Fishermen at work on Tonlé Sap lake, Cambodia. Photo: Sam Jones / The Guardian

By Sam Jones
1 December 2015

Tonlé Sap lake (Guardian) – Out past the floating villages, the daytrippers and the mangrove arcades, the brown waters of the Tahas river open into a vast, dull green lake fringed by forest and a seemingly endless horizon.

Silhouetted by a sinking afternoon sun, distant figures fish from small boats under a blue sky streaked with low cloud. It is the kind of weather that both tourists and Savon Pen prefer.

“Sometimes you look up at the sky and it’s gloomy and I worry that the boat will capsize,” says the 42-year-old fisherwoman.

“The wind blows them over and when the boats sink, they go straight to the bottom of the water. Every year, people die.” Over the past few months, two people from her community have drowned.

Tonlé Sap lake is many things to many people: a Unesco biosphere reserve since 1997; a wetland that supports the livelihoods of more than 1.2 million people; a tourist attraction; and the source of more than a third of all the protein eaten by Cambodia’s 15 million people. In the rainy season, its area can swell from about 2,700 sq km to 16,000 sq km. […]

In a bid to safeguard the lake’s population and diversity, an EU-funded programme has established a 200-hectare (494-acre) fish conservation area (FCA) close to the Kampong Phluk commune, which is home to nearly 3,900 people.

According to the local community fisheries, the FCA is paying dividends: its deputy chief claims that only 1% of the fishing in the area is illegal, compared with 30% across the whole commune.

But despite its success, some local fisherfolk worry it may be too little, too late. Vey Kuang, who has lived in Kampong Phluk for all of her 54 years, says the fish population has dwindled drastically over the past 30 years.

“When I was 18 or 19, there were a lot more fish than there are today,” she says.

“Back then, if we wanted to go fishing, four of us could catch the fish with our bare hands. There were a lot of tree branches in the water then to attract fish, but they have all gone now, so the fish population has decreased and some species are no longer found.”

The forests surrounding the lake have been denuded for decades because people rely on wood and charcoal for fuel, but Vey Kuang believes that climate change is also affecting the seasons and the fish.

“The weather is getting hotter and now even the rainy season is as hot as the dry season,” she says. “November is meant to be a cool month but this year, it’s hot.”

Ning Nee, the community’s commerce chief, agrees: “We have seen an increase in heat. It’s hotter now and we are urging people to plant trees.”

Vey Kuang has noticed other signs of climate change. She points to the water below the stern of the boat she is sitting on and says her mother has told her that, in her lifetime, the level of the lake has never been so low. What’s more, she adds, the lake has started to smell, which shouldn’t happen given the fresh downpours of the rainy season.

“I hope the fish conservation area will help,” she says. “But I am very worried about how things will be for my grandchildren. If there are no more fish, we’ll have to send people from the community to the city and then the young people will go and we, the old people, will be left here selling fish and vegetables.” [more]

Net loss: fish stocks dwindle in Cambodia's Tonlé Sap lake



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