Kampong Cham province on the western bank of the Mekong River in Cambodia with its bountiful fishing resources has long been home to people who caught fish for a living. But nowadays, this once plentiful resource is disappearing with fishers are finding fewer fish to catch. The children of fishing families no longer care to follow in their family’s fishing tradition.
There’s a danger that the fishing skills that have been passed down through generations may not survive to the next generation, and the traditional knowledge about local fisheries will be lost forever.
Most communities in Kampong Cham are rice farmers. But having lived in the Mekong basin, fishing comes naturally, and most of them take to fishing as a source of food and supplemental income. Without it, life would be much harder.
Pov Kheng, depends on fishing for a living. He learned to fish from his father when he was 13. He remembers the year was 1980, a year after the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
He fondly recalled that he really enjoyed fishing because “wherever there was water, there was fish”. There were all kinds of fish — Giant Pangasius, Mekong Giant Catfish, Giant Barb, Giant Sheatfish, Thicklip Barb, Striped Catfish, and Concealed Dorsal-fin Catfish, to name just a few.
“All I needed was a fish net,” Pov Kheng recalled, “to catch enough fish to feed my whole family.”
Fishing is hard work, however. Fisher folks take their boats out in the dark of night while others are in their beds, and only come back to land after the sun rises.
Fishers also need good motor skills and manual dexterity to navigate boat and catch fish at the same time. They also need to know where fish congregate at different times.
Hard though it is, fishing would not have been so intolerable if there were fish to catch.
That’s the main problem: the numbers of fish and other aquatic animals have been declining due to several factors.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) reports that freshwater fish catch peaked at 505,005 tons in 2013 but dropped by around 4 percent in 2014.
However, the government’s 2014-2018 National Strategic Development Plan expects that the catch will increase to 910,000 tons by 2018. This optimistic assessment is not in accord with other reports that predict the fish numbers to fall further due to environmental changes and population growth.
One of the studies expects a 40-60 percent decline in inland fishery yields for both Cambodia and Vietnam “in the foreseeable future.”
An Agriculture Ministry report shows that income from the fisheries sector in 2016 was US$565,284, a dramatic decline of nearly half of the 2015 earning.
According to Nao Thuok, a senior MAFF official, the government is currently operating on projections of a 16-30 percent drop in fish biomass.
The projections are consistent with warnings last year by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that fish production will be driven down by reduced flows of nutrients and sediments, apparently as a result of dam construction on the upstream Mekong.
Such a decline will affect food prices in the region, the MRC said. “[This] will directly affect the livelihoods of the local communities living along the Mekong mainstream and Tonle Sap flood plain.”
Meanwhile, illegal fishing makes bad situation worse. The MAFF reported that it found 1,653 cases of illegal fishing in the first half of 2017, which was an increase of 27.34 percent over the same period the year before.
The ministry said investigations led to the destruction of 704,432 meters of illegal fish nets, mainly ones with fine mesh, and 274 banned tools.
Such developments make life harder for small fishermen like Pov Kheng and Lim Leak, who lament the decline of fish numbers.
“I spend the same time in the same river as others, but I can catch only one kilo of fish while the others catch almost ten times as many because they use different tools,” Lim Leak said, apparently referring to illegal fishing methods.
“Sometimes, I feel despair; I just want to give up my old-fashioned fishing skills.”
Declining numbers of fish is a serious problem. But the fishermen have another problem on hand that is probably even more heart-breaking. Their children don’t want to follow in their footsteps.
The fishermen say young people nowadays are not interested in learning fishing skills from their parents. They believe modern science and technology have changed younger people’s views of life and society.
“My children left home two years ago to work in the city. They don’t want to have the same life that I have, spending almost the whole time in the river with fish nets,” said Pov Kheng.
“I know that fishing does not provide good income to raise a family like it used to a few decades ago,” he continued. “But I wish they would learn the skills even if they may not use them in the future.”
It is a sentiment that young people such as Ken Keo do not share.
Ken Keo finished secondary school but his family could not afford to send him to high school. For two years afterwards, he went fishing with his father.
He confessed that he found life in the river boring. He couldn’t sleep well at night and had hard time getting up early in the morning. He said the number of fish caught was just too small and not worth the energy spent into it.
At 18 Ken Keo went to work at a cigarette factory. Apparently echoing a sentiment shared by other young people, Ken Keo, now 25, said: “I would rather work in a factory than go fishing with my father.”