Fish Shortage Stirs Ethnic Rivalry | Khmer Times

Chea Takihiro and Igor Kossov
Sunday, August 9, 2015
A Cham fishing community on the Tonle Sap River.
A Cham fishing community on the Tonle Sap River.
KT Photos: Fabien Mouret

This article first appeared in the Khmer Times.

The Vietnamese fishing families are gone. 

Their boats began disappearing from the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers near Phnom Penh a few months ago, according to Cham fishing families still living in the area. By the weekend none were left, Cham fishermen told Khmer Times. 

The ethnic Vietnamese have either moved to more remote locations or into houses where they can hide among Khmer communities, said Math Ly.

He welcomes their departure, saying fish stocks had been declining and that the fishing methods used by the Vietnamese were partly to blame.  “They don’t think about the future,” Mr. Ly said. “For the Vietnamese, fishing is a business,” he added, explaining that they use gill nets so small that they catch minnows.  

Growing Competition

The crackdown on undocumented foreign workers this year, which has hit Vietnamese people the hardest, has included visits by immigration officials to riverside communities, residents said. 

They said that ethnic Vietnamese were told to leave, even families who had been living there for decades. 

There is little mourning for the departure of the Vietnamese among the Cham fishing community, which comprises 60 to 70 families on the Tonle Sap near Phnom Penh.  As fish stocks declined in recent years, competition intensified, they said.

Mr. Ly, and other Cham fishermen, said that besides using nets that were too small the Vietnamese also fished out of season. 

Some Cham residents admitted doing the same, but said they had little choice. Occasionally, police visit the river banks to deliver warnings or arrest those caught fishing between July and October.  

Mr. Ly said he needs to keep fishing to feed his family, even as fish become scarcer. 

Dwindling Livelihood

This year catches are only 30 percent of what they were five years ago, fishermen said. Earnings have fallen from about 70,000 riel a day to zero some days, they added. 

Last month, Mr. Ly said he only caught enough fish to sell on 11 days. The other 20 he caught just enough to feed his family. 

“Some days, there is only enough to eat but not to sell,” said Yeap Sreypos, another Cham resident. “The same problem is happening in all the rivers.” 

Besides Vietnamese competitors, the Cham fishing community blames rampant development and climate change, which they say wreaks havoc on the fish spawning season.

Environmental organizations say worse is yet to come. They have been warning for years that dam building and sand dredging in the greater Mekong region is damaging  rivers and destroying the livelihoods of local communities. 

Ms. Rafyas said that if the problems persist, many of her neighbors will have to give up fishing and seek other jobs in other sectors, such as construction. With little savings, many of the local families will be hard-pressed to find an alternative. 

“We have some money but not enough to start a business,” she said. Like other residents of her community, she says she is not sure where the Vietnamese fishing families went, and that she does not care.