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Tonle Sap fishermen wrestle over shrinking fish stocks

Tonle Sap fishermen wrestle over shrinking fish stocks

Khmer fishermen in Chong Kneas community of Siem Reap province say they are concerned

for their livelihoods in the face of illegal fishing and increased competition from

ethnic Vietnamese fishermen.

Suon Chhay, a Chong Kneas fisherman who has lived on the Tonle Sap for many years,

said Cambodian fishermen could not catch as many fish as their Vietnamese counterparts,

who use superior fishing gear and techniques.

"We have the market, but do not have fish to sell," Chhay said. "I

have observed that the number of fish we catch has gone down over the last five years."

Minh Bunly, coordinator of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team based in Siem Reap,

said as the number of fish decreases, the livelihoods of villagers in the area will

be adversely affected as well.

"The problem is some fishery officials conspire with offenders and allow them

to fish illegally," Bunly said. "The water has also become polluted with

the increase of people migrating to the area."

Um Nary, chief of a fishing community in Chong Kneas commune, said 70 percent of

villagers are fishermen and among those 747 families are Cambodians and 356 are Vietnamese.

He said all the villagers were suffering because of a decrease in their catch.

"About 65 percent of the children in the community have dropped out of school

as they have to help their parents fish," Nary said.

He said the children and villagers in the community were facing health problems such

as diarrhea and skin diseases because they lived on polluted water.

Em An, Chong Kneas commune chief, said he was concerned that the valuable fishery

resources of the area were being depleted.

"I think the techniques and the fishing equipment of the Vietnamese and Cambodians

are the same," An said. "But the Vietnamese [fishermen] are more patient

and are trying harder than the Cambodians."

An said illegal fishing practices, such as the use of electric shocks to kill large

schools of fish continue - despite official crack downs and the destruction of illegal

equipment.

He said fishermen catch about 1.5 to 2 tons of fish per day. But, because this is

distributed to about 1,000 families, the haul is only just enough to support a day-to-day

existence.

According to An, villagers are forced to relocate twice a year and this also diminishes

their income.

"It is a serious problem for villagers here," An said. "They spend

a lot of money and waste time they could spend making businesses."

Nao Thuok, chief of Fishery Administration at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry

and Fisheries (MAFF), said he had conducted research into the area to determine whether

the fish stock was actually being depleted.

Thuok said he could not predict the amount of fish caught this year as the fishing

season had not finished. Last year the MAFF recorded a national catch of 422,000

tons of freshwater fish, 65,000 tons of saltwater fish, and 35,000 tons of farmed

fish. He said the official fishing season runs from September to May.

According to Thuok, the adoption of the fishery law had led to a decrease in illegal

fishing. He said strict law enforcement had made fishermen afraid of punishment.

"Cambodian and Vietnamese fishermen must respect the law. They cannot fish illegally

because the law prohibits it," Thuok said. "Cambodian-Cham fishermen follow

the regulations and do not use illegal equipment."

The Fisheries Law, covering all salt and freshwater fisheries, was adopted by the

National Assembly on March 31, 2006. The law proscribes a maximum penalty of five

years in jail and fines of up to 50 million riel ($12,500) for illegal fishing and

for the misappropriation or destruction of wetland conservation areas and fishery

resources.

Thuok said the government allows Cambodians to fish in 56 percent of the country's

waters, but he added that around the Tonle Sap there were about 1.5 million people

making a living from fishing.

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