Wrapped only in a sarong, under a cool breeze on the Tonle Sap river, Les Sofi slowly rowed his boat, extending his fish net beneath the surface of the water.
Les Sofi started fishing when he was a boy. “Fishing has been my daily task,” said the 25-year-old Cham fisherman, in Prek Raing village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. “I once could return home with 10 or 20 kilograms of fish each day.”
The number of fish Les Sofi could catch would earn his family 10 between $10 and $12.50 per day.
In two villages of Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district, some 500 Cambodian Muslim families earn their livings by fishing. Several years ago, they come home with at least 10 kilograms of fish per day, found on the Tonle Sap river.
But that number is falling, and now some of them are turning to jobs on plantations or as motorcycle taxi drivers. Fishing communities all along the Tonle Sap, one of the richest lake systems in the world, have begun to see dwindling catches.
Like other fishermen in these river villages, Les Sofi said he had thought of abandoning his traditional job thanks to a dramatic decline in catches over the last several years.
“Before, there were riches in fish, but now I can hardly catch even a kilo of fish a day,” he said with a sad look.
Another fisherman, Sou Matt, 57, gave up his fishing three years ago because of a decline in his catches.
“The reason why the number of fish is falling is that there has been the widespread use of illegal fishing equipment,” explained the former fisherman, who has turned to work on a plantation.
Along the bank, on the other side of the Tonle Sap, Matt Man said he has also abandoned his family tradition career.
“I have now changed my job to work as a moto taxi driver,” said the 49-year-old. “I could no longer stand searching for more fish when there were none in the water.”
The village chief Re Mouse said at his house that most of the Cham fishermen in his village have sold their boats to buy motorcycles and turned to on-land jobs.
About 90 percent of the 430 families in Village Two are Muslim fishermen, according to the village chief.
Some fishermen claim that the falling number of fish in the river is due to the use of large-scale fishing equipment, especially during fishing bans between June and October.
Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun and the head of its fishery administration, Nao Thuok, could not be reached for comment for this story.
The director of Phnom Penh’s fishery administration, Pen Phannarith, nonetheless, said he has constantly sent out his officials to monitor and deal with illegal acts of fishery.
“There have been no fishery offenses so far along the Tonle Sap river, from the outskirt of the city inwards,” he said, adding that he would start to monitor more closely next week.
Still, Les Sofi said he would not continue his tradition of fishing should his current catches remain so low.
“I don’t know how long I can keep fishing,” he said. “There are hardly any fish now.”