THE PRAHOK MAKERS
Illegal fishing, finer nets and a lower water level are all being blamed for a dramatic
drop in the fish catch in the Tonle Sap during this year's prahok season.
Prahok, a fermented fish sauce, is for some people the high point of Cambodian cuisine
- for others, tangible evidence that the devil's bowels have exploded - relies on
the catch of a run of sprat and hundreds of other species of small fish to the sea.
The fish are gutted and cleaned, then trampled under foot in cane baskets in the
river before being put into jars to ferment.
But the latest prahok season does not look good for the smelly delicacy. Prahok makers
claim that the catch is more than half down down on the previous season and even
fisheries officials admit to it being at least 40% lower than expected.
Along the river banks near Phnom Penh, at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the
Mekong, there is no immediate sign there is a problem.
The nets stretch across the river. Small groups of laborers are busy in the sunshine
scaling, gutting then beheading the tiny fish for the prahok-makers. Most of them
are farmers trying to make a bit of extra cash after the rice harvest.
Dried and fresh fish contribute their own special aroma to the scene.
But veteran Cham fisherman, Moeur Sa, 70, is one of those concerned about the sudden
drop in the catch.
His family have been fishermen back to his great grandfather and he complains it
has never been this bad.
THE PRAHOK MAKERS
Gathering in the fish
His main gripe is with the people using the seine nets with small mesh.
"Before they didn't have the fine nets but now they use them to catch the baby
fish which are sold abroad," he says.
Sa says he owns six boats which in total have harvested about 100 tonnes of fish
for the first fish season from December 24, 1998 up to the full moon on the January
1st - about a fifth of what he was expecting, based on experience.
He says that not only is the number of fish down but there has been a disproportionately
large decrease in the number of big fish caught.
Again he believes this is linked to the use of fine meshed nets. "How much difference
would there be [in the catch] if we left the small fish to get big?
"For example one boat of the small fish, if we leave them to get big, would
give us 20 to 30 boats of fish."
He also attributes the decline in fish to other factors citing the deforestation
of Prey Lech Teuk (the forest around the Tonle Sap), the weather conditions and increasing
numbers of people fishing for a living.
However, greater than all these factors he says is the illegal fishing when the fish
He says that since the 1960s the number of fish that are surviving to maturity has
dropped till now only ten species, by his reckoning, make the distance.
And he is concerned that soon some fish will become extinct.
"The unsuccessful crackdown on the illegal catches is making such a problem
for the next generation.
"Soon we will not find any fish to eat.
Another fisherman Nam Ngang, 45, echoes Sa's comments about the decline in fish numbers
"This year we could only take 500 kg to 1 ton but last year we took 3 or 4 tons
per day. It is because of the water in Tonle Sap and the Mekong is not full enough"
Nao Thouk, Deputy-Director of the Fisheries Department and the National Director
of the Project for the Management of the Freshwater Capture Fisheries of Cambodia,
agrees the fish numbers are way down. His estimate: by 40%. However, he blames it
almost entirely on the water level, saying that illegal fishing has not dramatically
risen this year but the low water level has affected breeding.
THE PRAHOK MAKERS
Chopping off fish heads
"The reason for the decreasing amount of fish is the water. The water is important
for the fish," he says.
"A Khmer proverb says that ëwherever there's water there's fish.'"
For those who are actually making the delicacy the low catch does not seem to be
causing problems. Loy Yon, 50, a villager from Svay Rieng and part time prahok-maker,
says that the fish are cheapest at this time of year and the opportunity to store
some food for the dry season is too good to miss.
She says a kilo of fish costs only 200 to 300 riel so what they don't eat themselves
they will be able to sell for a profit.
Neang Saoun from Phnom Penh is not interested in the commercial possibilities. Instead,
she takes the opportunity to make prahok for her family and relatives in the province.
Meanwhile for many people, not just fishermen, prahok is an important source of income.
Oum Thai, 56, says she can make an extra 4000 to 5000 riel a day cleaning fish for
prahok which goes to top up her earnings as a fruit and vegetable seller.
For others, such as 12-year-old Jon Nary, even her schooling has to take a second
place to helping with the family's income.
She says that since she was 9-years-old she has had to drop out of school for the
prahok season because she can make 3000 riel a day cleaning 30 kg of fish.
Chim Choeun, 40, is a fish stomper. Every year he comes to Phnom Penh from Prey Veng
to make 5000 to 10,000 riel a day.
The higher wages, he says, reflect his key role in the process.
He says the stomping makes the fish soft and removes all the fat, ensuring a top
"Prahok is the most famous food of the Cambodian people. It takes time to make
- catching fish, gutting, cutting, scaling, stomping, mixing the the salt and
drying a little."
He says if the process is not done well the result tastes very bad.
For some people looking for work the timing has been bad.
NO WAY HOME
Meak Soeun, 66, with her 3-year-old grandson Vuthy - arrived from Prey Veng too late for the Tonle Sap fish harvest. The family is now living on the riverbank.
Meak Soeun, 66, arrived too late from Svay Reng for this fish season. She is now
sleeping by the riverside with her two grandchildren Vuthy, 3 and Nary, 6, because
she had no money to return home.
Instead she is hoping that the next full moon will yield an abundant run of fish
and she will be able to earn some cash.