Preah Sihanouk province
Prom Phul sits at the back his small wooden home, a krama wrapped around his waist, painstakingly repairing holes in a polyester fishing net.
The house, topped with a corrugated iron roof, is one of around 140 in Village 3, a small hamlet facing onto the Gulf of Thailand, where most families make their living from small-scale fishing in the surrounding waters.
The 54-year-old Prom Phul has been fishing Village 3’s aquamarine waters since 1985, but says the outlook for the local fishing industry – once swelled by bounteous catches of fish, prawns and squid – has taken a bad turn.
Recently, he said, five families packed up their meagre belongings and left the village, burdened by bank debts that have escalated with the arrival of large-scale fishing operations in the area.
“Now, four or five families have run away from their homeland because they’re not able to repay the bank debt,” Prom Phul said, as the breeze rolled in off the sea, rattling the wooden walls of his home.
Small wooden fishing boats, including nets and fishing equipment, cost between US$3,000 and $7,000. To afford the investment, Prom Phul said, many fishermen have to sell farmland or take out bank loans, and it is a sum that can take years to pay off – even when times are good.
90 percent of the fishermen in the village are currently in debt to banks and moneylenders, he said, a situation that could worsen further if fish catches continue to fall.
“In the future, if the authorities can’t stop [poachers], more and more fishing families will leave their homes,” he said. “We cannot stand and wait until we are dead.”
On this idyllic stretch of coast, in Stung Hav district’s Otres commune, other locals say that the increase in large-scale fishing operations – emboldened by official corruption and a loose enforcement of fisheries laws – threatens their livelihoods.
The Kingdom’s 2001 Fisheries Law aims to “conserve fishery resources” and “improve the benefits of fishermen”, and states that fishery community areas are reserved for those using “small-scale” family fishing gear.
But locals say enforcement is weak, and that the arrival of the large fishing boats, banned from operating in waters less than 20 metres deep, leaves small fishing boats with little to catch.
Prom Phul’s neighbour, Uy Heng, who has been a fisherman since 1993, said the larger fishing boats first appeared off the Stung Hav coast in 2005, originating mostly in Vietnam and Thailand.
Initially, there were between 10 and 20 operating in the area, but he said that by 2009, the number had crept up to around 200.
Such boats deploy large fishing nets, known as muong hor, or “flying nets”, that can extend for up to 200 metres in length.
Uy Heng said the nets are banned in shallow waters, where they not only capture mature fish but also scoop up everything else in their path, devastating fish and crab breeding grounds. Authorities often allow larger fishing boats to operate illegally in community areas after accepting bribes of 1 to 2 million riels ($250-$500), he added.
Uy Heng said falling fish catches have left him unable to repay his debts to the bank, and blamed the local authorities for not doing enough to enforce fisheries laws.
“The authorities just bar the poachers with their mouths, but big fishing nets are rampant like mushrooms in the rain. The authorities just catch and punish them for money, but don’t send them to court,” he said.
Om Deng, the chief of the Stung Hav fishing community, which stretches along the Stung Hav coast, says that 99 fishermen in Village 3 are in debt, and that many are avoiding bank staff after having defaulted on payments.
Meanwhile, the government claims to have cracked down on illegal fishing, though the number of illegal operators in Stung Hav has “doubled” in recent years. “Until now there has been not even one solution for the fishermen,” he said.
Another fisherman, Thach San, said the Stung Hav coast, stretching north to Sre Ambel in Koh Kong province, is especially rich in fish, but that since 2006, overfishing has damaged breeding grounds and reduced catches.
“Before I could catch 30 to 40 kilogrammes of fish per hour, but [some days] now I can’t catch even a single fish,” he said.
After the natural resources are damaged, the fishermen will not know how to make a living: few of them own farmland, living in basic shelters along the beach.
“I appeal for the officials to respect the laws and to make sure the laws are not only implemented with the poor. If not, we’ll die and people will maybe flee from their homes because they don’t have money to pay off the bank debt,” he said.
However, fisheries officials say they have made a demonstrated commitment to cracking down on illegal operations on the coast.
“We are determined that we will take action and that our prohibitions are aimed at avoiding fishermen who catch fish in shallow waters,” said Nao Thuok, director of the Fisheries Administration. He added, however, that “flying nets” were not outlawed in deeper waters.
The levying of 1 or 2 million-riel fines was national policy, Nao Thuok said, since most fishing offences were not serious enough to be prosecuted in court.
Duong Sam Ath, director of the Preah Sihanouk Fisheries Administration office, said offenders were fined on the spot, and that repeat offenders could face legal action.
“We warned them to fish in the delimited areas. In the case that they are still stubborn, we send them to the court,” he said.
But Chhuon Bunnara, an officer for Fisheries Action Coalition Team in Preah Sihanouk, said that if the authorities do not introduce measures to prohibit “flying nets” and other drag nets in shallow waters, it could impact biodiversity, destroy fish catches and force fishermen and their families into destitution.
“If the fishing gains go down, the fishermen will face increasing debt,” he said.
For 46-year-old Uy Hy, another Village 3 resident who has caught saltwater shrimp and squid in the area since 1986, the drop-off in fish catches has resulted in a sharp decline in profits.
He said that fishermen used to make between 200,000 and 400,000 riels ($50-$100) per day but now sometimes return from their daily fishing trips practially empty-handed.
“When the fisheries authorities catch [illegal operators], they get money and release them”, he said.
“And then they come back to do the same illegal activities.”