The fisheries sector in Cambodia, including aquaculture, is a significant source of food, nutrition, employment, trade, and socio-economic benefits. About six million people, or 40 per cent of the population, rely directly or indirectly on fisheries for sustenance and livelihood. The post-harvest activities employ an estimated 33,000 people. Women account for more than 50 per cent of the total fisheries workforce.

Fish is of great importance in the Kingdom and the country is heavily reliant on its aquatic resources and biodiversity for food security and livelihoods. Cambodia’s Strategic Planning Framework for Fisheries (2015-2024) calls for the development of sustainable fisheries and provides the necessary guidance to help all stakeholders effectively contribute to the government’s vision for the future, where the people and future generations continue to benefit from abundant fisheries resources.

The post-harvest fishery activities are currently dominated by small and micro-scale producers, who are generally running informal and unregistered businesses. Fisheries production is mostly targeting domestic markets, and hence, exports represent a small proportion.

The exports mainly consist of unprocessed high-value fish, semi-processed crab meat and prahok, which are limited to a few destinations including China, Vietnam and Thailand. The increase of local demand, a lack of compliance with international food safety regulations, and low, competitive advantage of the sector are among the primary reasons for reduced exports.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has caused many challenges in the daily lives of people in Cambodia. The country has undergone a testing period during the pandemic situation and its economic slowdown. The government has been successful in slowing down the spread of Covid-19. However, the pandemic has caused a significant impact on the fisheries sector, particularly on the post-harvest fishery operations and its supply chains, a key source of nutrition and economic support for the people.

In terms of post-harvest fishery operations, the pandemic crisis quickly put additional strain on fish supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving value chain actors.

In order to identify possible impact of Covid-19 on the post-harvest fishery value chains and help inform future planning process, a rapid assessment of Covid-19 impact on the country’s post-harvest fisheries sector was carried out jointly by the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the Fisheries Administration of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries between April 27 and May 10 this year.

The objective of this rapid assessment was to assess the short- and long-term impacts during and after the pandemic on the post-harvest fisheries sector.

The assessment concluded that Covid-19 had a significant impact on post-harvest fisheries businesses in Cambodia by disrupting the fisheries supply chain, both at supply and demand levels. During the study period, fishers and fish farmers experienced sales and price drops between 10-50 per cent and 10-20 per cent, respectively, during the early time of the crisis.

Processors of fishery products (especially those of high value) intended for export and social events reported sale drop even up to 90 per cent. Wholesalers and traders seemed to have been hit hardest among value chain actors due to lower trading volume resulting from the decline of both supply and demand and increased logistic costs amid the pandemic. The negative impacts were felt across the supply chains during the initial period of the crisis which recovered slowly later on.

The assessment also made recommendations to perceive challenges as opportunities for development and mitigate the impact of Covid-19 by striking a balance between the need to maintain production and to ensure consumer food security while protecting the health and welfare of the actors and workforce.

The impact assessment results show that building resilience among the businesses to future pandemics, mainstreaming fisheries businesses through formalisation, and promoting science, technology, and innovation activities are crucial drivers to overall economic growth of the sector.

The study also reveals a number of challenges faced by the fisheries sector, based on which a number of recommendations are made to support a quick recovery and increase resilience to future crises.

First, future investment in the fishery value chain development through financing schemes should focus more on building resilience among businesses to future pandemics. This may include developing new business models and implementing organisational changes to absorb short-term shocks, and ensure long-term viability and growth.

Second, mainstreaming fisheries businesses, specifically the informal businesses, is needed through registration and formalisation. In this regard, the interventions planned under “CAPFish-capture: Post-harvest Fisheries Development”, a component of CAPFish programme, is appropriate as a mechanism for transformation and rebuilding private sector fishery businesses.

Third, investment in science, technology and innovation activities, particularly research and development, is a key driver to market and product diversification that contributes to overall economic growth.

Eng Cheasan, the government’s delegate in charge of Fisheries Administration, agreed with the findings of the assessment. Referring to the recommendations of the assessment, he opined that Covid-19 definitely exposed the vulnerability of the fishery supply chains to pandemics and reiterated further efforts needed to build resilient and roust value chains to sustain such future crises of similar nature.

He further stated that the interventions planned under various development programmes be adjusted or reinforced to prepare the private sector to be more resilient to the future crisis of a similar nature.

He also added that the ongoing CAPFish-capture: Post-harvest fisheries development project implemented by the EU and implemented jointly by the UNIDO and the Fisheries Administration would focus on upgrading the private sector businesses by providing value chain investment support to the selected value chains. The aim, he said, is to improve the production facilities and produce safer fishery products for consumers.

This article is written by UNIDO, Cambodia CAPFish-capture: Post-harvest Fisheries Development project (2019-24).