Like her parents and grandparents, Thi Bay has made a living from fishing on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake her whole life. But the combination of a collapsing ecosystem and ever-changing management is forcing the 70-year-old to leave fishing behind.
Instead, Thi Bay now spends several days a week collecting snails on the outskirts of her village, Chong Kneas, one of several houseboat communities along the banks of Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. She mostly sells the snails to locals, who like to buy directly from fishers to ensure the freshest produce. This barely supports her and her granddaughter, Thi Bay says as she plucks another snail from her trap.
“I prefer to fish. Nobody buys snails every day,” she says. But in the face of an ongoing crackdown on illegal fishing on the lake – and constantly changing rules around what is allowed, and where – she doesn’t dare go fishing. “We are in trouble if we do anything illegal. But even if I am not guilty, I don’t want to risk it.”
The rules and regulations around fishing on Tonle Sap – the seasonal flooding of which is often referred to as the ‘beating heart of the Mekong’ – have swung on a political pendulum over the past decade. Many of these changes have coincided with Cambodia’s election cycles at the national and commune level.
In the run-up to a 2012 election, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen dissolved a century-old privatised fishing model in a populist bid that opened the lake to all.
But 10 years later, with millions of dollars being invested in revamping Cambodia’s fisheries sector, Hun Sen announced a crackdown on illegal fishing on Tonle Sap, lurching the lake back towards more restrictive management. Officially, the crackdown was only meant to affect those practising illegal methods, like electrofishing. But the gusto with which these orders have been enforced has scared off many other fishers, like Thi Bay, while fines and equipment confiscations have left residents of the lake’s floating villages struggling to find new livelihoods.
‘Let the people be the owner’
Fishing lots have existed on Tonle Sap in various forms since at least the 1880s. The general premise of a lot is simple: only the lot owner can fish within that designated area during a specific season.
In the more modern system, which was re-established in the late 1980s following the end of Cambodia’s conflict, lot ownership and licences were auctioned to the highest bidder for thousands of dollars. A 2007 study found that this system often deepened inequalities between lot owners and other fishers, causing water-related conflicts. But this highly exclusive system limited the number of fishers active on the lake and safeguarded spawning areas, thereby limiting pressure on the lake’s natural resources.
In the floating village of Kampong Khleang, not far from where Thi Bay was collecting snails, Chhong Pov sells his daily catch for less than 3,000 Cambodian riels, barely USD 0.70. Having fished on Tonle Sap for nearly 50 years, Pov has witnessed half a century of back-and-forth management on the lake.
“When there was a lot system, I could earn more because people protected the lot,” says Pov. “Even if the lot owner decided to take the fish out, there was still fish left because the remaining fish spawned inside the lot and swam out. There could be boatloads of fish.”
This was until 2012, when Prime Minister Hun Sen abolished Tonle Sap’s last fishing lots – which at the time covered nearly 600 square kilometres. Several lots had been dissolved prior to this final order.
“Lot owners may be angry at me but I do not care about those who benefit. What matters to me is the Cambodian people receive the benefit,” said Hun Sen at the time.
According to a 2015 study on the fallout of this move, former lot owners said that “the government had manipulated access to resources to pacify the fishermen in exchange for votes”. A report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature a year later found that in the aftermath of the lots being dissolved, “no steps were taken to prepare or reinforce communities or governments in order to avoid a ‘tragedy of the commons’ whereby inequitable but well managed fishing lots were replaced by a free for all”.
The pressure created by this open access added to a number of severe threats already facing Tonle Sap’s fisheries, including the impacts of hydropower development and climate change.
A record-breaking drought in the Lower Mekong River Basin between 2019 and 2021 showcased the devastating effects of these compounding factors. The Mekong River’s water flow hit record lows in this period, badly affecting fisheries in the river and Tonle Sap. Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration recorded drops in fish production across the country.
Experts attributed the cause of the drought to hydroelectric dams upstream withholding water, as well as low and erratic rainfall during the wet season. A 2021 report from the Mekong River Commission noted that “climate change and the El Nino event are likely to have contributed to the delayed and reduced monsoon rain” in 2021. The drought followed a historic wildfire season in 2018 that scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of the lake’s flooded forests.
Crackdowns drive tensions
In March 2022, Hun Sen ordered a crackdown on illegal fishing and logging on and near Tonle Sap, leading to regulatory changes around fishing locations and the type of equipment allowed.
Long Senhout, an official with the Ministry of Environment stationed near Kampong Khleang, says that funding for local law enforcement was also increased, and more consistent patrolling was approved.
The eager enforcement of this new order has strained relationships with local communities, Senhout says. “It is hard for them because they got used to the larger lot system, then they got used to not having it, and now they are getting used to new rules. People are not really happy.”
“The rules keep changing and the fish keep getting smaller, but what choice is there?” says Chhong Pov, who unlike Thi Bay, sees no alternative to fishing. “I am a fisherman, I must fish.”
Residents of floating villages along the shores of Tonle Sap, like Chhong Pov, say the crackdown has left fishers operating both legally and illegally terrified of fines and arrests. But with few options for alternative livelihoods around the villages, Pov says he chooses food over fear.
Efforts to revive the Tonle Sap fisheries
In March 2022, Wonders of the Mekong, a research project funded by the US Agency for International Development, released nearly 1,600 fish – all threatened species – into Tonle Sap, in an attempt to bolster wild populations. They are planning to release 5,000 more any day now.
“We know this fishery is under pressure. We know that regulations have changed in the last 10 years to really open up this area to a lot more fishermen than may have previously been in the system,” says Elizabeth Everest, a researcher with the organisation. “I don’t know when the particular year is when things will be at a point of no return. But in the research community, there is a lot of concern for the area.”
Hoy Sreynov, an officer in the Cambodian Fisheries Administration’s Department of Aquaculture Development, manages the ponds where threatened fish are raised for release. She says this process increases the chances for endangered species in the wild, and helps safeguard Tonle Sap’s key role in seasonal fish migration up and down stream.
‘I gave up and changed my occupation’
Across the lake from Chhong Pov and Thi Bay, in the floating village of Kampong Luong, Chum Sreynga is tending to her floating garden.
“My occupation was fishing, but fishing is not good,” says Sreynga. “The lake is almost completely empty. So, I gave up and changed my occupation [to growing vegetables],” Sreynga says.
Chum’s is one of 12 former fishing families who are experimenting with floating gardens in Kampong Luong, with the support of the charity Voluntary Services Overseas and CAPFISH, a multi-million-dollar European Union initiative attempting to revamp Cambodia’s fisheries sector and aid those attempting to find sustainable alternative livelihoods to fishing.
The search for alternative livelihoods is only becoming more desperate as Tonle Sap’s ecosytem buckles under the pressures of human activity and politics, perhaps spelling an end to a way of life on Cambodia’s great lake.
“I decided to grow vegetables because I wanted to have something to eat,” Sreynga says. “The fish are declining but I have a business that can sustain my living so I don’t care now. I had to move on.”
Additional reporting by Sophanna Lay
This story was produced in collaboration with the Southeast Asia Globe