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Lucrative trade in baby fish a deadly business

Lucrative trade in baby fish a deadly business


Kou Thal, a 46-year-old farmer who fishes for fingerlings when he has spare time, can't afford the best bait - Vietnamese red worms. Instead he uses ant eggs (in bowl at bottom).

AT the tail end of the July-September spawning season, little fish are a big illegal

business and people running the trade kill people who get in their way.

On Aug 20, Kampong Chhnang provincial fisheries official Sang Sokhon was murdered

as he and his colleague Riel Sokhon boarded a vessel carrying "fingerlings",

newly-hatched fish, downstream toward Vietnam. Unidentified men in civilian clothing

opened fire on them with automatic weapons when they attempted to seize the shipment.

No arrests have been made.

The brazen murder came about two weeks after prime ministers Ung Huot and Hun Sen

issued a circular reminding military and police units along the Mekong and Tonle

Sap rivers that harvesting fingerlings is illegal and that the Fisheries Department

should be given full cooperation to do their job.

The Aug 4 document was a positive step, according to Fisheries Department Deputy

Director Nao Thuk. He predicted that the situation would improve next season. "We

have a law already, but it is difficult to enforce," he said. "This is

reminding people of the existing law."

He speculated that syndicates of local officials, armed groups and Vietnamese smugglers

net up to $2 million a season.

One species of choice is pra kchao, or pangasius bocourti, a high-value export fish

which travels upstream from the Mekong Delta to spawn in Kampong Cham and Kandal


Individual fingerlings stand a sperm cell's chance of penetrating the gauntlet laid

down for them in their journey back toward Vietnam.

In Kampong Cham, for example, there are 800 boats, carrying up to 300 hooks each,

trolling the river every day, according to Provincial Fisheries Chief Bun Chheng


"We are planning to warn or arrest them, but it is difficult. It is much easier

to seize one logging raft than 800 boats," he said. "Besides the people

are poor and need the money."

He estimated that each boat earns 40,000-50,000 riel a day selling the fingerlings

for an average of 200 riel each. Multiplied by the number of vessels, the figures

suggest that more than 150,000 are being extracted daily.

"We rely on the river for food," Ros Heourn said aboard his longtail fishing

boat as he baited a string of hooks. "This is not good, but everybody else is

doing it."

Wildcat fishermen are often not accustomed to working the Mekong. Some like 46-year-old

farmer Kou Thal just do it until the planting season starts.

"Some people from my village who have boats fish like me," he said. "We

make enough money to buy rice."

Thal said that he makes 2,000-3,000 riel a day selling fingerlings for 300 riel each.

"Buyers come every afternoon in a bigger boat. I don't know where they take


He said he could have greater yields, but cannot afford the bait. "They charge

60,000-70,000 riel per kilo for Vietnamese red worms," he complains. "The

fish don't eat Cambodian black worms."

He says with resignation that all he can afford to do is collect ant eggs, which

the fish do not particularly like, for bait. "It is a very difficult life,"

he shrugs.

The big money is in netting operations along the riverbanks. Sections up to 100 meters

long and 10 meters wide are cordoned off with fine blue polyethylene bag nets. Larger

concessions in Kampong Cham's Kang Meas district fetch up to $20,000, according to

residents who declined to be named. They claimed that the money is divided between

district officials and soldiers brought in from Memot district who provide site security

and accompany the fingerlings to the border.

Well-armed and unfettered by local allegiances, the security unit cuts a mean image

on the rutted tracks of Plop Chhrao (Deep Hole) market about 30km south of the provincial


Some of the concessions are run by Vietnamese workers. Ironically, the men hired

to protect them are former rebels from a "Khmer Rouge Extraction Unit"

from Panya Kre district on the Vietnamese border.

"Everybody makes money," said Touch Sieng Tana, former director of the

Project for the Management of Freshwater Capture Fisheries of Cambodia who recently

returned from earning a PhD in Denmark.

"Thirty to forty percent of the money goes to 'competent authorities' and the

rest goes to others from the district up to the provincial level."


Although baby pra kchao only sell for about 200 riel a piece, illegal trafficking of 150,000 of them daily to Vietnam makes for a $2 million per season business.

Junks are loaded with 5-10 million fingerlings before making the journey to Vietnam,

according to Tana. He said that boat captains pay $7,000-10,000 in protection fees

and bribes to cross into Vietnam via small inland waterways.

"The buyers inspect the fish and try to drive the price down by saying the fingerlings

are too weak," Tana said. "During the '80s, at least 2 billion fingerlings

were exported annually. Now it is less than 1 billion, but it is still a big business."

Once the fish mature to around 1.5kg in Vietnam, he says, much of the yield is exported

live to markets in the region where it commands a premium price.

Tana argued that the continued practice will undermine a crucial sector of the economy.

"More than 2 million people are employed in fisheries," he said. "It

is more important than forestry. Ninety percent of Cambodians eat fish. If the price

goes up, it affects politics. It is not a small thing. It is a very big thing."

He said that the Fisheries Department should do more. "What are Fisheries doing?

It has the management structure, but not the human resources," he said. "It

has laws, regulations, a civil administration... but how many qualified people are


Calling for broad administrative reform, he argued that the legacy of colonization

is partly to blame. "Our French heritage is a complex administrative structure

which has opened the way to collusion," he said. "Even the French themselves

decentralized. We should too."

Meanwhile, the illegal trade flourishes and catch yields continue to decline - at

least on paper. "I estimate that $100 million per year is generated by inland

fisheries, but we only receive $2 million," Tana complained.

As he surveys fingerling samples from Kampong Chhnang, preserved in alcohol in the

trunk of his car, he pleaded for funds to help increase Cambodians' awareness of

the damage that is being done to the environment - he would like to one day open

a museum for Cambodia's dwindling aquatic biodiversity.


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