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Smoked fish is gold in Prek Khmeng

Smoked fish is gold in Prek Khmeng

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Thirty-year old Leng Reun closely monitors her 500 skewers of fish being slowly smoked

by the steady supply of firewood she feeds the red-embered fire at her feet.

With sweat running down her face and the fumes forcing tears, only Reun's smile betrays

her enthusiasm for her work.

"This job provides us with a higher income [than farming]."

For Reun and 400 neighbors in Kandal's Prek Khmeng village, the pungent aroma of

wood-smoked fish for which they are famous smells distinctively of money.

For centuries the people of Prek Khmeng have built a reputation for their village

as the center of the Cambodian smoked fish industry, with trade secrets passed down

from parents to children for generations.

Every year at least 500 tons of the small freshwater trey changwa mool, trey slak

russey, and trey real are smoked in the village and then shipped to markets around

the country, especially Neak Leung and Phnom Penh. On a short wooden frame Reun and

her family can smoke up to 200,000 skewers each year, earning them approximately

two million riels a year.

Village middlemen pay with cash, and a seemingly bottomless market readily pays around

100 riels a skewer.

For Reun and her family the industry is one that links them to the same labor process

as that of their ancestors.

Trade secrets are passed down for generations.

Mom Oum, who at 85 years of age is the village's oldest resident, is unable to date

precisely the origins of the village's industry, but he can attest that it has sustained

the village since long before he was born in 1915.

According to Oum, the village in the early 1920s was surrounded by numerous large

lakes from which far larger fish than that now smoked in Prek Khmeng, such as the

prized trey slat, were easily caught.

Illegal fishing and the introduction of modern fishing techniques have resulted in

a virtual disappearance of trey slat around Prek Khmeng.

While the types of fish have changed, the village's industry continues to be a cross-generational

venture. Children busy themselves with gutting and skewing the fish while their parents

and older siblings affix the fish to skewers and tend them over the fires.

In the shade of a bamboo tree, Bou Sopheap expertly cuts the heads of fish with a

speed and precision that would at first glance seem beyond most seven-year-olds.

For her troubles Sopheap says she can make between 500 to 1000 riels each day, especially

during the kneuth or periods of a waxing moon.

"I've known how to cut fish heads since I knew how to hold a spoon to eat,"

she boasted.

However, the fish smoking traditions of Prek Khmeng are now under threat from illegal

fishing that is depriving them of the means to make their livelihood, villagers say.

Leng Reun reacts angrily when asked about the illegal fishing in her village.

"It happens a lot," she said.

The uncontrolled and unsustainable illegal fishing is causing Reun and her neighbors

to worry about the future of their industry.

"If there are no more fish it will be very bad for us and other villagers who

don't have rice paddy to grow their own food," she said.

Villagers say that new nets that catch even the smallest, most underdeveloped of

fish are destroying the viability of fishing in the area.

"I've never seen such a crazy thing as this [new type of net]," Oeun said

angrily.

"This will truly destroy our fish."

A Prek Chrok fishing lot worker said that those responsible for illegal fishing were

heavily armed and backed up by powerful people.

"Not only me but also the district authorities are too scared to stop them from

illegal fishing."

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