Cambodia

A fish market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

International support to upgrade Cambodia's fishery sector - Cambodia’s fishery sector has seen little development during the past three decades as the country continues to recover from the impact of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and the two decades of civil war that followed, reports David Hayes.

With peace now restored, the international community continues to support efforts to put the country back on its feet including assistance to upgrade and modernise the important fisheries sector.

As part of wider efforts to foster economic and social development, the government is targeting development of the large fisheries sector along with agriculture to employ and feed the growing population. Cambodia's Master Plan for Fisheries 2001 to 2011 calls for the development of sustainable fisheries, and for the supply of fish and fishery products to keep pace with growing demand. The reduction of poverty among fishing communities is another important priority given the large proportion of the population engaged in fisheries related activities.

Plans to develop the fisheries sector currently are focused on Cambodia's freshwater fisheries sector which is one of the most productive in the world when measured on a per capita basis. Most freshwater fish production is concentrated on and around Tonle Sap Great Lakes and Tonle SapRiver, its branches and flood plains. These are the main source of fish protein for most of the population and provide employment for an estimated one million people in the Tonle Sap Basin area which covers 85,000 square km - equivalent to 40% of the country's land area.

In fact, six million people or about 50% of the near 12 million population are involved in fisheries to some degree, mostly inland freshwater fisheries, while the marine fisheries sector employs only about 10,000 people.

According to FAO and Cambodia's Department of Fisheries statistics, the Tonle Sap freshwater fishery resources rank first in productivity in the world and fourth in the total catch. Research suggests that total annual freshwater fish production ranges anywhere from 290,000 metric tons (mt) to 430,000mt per year, with Tonle Sap Great Lake alone producing about 235,000mt annually; the fish caught being landed at numerous fishing ports around the lake shoreline.

“About 75% of fisheries here is freshwater, mostly live catch. We encourage live catch where it is feasible,” explained David Thompson, team leader and natural resources management specialist, who is heading an FAO project to develop resource management skills among Cambodian fishery organisations around Siem Reap in western Cambodia, “Tonle Sap Great Lake is a natural fish farm. It's a fish harvesting area not a breeding area as the fish breed in the nearby flooded forests.”

According to the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) which is funding the FAO project as part of a series of projects and consultancy programme looking to support and protect Tonle Sap's important ecosystem and fisheries industry, the Tonle Sap Great Lake and river floodplains' contribution to income, employment and food security is higher in Cambodia than any other country. With demand for high price freshwater fish rising in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, the Tonle Sap fishery resources are becoming an important source of export earnings as well.

High productivity in Cambodia's freshwater fisheries industry is confirmed by FAO figures showing that the per capita catch per fisherman is 20kg per person each year in Cambodia compared with 4.5kg per person annually in Bangladesh and 0.5kg per person in India. Production from Tonle Sap's flood plains ranges from 130kg to 230kg per hectare per year which is a world record according to FAO figures.

“Fisheries is the bread and butter of this country. It's the food basket,” Thompson commented, “There is a saying here that if there are no fish then there is no Cambodia. Small fish in the countryside called prahoc are used for fermented fish paste that is served with all food and eaten with rice and vegetables. A lot of fish are dried while others are used in fish curries. There are not many big fish in the market. Snakehead and catfish are supplied to hotels. Most fish are sold through markets.”

Inland fisheries contribute more to Cambodia's national food balance than in any other country in the world. According to government figures fish account for more than 75% or about 60kg of the population's annual 77kg per capita animal protein food intake in the Tonle Sap basin. By contrast the annual consumption of rice in the same region is 151 kg per capita.

More fish will be needed in future as Cambodia's population is expected to continue growing. Rural communities will require more preserved fish called prahoc locally which are an important protein source in the absence of refrigeration due to high cost. For the same reason almost 98% of the nation's marine fish catch is consumed fresh to avoid high storage costs using refrigeration.

International support is now directed at improving the quality of Cambodia's fisheries harvest and eliminating post-harvest problems caused by poor storage and handling.

“We have a huge job to improve the quality of the fish catch for the population – better hygiene, packing and transport are needed. Everywhere they need clean water to improve standards, for example, ice making for cold storage and water for cooking, fish cleaning and gutting,” Thompson remarked.

“For the past year we have been putting effort in livelihood development – fish processing and other things. We are improving drinking water with filters and wells, also supplying health packs for people to wash hands before preparing food to reduce water borne disease.”

Increasing current freshwater fish production levels is being considered including developing aquaculture. However, economic development already is curbing how far fisheries may develop in future.

Two million tourists

“The current 400,000mt freshwater fish annual production is sustainable but you cannot expect much more,” Thompson remarked, “There are water supply problems caused by dams upstream, such as dams on the Mekong River. The pesticide and fertilizer run off from agriculture is a problem, along with inflated land prices and land grabbing. Ankor Wat temple complex attracts two million tourists a year which has caused a huge land price increase and land grabbing. Small fishermen are vulnerable.”

Cambodia's inland fishery is one of the richest in the world due to the seasonal change of water caused by flooding from the Mekong River of the Tonle Sap floodplains and the region's ecological diversity. Most freshwater fish caught are small river carp, giant snake head, river barb, small scale river carp and river catfish.

Inland fisheries are classified as either large, medium or small scale fisheries with large scale fisheries being dominated by the concession system as the government auctions off fishery lots to private companies.

Fish produced by the large scale fisheries are of a higher quality due to more modern and less destructive capture methods being used to catch the fish live. As a developing country, large scale fisheries are one of Cambodia's biggest economic sectors in terms of employment and production. Fishery lots are acquired for two year license periods and attract many wealthy investors.

According to FAO and government estimates total production by the country's large scale fisheries is from 25,000 to 75,000mt of fish a year while medium scale fisheries produce a total of 85,000mt to 100,000mt. Cambodia's small scale fisheries produce an estimated 115,000mt to 140,000mt of fish while fish production in flooded rice fields ranges from 50,000mt to 100,000mt per year.

Fish produced by medium scale fisheries are of a lower quality than large scale fisheries due to the methods of capture employed. Government surveys have revealed that medium scale fisheries use 24 types of fishing gear to capture fish in open protected water. Most fish are killed or injured during capture and are sold to markets or nearby fish processors.

Small scale fisheries, in contrast, are family size operations using fishing gear that requires just one or two people to operate. In addition to open water fishing, small scale fishermen also catch fish in flooded rice fields.

Due to the high productivity of wild freshwater fisheries, aquaculture still is in the early stages of development after being of little importance previously. Cage culture has grown in Tonle Sap Great Lake and along Tonle Sap River with fishermen rearing small captured fish that are too small to sell in the market.

Snakehead and river catfish are among the major species reared by cage culture and are fed on small, wild caught fish, while more recently introduced Nile tilapia are fed on fishmeal and rice bran.

Fishermen involved in aquaculture either rear wild caught fingerlings or purchase fish fry from one of the 13 or so government hatcheries around the country which breed mainly river catfish, red-tailed tinfoil, Chinese bighead and silver carp to supply fish farmers.

Meanwhile, in contrast to freshwater fisheries Cambodia's marine fishery industry remains undeveloped. The exact status of the marine fisheries sector is not fully known due to a lack of published data.

Cambodia's coastline is small, stretching 435km from the border with Thailand in the west to the border with Vietnam in the east. Marine fishing grounds are located on the eastern bank of the Gulf of Thailand. The Cambodian government has licensed Thailand the use of part of the fishing grounds for Thai vessels to fish in.

Cambodia's marine catch is estimated at about 400,000mt per year though the actual catch size remains unknown due to a lack of data. At present official statistics are kept for coastal fisheries only which suggest that about 40,000mt of marine fish and fishery products are landed in Cambodia each year by coastal fishermen, with shrimp accounting for half the catch.

Sihanoukville and Koh Kong are the two major sea fishing ports. The number of marine fishing boats is estimated at about 5,000 of which about 4,000 are motorised and have motors less than 10hp, while 500 are over 50hp including 140 at 50hp and above.

The marine fish catch is taken largely by international fleets with their operations rumoured to be controlled by Cambodian 'security forces'. The foreign fleets land their catches in their home ports and do not report their catch size to the Cambodia authorities.

Unreported catch

The size and details of the marine fishery catch are not available but are estimated by regional fishery experts to total about 360,000mt a year which is equivalent to about 90% of Cambodia's total estimated marine fish catch. A large share of the unreported catch is taken by Thai vessels or caught by vessels of other countries and then sold to fishing processing factories in Thailand.

Purse seiners operating in Cambodian waters target short mackerel, Indian mackerel and anchovy in Cambodian waters, while gill netters target Indo-Pacific king mackerel, sharks, jacks, mullet, snappers, pomfret, sting rays, barramundi and barracuda. Other species caught in Cambodian waters include crab and shrimp.

Future development of marine fisheries will depend on the development of management and technical expertise at the Department of Fisheries and related government departments. Development will also depend on the government's ability to manage the marine fisheries sector in an open and transparent manner, and build up the domestic offshore fishing fleet.

For the moment the government's attention is focused on developing freshwater fisheries. Future development of aquaculture and marine fisheries will take longer and may be assisted by a larger government financial support if recently discovered large potential oil and gas reserves begin to generate large export earnings in future.

The size and details of the marine fishery catch are not available but are estimated by regional fishery experts to total about 360,000mt a year which is equivalent to about 90% of Cambodia's total estimated marine fish catch. A large share of the unreported catch is taken by Thai vessels or caught by vessels of other countries and then sold to fishing processing factories in Thailand.

Purse seiners operating in Cambodian waters target short mackerel, Indian mackerel and anchovy in Cambodian waters, while gill netters target Indo-Pacific king mackerel, sharks, jacks, mullet, snappers, pomfret, sting rays, barramundi and barracuda. Other species caught in Cambodian waters include crab and shrimp.

Future development of marine fisheries will depend on the development of management and technical expertise at the Department of Fisheries and related government departments. Development will also depend on the government's ability to manage the marine fisheries sector in an open and transparent manner, and build up the domestic offshore fishing fleet.

For the moment the government's attention is focused on developing freshwater fisheries. Future development of aquaculture and marine fisheries will take longer and may be assisted by a larger government financial support if recently discovered large potential oil and gas reserves begin to generate large export earnings in future.

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