Field notes from “Cambodia’s beating heart”

A man fishing on the Tonle Sap in Cambodia. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

Nicknamed Cambodia’s “beating heart,” the vast Tonle Sap Lake is Southeast Asia’s largest. Now, the country is trying to stop the loss of its lifeblood: the fish that thrive in these waters.

Each year, during the monsoon season, the Tonle Sap more than quadruples in size. For the 3 million people who call its floodplain home, those seasonal floods bring food: The Tonle Sap and Cambodia’s other inland fisheries yield 500,000 tons of fish each year, worth an estimated $2 billion annually.

But for years, fish stocks have been declining.

Climate change, upstream dams and illegal and unregulated fishing are threatening the food and financial security of the Tonle Sap Lake communities. In the unusually long, hot and dry summer of 2016, nearly a third of the seasonally flooded forests around Tonle Sap were burned in wildfires started to harvest charcoal, damaging critical habitat that the lake’s more than 200 species of fish rely on.

First step: Stop overfishing

The Cambodian government is working to address these threats and to restore fish stocks. Since 2013, the government has designated more than 20 fish sanctuaries — “no-take” areas where people are prohibited from fishing — across the Tonle Sap. Protecting these areas accomplishes two key things: It strengthens the resilience of the lake’s ecosystem, and it helps regenerate fish stocks that people depend on to survive. As fish recover in the sanctuaries and their numbers grow, this abundance spills over to adjacent areas where people fish, ensuring a long-term supply for the larger population.

Conservation International (CI) is partnering with the Cambodian government’s Fisheries Administration and local authorities to patrol fish sanctuaries, also called fish conservation areas (FCAs). CI is helping local community members, particularly women, to improve their livelihoods by developing and managing sustainable fish-processing businesses. Conservation International currently supports two fish conservation areas totaling 6,000 hectares (about 14,800 acres), including one near the floating village of Kompong Prak.

Stopping illegal fishing

Ranger Hok Mean Ang, chief of Fishery Administration for Kompong Prak, is part of a team of 10 rangers who patrol these two FCAs. “People need and want to get fish, so if we don’t guard the FCA, it means the conservation area will be damaged,” Hok Mean Ang said. “The biggest challenge is when offenders commit illegal activities at night because it’s hard to see, and if the rangers use lights, it’s easier to drive the patrol boat, but the offenders are looking out for us and try to escape.”

Often at night, fishers use non-motorized boats to reduce noise and set up nets to catch fish illegally. The poorest populations, including those who do not own a boat or their own fishing nets, are sometimes forced to fish illegally and use prohibited gear to turn a profit for larger operators. It’s a huge temptation in a place where most people survive on less than $1 per day.

Hok Mean Ang said rangers want to crack down on this illegal activity. For minor offenses, rangers issue a warning and force fishers to release their catch, while repeat offenders who take large amounts of fish are more likely to be arrested and sent to court.

“It’s our job to guard the conservation area day and night,” Hok Mean Ang said. “When we patrol, we can stop illegal activity by apprehending offenders and collecting illegal fishing gear.”

A tangle of green and white fishing nets, collected from fishers apprehended inside sanctuaries, fill a boat docked outside the Kompong Prak ranger station, a one-room floating platform. Conservation International provides rangers with patrol boats and other equipment, including fuel, GPS units and binoculars. Together with the Cambodian government, CI trains rangers on GPS use and wildlife law, as the lake is home to otters and endangered water birds such as milky storks. Some people who are caught fishing illegally have said they weren’t aware they were in a conservation area, so to clearly mark boundaries, Conservation International has also helped to build large white demarcation poles that tower over the water.

Patrol efforts are making a difference. Fisheries Administration records show that between 2010 and 2016, instances of illegal fishing decreased by half in target areas. Since January 2018, rangers in Kompong Prak have responded to more than 50 incidents of illegal fishing and have sent multiple offenders to court.

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Floating investments

In the floating village of Srey Choek, a half-hour boat ride from Kompong Prak, CI set up a Community Conservation Area that includes a seasonal no-take zone (where fishing is prohibited) to sustainably manage the fish populations the community relies on. Under this structure, conservation areas are set aside, and a local committee, sanctioned by the federal government, oversees fisheries planning, management and enforcement. Conservation International helped set up 11 similar local management committees to oversee existing community fisheries on the Tonle Sap.

Innovative finance tools are key to empowering communities like Srey Choek to protect their natural resources. To ensure long-term financial stability for the community, Conservation International set up a community trust fund with an initial US$ 5,000 capital investment, which produces about 10 percent interest annually. The community uses the interest to support patrols and other conservation activities, such as creating a fishery management plan and replanting more than 160 hectares of the seasonally-flooded forest. As part of the work in this area, Conservation International is exploring the value of implementing an entrance fee community fisheries can charge non-community members to fish in their zones.

“It’s important to conserve our fish supplies because over time, it generates more fish for our families,” said Patrol Team Deputy Meas Mon, who has been patrolling Srey Choek for four years. “Fish stocks have increased since I started to work with the community fishery.”

The efforts, it seems, are paying off: From 2010 to 2015, monitoring of fish catch in Srey Choek shows that the minimum catch recorded increased a staggering 300 percent from 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) to 6 kg (13.2 pounds). For the region’s poverty-stricken fishers, that means more food and better incomes for families.

Sokrith Heng is the Tonle Sap scape manager for Conservation International-Cambodia. 

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