Fisheries (mis)management and the closure of Tonle Sap fishing lots

Hun Sen bans industry fishing at Tonle Sap lake permanently, Phnom Penh Post, Feb 29, 2012

Cambodia’s Prime Minister has announced an indefinite closure of 35 fishing lots around the Tonle Sap Lake, citing “illegal overfishing to the detriment of local villagers”.

The closure of these fishing lots marks the end of an era of fisheries management that began during French colonial times, whereby prime fishing grounds in the Tonle Sap Lake were parceled off for the exclusive use of elites and industry.  Fishing rights were auctioned to private bidders to raise revenues: the highest bidder then held exclusive fishing rights over a particular area, with Chinese merchants monopolizing the market.  Large-scale fisheries comprised of the most productive parts of the floodplain for which exclusive concessions were granted for two to four years.  Medium- and small-scale fisheries were essentially open access licences, allowing fishing gear of a certain size to be used in all areas except fishing lots.  This system pervaded, with minor variations, for over 140 years, and fishing lots have always been a major source of revenue for fishing lot owners.  Fishing lots have also provided jobs for local people, and been a source of fingerlings for small producer fish farmers.

In 2000, linked to village protests, declining fish stocks and access issues, an initial fisheries reform took place whereby 56 % of all fishing lots in the Tonle Sap were released to the public as a way to increase access of local villagers to fishing grounds.  After an initial chaotic period, fishers and fisheries officials settled into new forms of management which included a role for community fisheries and local resource management.  However, even with such reforms, life in fishing villages has not become that much easier.  Fishers have been increasing their fishing effort to ensure that they can meet their livelihood needs.  Fishers continue to struggle to send their kids to school, waste management remains an issue, and access to health and other social services remains difficult for these floating or stilt housed villages.  For these reasons, when fishers first heard about the proposed fishing lot closures in the Tonle Sap that were announced in the summer of 2011, they ware jubilant (especially given their experiences with the fishing lot releases in the early 2000s).

It is unclear, as of yet, if these fishing lot closures are really a good news story.  After conducting a dozen or so household interviews and several focus groups in February 2012, a time when the temporary closure of fishing lots in the Tonle Sap was already in place (I did interviews in Kampong Thom, Kampong Chaan, and Pursat), it became apparent to me that both small and medium scale fishers were not necessarily benefiting from such closures.  There are several reasons for this:

  • The fishing lots are completely closed — not released to the public — meaning that villagers cannot access these areas and no new fishing grounds have been opened up.
  • Fish migration patterns appear to be shifting with the closure of the fishing lots, with reports of far more fish being found downstream of the Tonle Sap rather than in the Tonle Sap lake area.
  • The Tonle Sap Technical Authority is strictly enforcing the Fisheries Law — most small scale and medium scale fishers use more fishing gear (i.e., a greater amount of gill nets or using fences and traps to catch fish) than is legally allowed to earn their livelihood.  Such a crack down impacts livelihood options.
  • Medium scale fishers are feeling the impact of the lot closures since there is no supply of fingerling for raising fish and people who use bamboo traps and nets have had their gear destroyed.
  • Poorer households with limited fishing gear may be benefiting (a little is what was suggested to me); however, for those households that had family members working on the fishing lots (some fishing lots employed up to 60 workers) a valuable source of wage labour is now gone.  Some labourers have moved to work in cassava plantations.

It may be that strict enforcement combined with the closure of commercial fishing lots will enable fish stocks to recover, and this may be an important move in terms of the sustainability of this ecosystem.  To assess this, however, requires careful, consistent monitoring.  To my knowledge, no government authority or NGO is measuring catch levels other than for the dai fishery.  How this impacts small and medium scale fishers vis-a-vis food security and poverty alleviation also requires far greater attention.  Moreover, it is hard to know if the current strict enforcement of the fisheries law is linked to the lead up to the commune elections or if this is a new normal.

In sum, this is a reform that may not lead to enhancing local peoples lives (although we would all like it if it did) or enhancing the resource base.  Time will tell.