An early morning in late March, my IUCN colleague ,Vilavong, and I were in Naksang, Lao PDR (in the 4,000 islands) looking for transport to Pakse when a song teow (small truck converted into passenger vehicle) packed full of buckets of pa dek (fermented fish sauce, a staple of Lao cuisine) picked us up.
The fact that the vehicle was packed full of fermented fish sauce was either lucky, unlucky, or simply inevitable. Lucky because we were traveling this route as part of study on the fish market chain between Stung Treng, Cambodia; Champassak, Lao PDR; and Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. This fish product was part of that chain and thus of interest to us. Unlucky because the pa dek has an extremely strong odor and we had to sit next to it for a few hours. Inevitable because we were coming from the 4,000 islands, one of the most productive fisheries in the Mekong, so it is not surprising that vehicles coming from that area would be filled with fish products.
Vilavong and I were able to take part in the study and travel along the market chain because IUCN is leading a study which is being carried out by research teams from Lao PDR, Cambodia and Thailand. In light of reports of the decline of the Siphandone and Stung Treng fisheries due to unsustainable fishing practices, and anecdotal evidence that are a large number of people employed in the trade, this research study seeks to better understand this trade and the employment it provides. The aim is to make policy recommendations about how to manage the trade, conserve fisheries and support rural livelihoods. The project is supported by Sida through the Sumernet program (Sustainable Mekong Research Network) with cofunding from MWD. The research is being carried out by IUCN Lao PDR, the Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institite (Cambodia), Living Aquatic Resource Research Center (Lao PDR) and researchers from Mahasarakham University (Thailand).
During the ride from Nakasang to Pakse, Vilavong began asking the owner of the pa dek questions about her sales price, fermentation process, recent state of fish catch, etc. The woman’s name was Chanh explained that every few months she brings a shipment of pa dek to Pakse to sell and that each time she usually makes a profit of between USD 50 and 130. Like many others we interviewed in the region, she talked about how pa soi (Henicorhynchus lobatus Smith) catch has been very good this year. Also, like others in Laos, she speculated that this might be related to changing fishing practices and improved enforcement of fishing regulations in Cambodia. Regardless, Chanh explained that the influx in pa soi has been good for her business since it is the species she uses to make her pa dek.
Vilavong inquired about whether all of the pa dek would be sold in Pakse or if some might go on to other locations such as Vientiane and Thailand. She explained that she could not be sure, but that she suspected that it would mostly be sold locally since she would be taking her product to specific buyers in Pakse, not the bus station 8km south of the city. Many interviewees mentioned that fish coming from Siphandone bound for Vientiane is usually bought, sold and transferred to new vehicles at the 8km bus station parking lot, not within Pakse city itself. Quite a few people interviewed explained that the trade on Mekong fish to Vientiane is becoming more and more important--with more wealth and tourists in Vientiane, and an upgraded road from Pakse to Vientiane, demand from Vientiane has increasingly been driving prices.
When Vilavong complimented Chanh saying that without her, consumers in Pakse and perhaps beyond would not have pa dek to eat, she smiled and blushed.
The short time that Vilavong and I were able to spend researching and filiming the market chain (a short film is planned) showed us that the fish market chain between the three countries and throughout the region is so complex that we would be foolish to begin making any conclusions before thorough data analysis is complete.
However, listening to stories from people we met during our travels along the trade, such as the woman selling pa dek, helped us realize some of the complexities of the chain and served as a reminder of the importance of considering employment issues when making our final policy recommendations.
By: Eliza Berry, IUCN Lao PDR, Coordinator for Fish Trade Project
For more information about the project, please contact Raphaël Glement, Water and Wetlands Officer, IUCN Laos, email: raphael.GLEMENT@iucn.org