Fishermen living along the Tonle Sap river and the Mekong tributary system are increasingly concerned for their livelihoods, as fish catches have dropped drastically in the past decade.
Each year the Tonle Sap lake – known as the “beating heart” of Cambodia – gives life to one of the world’s most productive water ecosystems as the lake swells to several times its dry season size.
But many living along the river that snakes south of the lake and support themselves through fishing now say they are unable to support themselves as they once could.
Eng Kim Chhour, head of the fishing community in Kompong Svay district, Kampong Thom province, says in the three decades in which he has fished from the river things have never been so bad.
“Before I could find from 50 to 60 kilograms [of fish], some days it reached 100 [kilograms]. These days, I can find only 4 or 5 kilograms. Prices of goods has increased; we don’t really earn enough and our kids are growing and have to attend school,” he said.
Four of his children have already migrated to Phnom Penh to find work as maids.
According to a report by the Global Nature Fund, the Tonle Sap is considered one of world’s the most threatened rivers.
The lake is a major source of protein for Cambodians, but human activities such as the use of poisons, explosives and electric fishing techniques, and the construction of hydropower dams, may have irreversibly damaged the waterways.
Kim Chhour is among 800 other families in Kompong Svay who are suffering the same fate. Many have already let to seek work in the cities and overseas, joining the annual mass migrations of largely undocumented Cambodians who head to Thailand and other countries in the region on the promise of a better life.
Eang Nam, another fisherman from B6 lake, Prek kuy commune, Kampong Cham province has given up fishing and become a Tuk Tuk driver.
“If we look at the past 10 years, the amount of fish is very different. Now there is nothing left. Fishermen who can’t earn a living emigrate to find another job in Phnom Penh or Thailand, because the fish have all vanished,” he said.
“I decided to stop fishing because there is no fish. We used to find 10 to 20 kilogram per day, but now we can’t even find a single kilogram.”
Kim Chhour thinks both man-made and natural factors have played a role in the decline of fishing in the area.
“Human factors include the use of tiny webbed cast nets that gather all the fish, including tiny fish” he said. “One more is that the water keeps going down. Normally, this month as we approach [the national holiday] Pchum Ben, the water would reach three or four meters in depth. But now it’s not even two meters.”
Nao Thuk, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said the government was “discussing what we should do in order to maintain the Tonle Sap’s longevity, as well as to improve the fishery environment.”
Tek Vannara, executive director of the NGO Forum, said many factors had led to the downturn, including a reduction in mangrove forests, falling water levels and rising aridity in the lake.
As much as $2 billion of Cambodia’s annual revenue is generated by the fishing industry, while two-thirds of Cambodians eat fish every day, according to Conservation International.