On February 28, 2012, speaking to students at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC) in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen said “I need to send a message to all people in the whole Tonle Sap that there are no longer any fishing lots”. The prime minister said that he had decided to cancel these lots because fishers had complained about declining catches and there were frequent disputes between fishers and the lot owners. He said that some of the canceled lots would be turned into conservation zones (Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin is now drafting a sub-decree to establish these zones) and added that next year he would cancel fishing lots on the Mekong River in Kampong Cham and Prey Veng Provinces.
The prime minister’s surprise decision puts an end to the system that dates from the colonial period of exploiting the Tonle Sap through a system of privately owned fishing lots. These lots are valuable: some owners pay $35,000/year to the government for a license.
Chea Samnang, a ranger at Beoung Chhmar on the Tonle Sap, supported the decision to cancel the fishing lots because local fishers can now they can fish without restriction. He said that fishers were already earning more money and that some had bought new boats, TVs, and generators.
Pen Thearat, Deputy Director of Beoung Chhmar, and Yann Visak, Chief of Fishery Sankat Peambang, Tonle Sap, welcomed the decision to hand over some fishing lots to local communities and keep others as conservation zones. These will expand the area available for fishing and help the recovery of fish stocks. But they are both concerned that the government does not have the capacity to enforce the new rules and that fishing “anarchy” could result.
On March 21 on a visit to the Tonle Sap we found a 300-m long fishing net with a very small mesh size located a few kilometers from the Beoung Chhmar ranger station. Pen Thearat said that according to the Fisheries Law this gear is illegal but he couldn’t confiscate it because the government had announced that local people had free access the Tonle Sap. According to the boat driver who was with us, the government’s decision risks making rich fishers, who can afford to buy new gear, richer at the expense of poorer fishers.
A lady in a market in Phnom Penh said that this year there were more fish for sale at lower prices than in previous years. A professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh who wished to remain anonymous said that this was due to the cancelation of the fishing lots in the Tonle Sap, which has resulted in unrestricted access and increased production. Until this year, fish production had declined steadily and the professor suspected that this year’s increase is a temporary boom caused by unsustainable fishing. He also pointed out that the government often made populist announcements in the run up to local elections. He hoped that the government would maintain free access for local fishing communities and at the same time properly protect the new conservation zones.
By Kimsreng Kong, Senior Programme Officer, IUCN Cambodia