Dams and climate change threaten fish habitat in Tonle Sap Lake
Fishermen in Kampong Chhnang province complain about what is happening to the lake, which is a designated biosphere in central Cambodia. Shortages have led to higher fish prices, but also less revenue for fishermen. Corruption among officials encourages poaching and illegal fishing.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – A group of fishermen in Kampong Chhnang province, central Cambodia, complain that dam construction and climate change have caused a significant drop in the fish catch in Tonle Sap Lake, which was designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997.

Shortages have led to an increased local fish price, making it harder for poorer residents to put food on the table or make prahok, the fermented fish paste that is a staple of the Cambodian diet.

The lake and complex river system that make up the Tonle Sap lacustrine-wetland ecosystem fed generations of locals. Even today, many villages still rely heavily on fishing for their livelihoods and incomes.

However, “Villagers can barely catch any fish,” Sim Sopanha, a member of a NGO, the provincial Fishing Network, told Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service, adding that although fishermen have made a collective effort to use only sustainable methods, such as rods and legal nets, to ply Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, the population has still declined.

Although he did not provide details about which dams were responsible for the decrease in fish or specify how climate change had affected the population, Sopanha said he disagreed with the provincial Fishery Department’s assessment that an increase in fishermen working the Tonle Sap had led to the decline.

In reality, he noted that “the children of many fishermen have immigrated for work [overseas], so I am confident the fish numbers are declining [due to other reasons]”.

Other fishermen on the Tonle Sap told the RFA that illegal catching methods, flooding and increased immigration of ethnic Vietnamese to the region had contributed to the fall in the lake’s fish population.

They also said that new settlers to the area had been cultivating flooded forests that traditionally have served as fish spawning grounds. In order to meet market demand, fishermen noted that they have been forced to raise fish in ponds with feed enhanced with chemical preservatives and supplements.

In June, a nongovernmental worker told RFA that corrupt local officials who patrol the area around the Tonle Sap are encouraging illegal fishing in the lake, despite a 2006 law that prohibits it, and benefiting from bribes to look the other way.

A villager from Kampong Chhnang also told RFA that local police officers targeted villagers’ legal fishing nets and destroyed them, but left illegal nets untouched.

According to the 2006 law, those who fish illegally in Cambodia may be subject to one to three years in prison and a fine between of 5 million-50 million riel (US ,200-,000).

The government withdrew all licenses for large-scale fishing lots in the Tonle Sap in February 2012 after concerns arose that the lake was being overfished, according to an article in The Cambodia Daily.

Nonetheless, local officials have been known to accept bribes in return for allowing illegal fishing in part of the lake where commercial fishing is banned.

Things have even turned deadly. In February, a Cambodian journalist was beaten to death by a group of fishermen in Kampong Chhnang province’s Cholkiri district for a series of articles he had written exposing illegal fishing.