that may come with environmental changes, especially in terms of hydropower and irrigation projects.

“If any possible hydropower projects and irrigation schemes do get developed, then maybe in the future the hydrological changes will become irreversible,” she said. Kura said that targeted efforts to protect fish habitats during the dry season – such as those undertaken by WorldFish – can result in rapid recoveries of fish stocks.

As for the ecological models that indicate that over-fishing is pushing Cambodia’s fisheries to their limit, Kura said that in the absence of enough historical data, it was best to err on the side of caution.

“Let’s assume the resources are getting over-exploited and we need to prevent a crash of some sort,” she said.

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