Protecting the Fisheries of Tonle Sap Lake

by Carl Middleton
Friday, June 1, 2007

Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and of great importance to Cambodia and the Mekong River ecosystem as a whole. Located in Northwest Cambodia and connected to the Mekong River via the Tonle Sap River, its ecological value was recognized in 1997 when it was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve. We talked about the outlook for the lake and those communities dependent upon it with Mr. Mak Sithirith, Executive Director of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), a Cambodian NGO that works closely with fishing communities.    

WRR: Why is the Tonle Sap Lake so important to Cambodia?

MS: The Tonle Sap Lake is central to the culture, economy, environment and livelihoods of Cambodians. Over four million people live in the six provinces surrounding the lake, and of these more than a million depend on the lake’s fisheries for their livelihoods.   

It is a critical and unique ecosystem. During the rainy season the lake absorbs the Mekong River’s floodwaters, expanding to about six times its dry season size, and preventing flooding further downstream. Then, in the dry season, the flow of the river connecting Tonle Sap to the Mekong River reverses direction and the lake empties. By adding water to the Mekong River it reduces salt water intrusion in the delta region downstream in Vietnam, allowing communities there to grow rice and other crops. This cycle of expansion and contraction is why the lake is sometimes referred to as the “heart beat of Cambodia.”   

Also, both Tonle Sap Lake and the Angkor Wat temple are an important part of Cambodian’s cultural identity, and it is no coincidence that they are located close to each other. The King would have chosen the temple’s location close to the lake to provide food, fish, and irrigation water for those who built and lived within the temple complex. We could even say that the lake gave birth to the temple.   

Finally, Tonle Sap Lake is also very important to Cambodia’s economy. It provides between at least half of the total capture fisheries – about 230,000 metric tonnes of fish per year. Because subsistence fishers depend on the lake on a day-to-day basis for their livelihoods, it is also vital to the household economy.   

WRR: Are the lake’s fishery resources harvested sustainably?

MS: Fish catch data from the government’s Fisheries Administration indicate that fish catches from the large commercial fishing lots remain relatively constant from year to year. At the same time, over the past ten years there has been a 50-70% decline in household fisheries catch. Importantly, it is widely reported that the composition of the fish catch is changing. Less large fish species and more small fish species are being caught, which is an indication of over-fishing. Reasons suggested by fisheries experts include: an increased subsistence-level fishing population; illegal fishing and weak enforcement of the law; environmental changes, such as localized pollution; and changes in water flows into the Tonle Sap Lake because of major infrastructure developments upstream altering the hydrological cycle of the Mekong River. It is also likely that the commercial fishing lots are under-reporting their fish catch.   

Small-scale fishers especially have been struggling, because they still need to catch enough fish for their families to survive. This has led them to use higher technology fishing gear and expend more effort to catch enough fish. Whereas before only two or three of the family would go out to fish, now it is common for the whole family to go fishing to catch enough to eat.   

Some experts claim that too many people are fishing the lake, but I disagree. There would not be a problem if more sustainable management arrangements such as effective community fisheries were in place.   

WRR: How does the Fisheries Action Coalition Team work with fishing communities to improve their livelihoods?

MS: FACT is a coalition of NGOs that work to enable fisherfolk to maintain access to the fish resources that provide their livelihoods. As many fishing communities live in isolation, FACT works directly with fishers to help them build a lake-wide network. This allows the fishers to have a strong collective voice in any decision-making processes that will affect their livelihoods. FACT works closely with fishing-community leaders by building their understanding on legal issues, on major projects underway around the Lake, and on wider issues such as upstream infrastructure development on the Mekong River. This allows the community leaders to inform their communities and prepares them for future challenges that might arise. FACT also conducts wider awarenessraising activities. For example, in early June 2007 a Boat Parade was organized in which a flotilla of 15 boats toured around the Tonle Sap Lake visiting many remote villages. It was organized to highlight the fact that peoples’ right to access resources must be respected and that Tonle Sap’s environment should be protected.