Cambodia / Traditional fishing ceremony highlights empty nets syndrome

By: Suy Se / Agence France-Presse - Posted on: February 11, 2019 | Cambodia

An annual fishing ceremony in eastern Cambodia, where only traditional fishing gear is used, casts a light on the issue of falling fish stocks due to upstream hydropower dams and the use of illegal fishing methods

Cambodians hold a net during the annual fish-catching ceremony at Choam Krovean commune in Tboung Khmum province Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP

Wielding handmade bamboo baskets and nylon nets, hundreds of people waded thigh-deep into a muddy lake in eastern Cambodia on Sunday for an annual fish-catching ceremony where only traditional tools are used.

The ceremony is held each year after the crop harvest in eastern Tboung Khmum province, located just off the Mekong river, to commemorate the country’s proud fishing history, said local chief Uch Yoeun.

The event – held in Choam Korvean commune, about 250km from the capital Phnom Penh – attracts hundreds of farmers from surrounding villages.

They carry weaved baskets of different shapes, eager to try their hand at trapping the freshwater catfish and snakehead fish in the muddy Boeung Kroam lake.

“It has been a tradition since our ancestors’ time,” Uch Yoeun told AFP, adding that only one rule applies in this mass fishing event.

“We only allow traditional fishing tools to be used.”

Authorities guarded Boeung Kroam lake for more than a month before the event – to prevent illegal fishing and ensure there would be enough to catch at Sunday’s event. A legitimate worry in a country that continues to see diminishing fish levels.

It kicked off in the early morning with hundreds of villagers racing to the lake, sporting straw hats and traditional scarves to shield themselves from the blazing sun.

The mood was light-hearted and many opted to grill the morning’s catch by the lake over a smoldering fire.

But for villagers who had attended the event for several years, the day’s haul proved disappointing.

“Before, there were bigger fish,” said Chin Khoung, 50. “Now the fish are small and there’s less (of them).”

The Southeast Asian country, which is dissected by the mighty Mekong river and its many tributaries, is heavily reliant on fish, which make up 40 to 70% of the region’s animal meat protein, according to International Rivers. About 40% of the population depend on fishing for their livelihoods

The Mekong is the most productive fishery in the world, and is second only to the Amazon river for biodiversity, providing a habitat for an estimated 1,200 species.

But fish stocks have declined in recent years, in part due to hydropower dams built upstream in Cambodia and neighbouring countries. The Lower Sesan 2, Cambodia’s seventh major hydropower dam, became fully operational in December 2018.

Dams are known to create fluctuation of water flows, block navigation routes and prevent fish’s natural migrations. One damming scenario run by a group of scientists from Princeton University, research organisation WorldFish and the Cambodian Fisheries Administration for a 2012 paper estimated a possible 9% drop in the availability of fish in the Mekong Basin.

Another factor which has contributed to the decline is the increase of illegal fishing methods, said Om Savath, who heads the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), which promotes sustainable resource management.

Using techniques like electrocution, “they can catch a lot of fish in a short time, but it is disastrous in the long term,” Savath said. The fish-catching ceremony in Choam Krovean is important because it helps to “raise awareness in communities about the use of family methods in fishing,” he said.

Chea Seila, national wetland and livelihood expert for the Lower Mekong Basin Wetland Management and Conservation Project on behalf of German consulting company GITEC-IGIP, proposes greater collaboration and monitoring when it comes to the Kingdom’s waterways.

“People should join hands to use natural water resources in a proper way to protect fisheries.”

Additional reporting by Claire Baker-Munton

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