Proceedings of the Third World Fisheries Congress: Feeding the World with Fish in the Next Millenium—The Balance between Production and Environment

Fish Aplenty, a Gift of the Mekong River: Can the Great Inland Fisheries of Cambodia Survive?

Nicolaas P. van Zalinge, Thuok Nao, Sopha Lieng, R. Traung, Peng Ngor


Cambodia has very few income-generating possibilities other than its natural resources (agriculture, forestry, and fisheries) and economically is almost fully dependent on them. In this paper, we discuss the inland fisheries, which support a thriving industry of great economic and social importance and have a potentially bright future. Our aim is to improve the understanding of issues at stake for the continued sustainable use of these resources.

Reasonably accurate statistics are essential for clarifying the importance of the fisheries sector for the society and the economy as well as for rational decision making on national development (e.g., by weighing losses and gains of Mekong damming). Government statistics previously covered only part of the production system, and results therefore differed significantly from actual total production. Statistics on the small-scale (family) and rice field fisheries were recently incorporated. In 2000, comprehensive independent data were largely based on Mekong River Commission (MRC) and Department of Fisheries (DOF) regional socioeconomic surveys (van Zalinge et al. 2000). Results included the following:

• Annual catch of the freshwater capture fisheries was 290,000–430,000 tons (believed to be underestimated).
• Estimated value at the landing sites was US$150–200 million; estimated retail value was US$250–500 million.
• Nearly 2 million people were employed (full and part time) in fisheries in the eight central provinces alone.
• Exports were underestimated but exceeded 50,000 tons to Thailand per year.

Results of an MRC/DOF socioeconomic survey of 4.2 million people in central Cambodia estimated that average fish consumption was 67 kg/person/ year (Ahmed et al. 1998). Most fresh fish or fish products (e.g., prahoc fish paste) are still very cheap and therefore affordable by the rural poor. Fish and rice represent food security for Cambodians.

Although some 500 freshwater fish species have been described for the Cambodian Mekong (Rainboth 1996), more than 1,300 fish species are believed to exist in the Mekong River watershed— at least 120 of which are of commercial importance. Overall catches may be higher now than in the past, although individual catch rates have declined. This effect is partly due to better estimates and partly due to increased fishing effort (i.e., more people fish now than in the past).

Annual migrations take place between the spawning areas (in the Mekong in southern Laos and northeastern Cambodia) and the floodplains (around the Tonle Sap Great Lake, south of Phnom Penh, and in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta). Stocks of late-in-life spawners (usually bigger species) have declined dramatically, some nearly to extinction, such as the giant Mekong catfish Pangasianodon gigas. Stocks of most of the early spawners (i.e., first spawn at about 1 year; usually smaller species) have not declined; in fact, these species dominate current catches (e.g., the cyprinid trey riel Henicorhynchus siamensis).

Movements of nonmigratory species are more limited (e.g., from floodforest to lake or river and back). Stocks have not declined much, because these species are not fished with the same fishing gears as the migratory species. Snakeheads Channa spp., the most important group, are an important part of the catch of the Great Lake fishing lots.