A spate of reports by WorldFish, an international organisation that researches how fisheries can help reduce poverty and hunger, illustrates how the fishing industry supports the economic survival of many of the Kingdom’s inhabitants.
The reports give an inside look at the role fisheries play in driving employment in Cambodia, and provide a deep-dive into the minutia of the industry, such as fish prices and profit margins. They also come at a time when fish populations are increasingly threatened by controversial hydropower dam construction.
There is a strong demand around Cambodia for fresh fish, fish paste, fish sauce and fermented, dried and smoked fish. This demand drives employment for fishermen, middlemen, wholesalers, retailers, processors and exporters, one report noted.
In fact, more than 3 million people depend on the Tonle Sap lake for their livelihoods. And according to Pianporn Deetes of International Rivers, the food and agricultural systems of 60 million people hinge on the Mekong’s seasonal flood pulse and ecosystems.
What’s more, the reports argue, the economic benefits are probably underestimated.
“About 10-15% of the daily fish catch is consumed by the family and not sold, but the economic value of this consumption is not included in the cost/return analysis. Thus the analysis probably understates the economic returns to fisher families since they avoid purchasing food by consuming part of their fish catch,” one of the WorldFish reports reads.
Another of the reports, entitled Economic Value of Fish in Cambodia and Value Added Along the Trade Chain, examined the monetary value of fish resources in three locations: the Upper Mekong (Stung Treng and Kratie), the Tonle Sap floodplains (Pursat and Siem Reap), and the Lowlands (Takeo and Svay Rieng).
Researchers discovered that fish were much more expensive in the Upper Mekong region, and were the least expensive in the Tonle Sap area. Fish traders and exporters throughout the Kingdom tend to earn a margin of about 50 percent.
“The average price for exporters was only slightly more than the price for traders, meaning that exports add almost no value in the Cambodian fish market,” the report read.
Another publication, entitled Roles and Value of Fish in Rural Welfare in Cambodia, illustrates the industry’s contribution to health, nutrition and household wealth.
“Fishing is a mitigation strategy against food insecurity – and is chosen regularly by 37% of Tonle Sap households and 36% of Lowland households,” the report noted.
The reports also explore recent industry trends, and how fishing households are adapting to climate change.
For example, aquaculture production is one of the fastest-growing food sectors in Cambodia, with the majority of activity concentrated around Phnom Penh and Kandal. But they still provide about six times less fish than traditional capture fisheries.
Crucially, the reports show the industry is taking a hit. Around 81 percent of households surveyed said they’d experienced declining fish abundance in recent years. Large dam projects, which alter ecosystems and impede fish migration, are considered culpable for some of that decline.
“Study after study, including the [Mekong River Commission’s] 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment, warn that dam-building on the Mekong mainstream will have tremendous implications, fundamentally altering the river’s ecology and destroying much of its biodiversity,” International Rivers’ Deetes wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, almost all of the households surveyed by World Fish reported “changes in the ways that they fish, the amount of fishing they do, and/or the importance of fishing to their families”.
“Environmental change was a commonly cited reason for these changes,” the report notes.