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Poaching, weather blamed as fish catch plummets

Poaching, weather blamed as fish catch plummets

poach.jpg
poach.jpg

This fishing boat on the Tonle Sap with an illegal long net moved off when approached December 29.

A senior fisheries official in Phnom Penh has warned that the current fish harvest

is only half that of last year.

Mom Seng, head of the Fisheries Office in Phnom Penh, said the decrease was due

to a combination of unusual weather conditions and illegal fishing inside breeding

zones.

"Illegal fishing occurred [the previous year] in the preservation zones around

the Tonle Sap lake," said Seng. "This has killed the mother fish."

Fish are vital to the diet of most Cambodians - the average person relies on

fish for 75 percent of their protein intake. The current open season, which lasts

from October to March each year, has been tough for many subsistence fishermen.

Pan Hun, who lives in Phatsandai commune, Kampong Thom province, said the poor harvest

had made life difficult.

"It will be very hard to feed my family this year," he said. "My fish

catch has dropped by about half."

Nhu Ow, village chief in Pov Vey, Kampong Thom, said his daily catch had declined

from as much as 15 kilograms to as little as 3 kilograms on the worst days. The result,

said villagers, was that many of them had resorted to illegal methods such as outlawed

types of nets, and fishing in areas that were off-limits.

"I know that the methods I am using to fish are illegal, but I have no choice,"

said one villager in Stung Stong, Kampong Thom. A fisherman from nearby Msakrong

village said that groups of fishing teams in his area regularly used illegal Oun

and Yang Kav nets. When he confronted them, they told him they were allowed to do

so as they had paid off commune authorities and fishing officials.

Oversize nets are not the only method fishermen have been using in the area. Sang

He, a villager from Stong district, said the use of electric shocks to stun fish

had increased 80 percent on the previous year in his commune alone. That came at

a cost, of course: he said fishermen paid 20,000 riel to the local fisheries official

and between 30-50,000 riel to the relevant authorities.

"This activity affects not only us - it affects those fishermen living

downstream as well," he said. "[Illegal fishermen] have seen rich villagers

and fishing lot owners doing this, and follow their bad example."

It seems that violations of the law are most common in areas not yet registered as

community fisheries. The system of community fisheries, which has been in place for

one year, was designed to allow local communities to manage fish in their area in

a sustainable manner. The scheme has the backing of central government, aware of

the importance of fish to the majority of the population.

The chief of Peam Bang commune, Phan Phat, denied claims of illegal fishing and bribery.

He spoke to a team from the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), an umbrella group

of NGOs which visited the area to research illegal fishing and how well the community

fisheries were working.

During FACT's visit, the team heard that 17 fishermen accused of illegal practices

had their equipment destroyed by fisheries inspectors after being accused of illegal

fishing. Mak Sithearith, head of FACT, said the team had visited Phatsandai commune

two weeks later and were told the penalties had cost villagers between one and nine

million riel each.

The majority of the inhabitants of Phatsandai, a floating village on the Tonle Sap

lake, depend on fishing to survive. The wealthier families have fish farms, but around

40 percent use bamboo fish traps, known as lok, to block off areas for fishing.

The traps were destroyed in Prek Chkouk and Prek Ta Som December 12 by officials

backed up by members of the armed forces. The villagers were accused of blocking

the fish migration path, but claimed the real reason their traps and nets were destroyed

was that they had refused to pay bribes. The local chief of police, Um Than, said

use of commercial fishing methods had violated a fisheries sub-decree.

One local official had supportive words for the fishermen. Major Hang Tree has worked

as local head of the police water division for ten years and said deals were made

every year between corrupt officials and local fishermen.

"The local people paid the fishing lot owners and officials, but the officials

then went back to them after taking their bribes," he said. Tree blamed both

groups for the upsurge in, and consequences of, illegal fishing.

Major Tree disagreed with the local chief of police's assessment that the people

using lok traps were wealthy. The reality was that many were caught in a spiral of

debt.

"From outside they look wealthy, but in fact they are taking a risk by buying

fishing materials on credit and paying for it once they have caught their fish,"

he said.

In a bizarre twist the local police chief, Um Than, bearing an AK-47, threatened

to expel FACT unless the team could show it had permission from the provincial governor

to carry out their work.

"Go back," he shouted at the team. "You can't work here."

When Than realized a journalist was present, however, he relented on his threat.

Ros Sirakhemarath, a member of the FACT team, said Than had threatened them twice

before.

"It is very hard for us as NGO staff to work in remote areas," he said.

"Most local authorities don't like NGOs working in their areas."

Mok Sithirith, coordinator for FACT, said such threats were commonplace. The reason,

he said, was that they felt their power was threatened.

"The authorities think that when we come to educate people, they will better

understand the laws. The authorities think they will lose their income or power,"

he said.

He said some local authorities have accused NGOs of working for political parties

and used that excuse to arrest staff who came to their villages. The government,

he said, had requested that NGOs assist in setting up community fisheries, and local

authorities should not stand in their way.

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