The bustling fishermen bringing vast quantities of fish to the shore for prahok production along the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district may have ceased their work, but the distinctive fishy scent still hangs in the air at the manufacturing site, marking the end of an eventful first season, which ran from December 19-25.

The hum of the machines used to make prahok – a ubiquitous pungent-smelling fermented fish paste used in a wide variety of local dishes – has fallen silent, with the machines now cleaned and stored awaiting the next prahok fishing season, predicted to open during the forthcoming waxing moon.

Moth Hosan, the owner of a stationary trawl fishery – known locally as a “dai” – has seen a noticeable increase in harvests, and a corresponding reduction in prices, during the recent season. 

He encourages people to buy more prahok fish ahead of the upcoming second fishing season.

“At present, the fish are currently affordable. Fish are just over 1,000 riel per kg, or more if they have been scaled and cleaned,” he says.

Hosan says that during this 2023-24 fishing season, he has so far caught around 50 tonnes of fish, primarily “trey riel” (Henicorhynchus entmema and H. siamensis) and “trey sleuk russey” (Paralaubuca typus). 

He explains that from January 12, he plans to switch to a different method for the season’s final stretch, using dai kier – a smaller net which resembles a basket – as the water flow is calmer.

“Last month, we used a round dai which was suitable for strong currents,” he explains.

Abundant harvest balances market dynamics

Chhun Hang Tong, head of the Kandal Stung district fisheries cantonment in Kandal province, which borders Phnom Penh, agrees with the fisherman, noting that during the first season, fish production, which favours prahok fish, seemed to exceed last year’s, with more affordable prices. 

He explains that plentiful fish and lower prices benefit those who produce prahok.

“Fishermen’s earnings may decrease, but buyers seek out lower prices to maximise profits. This means that affordable prices are extremely profitable for those involved in prahok production,” he says.

Hang Tong adds that during the first season, catches ranged from 800kg to one tonne per hour, selling for an average of 1,000 riel ($0.25) per kg, less than half the price of last year’s catch, when prices were over 2,000 riel per kg.

He acknowledges that the abundance of fish and lower prices might pose challenges for dai businesses. While cheaper fish lead to reduced earnings, labour costs remain unchanged. This means a lower catch could result in losses.

Fisherfolk unload their catch in Ponhea Leu district on December 19, 2023.Hong Menea

In contrasting to Hang Tong’s perspective, fisherman Se Mao, manager of Dai 15 in Ta Pov village of Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district, remains optimistic.

He expresses no concerns over the declining fish prices this year, as his business has been bolstered by an increase in production.

“Despite the low price of the fish, we caught a significantly larger quantity compared to last year. This abundance in yield helps offset the impact of the lower prices, so that’s fine,” he says, adding that his dai location caught over 100 tonnes this year. 

He notes that while there was an abundance of fish, most were “trey sleuk russey”, less suitable for prahok production.

“Out of the total catch … we sold a portion to local people, some to buyers for making ‘mam’ [sour fish paste] and a portion was sold to Vietnam. Some of the catch was purchased for the production of fish feed, leaving no surplus remaining,” he says.

Increased fish yields boost local trade

Fish wholesaler Chea Channy, also known as Srey Mao, describes her frequent visits to Ta Pov village over the past two years, noting that this year’s quantity and the duration of the fishing period surpassed those of the previous years.

She expresses satisfaction with the increased abundance and affordability, saying she bought 50 tonnes of fish this season, up from about 30 tonnes during the same period last year. Of the total, she processed around 30 tonnes into “mam”, which she sold to customers in Vietnam. The remainder was sold to local consumers for prahok production.

Srey Mao says she plans to continue purchasing in the upcoming season, expected to begin around January 12. She was uncertain whether the next season will yield as many fish as the first one.

According to Heng Sophearith, director of the Fisheries Administration’s (FiA) Kandal provincial cantonment, the initial fishing season in the province yielded a total of 2,840 tonnes.

He notes that although this was a substantial quantity, expectations for fish suitable for making prahok were not met. The majority of the catches were “trey slek russey” and trey c’hveat (Pangasius elongates), which are less suitable for the task.

He anticipates that the upcoming season will bring a higher quantity of more suitable fish, and expects an increase in yield by the end of coming season.

“I am certain that despite the first fishing season falling short of expectations, in my experience, people were still able to purchase the amount of fish they required,” he says, noting that in 2023, specialist officers had collaborated with local authorities to tackle over 200 cases of fishing crimes, mainly involving electric shock devices or the use of illegal nets. 

He affirms his commitment to enforcing fisheries restrictions continuously to ensure an increase in fish production in the coming years.

Ngin Dy, director of the FiA’s Phnom Penh cantonment, has observed a noticeable increase in fish caught by dai during the first season in the capital, with over 800 tonnes caught, a rise of about 17 per cent compared to the same period the previous year.

He notes that during the season, numerous people visited Chrang Chamres commune in Phnom Penh’s Khan Russey Keo district to purchase fish for making prahok. 

“Currently, dai [trawling] is temporarily suspended as the waxing moon phase has ended. However, during the next waxing moon, a significant number will be coming to purchase fish for prahok,” he says.

In contrast to the catch in Kandal, where the majority of fish were “trey slek russey”, Dy notes that in the capital, most of the fish caught by fishermen were “trey riel”, which are in high demand for producing prahok.

According to statistics from the agriculture ministry, dai fishing in Phnom Penh and the provinces of Kandal and Prey Veng recorded catches of 8,700 tonnes in 2021, 13,000 tonnes in 2022, and 13,650 tonnes in 2023.