IT is seven in the morning and the area around Kep’s crab market is packed with women. Some are selling the freshly caught crabs while others are buying. The scene is one of total chaos.
“Here we have fresh crab,” says Norng Sary, 20, one of the buyers.
Each day she purchases between 20kg to 30kg of crabs, and then sells them to Cambodian tourists.
Norng Sary claims that it is the crab’s habitat that makes the shellfish taste so good.
“The crab here is delicious as the meat is very sweet,” she says. “They live in the sand and in the rocks, at other places they live in mud.”
When she is not buying crabs she helps her father, who is a crab fisherman, sell his catch. This morning he is out at sea and she waits for his return.
Ses Koeun, 40, is also waiting for his boat to come in. Although he has been fishing for crabs since 1994, he seldom goes out fishing himself now. Instead he employs four fishermen to do the arduous work for him. He only makes the trip when one of his crew is ill.
Departing at 12.30 each afternoon, the boat returns at seven or eight the following morning. It takes two or three hours to reach the spot where they fish.
“There are no crabs around here as the water is only two metres deep, where we catch the crabs is six metres deep,” he says. “In the afternoon we spend two or three hours spreading the nets and then we sleep. We start collecting crabs at 11pm.”
The amount of crabs they catch each night is literally written on the wind.
“If the wind is strong we catch around 20kg per day, if the wind is not so strong we will catch only 10kg a day,” he says. “The best time to catch crabs is from June to October.”
One of the problems the fishermen face is over-fishing which is driving the fleet of boats further away from land. Ses Koeun attributes the depletion of the crab stock to the use of more modern fishing tools.
“When the Khmer Rouge collapsed there were a lot of crabs here,” he says. “Before we caught fish on a very small scale with handmade fish tools, now they have modern tools.”
In order to combat this, restrictions have been put in place to protect future crab stocks.
“If we see crabs with eggs inside, we have to keep the crab until all the eggs are spawned and then we sell the mother crab,” he says.
Despite this Ses Koeun does not feel that there are too many fishermen. “Now we have more fishermen, but we also go further, so we are able to catch more fish,” he says.
This leads to the second obstacle that the fishermen encounter; the rising cost of petrol.
“It is very difficult,” he says. “The price of crab does not increase but the price of oil does. It is the biggest problem.”
Yor Chet, 30, does not agree with Ses Koeun about the price of crab. She says that it has increased considerably over the past year.
“Things are more difficult than before,” she says. “It has been difficult for about a year. There are less and less crabs and the price is increasing. Before I paid 10,000 riel for 1.5kg, but now it costs me 18,000 riel. People don’t like to buy at a high price.”
She has sold crabs to tourists at the beach for the past 16 years. Business is best during public holidays and at weekends, when she can charge a premium for the crabs she sells.
“During public holidays I can sell 1.5kg of crab for 40,000 riel,” she says. “Today I will get only 25,000 riel.”
Married with four children, Yor Chet does not have sufficient capital to enter another line of business.
“I don’t have another choice,” she says. “I will keep selling crabs and do some farming.”
As we are talking, Ses Koeun’s boat arrives. A woman measures the catch on some basic scales. It weighs in at 19kg.
“Today, we have lost about $5,” he says. “Some days we lose money, some days we make money. If we catch more than 20kg we make money.”
Interpreter: Rann Reuy