Putting Fisheries First

Thann Kourny, of the second commune council of Serey Monkul, paddles down one of the deep pools on the Srepok River.

Thann Kourny, 60, points to a group of newly built houses on stilts braced for the long-awaited floods of the wet season. “Do you see those houses over there? They’re big houses. To support these households we need to rely on our fisheries”. Kourny tells me that fisheries are the lifeblood of the commune, with all 711 families relying entirely on fishing for their income.

The houses are just a stone’s throw from the Srepok river  one of the major tributaries of the Mekong, which sustains the livelihoods of 60 million people in the region. Approximately 800 fish species have been documented in the Mekong, placing it only behind the Amazon and Congo. Just like Kourny and the other 2 million people that live in the Srepok’s basin, the river’s rich fishing grounds and water resources support their livelihoods.

Kourny has good reason to be concerned about this direct dependence. As the number of mouths to feed continues to grow in his village, so do the threats to their primary food source. Downstream from Serey Monkul is one of the biggest threats to the Srepok’s fisheries; the Lower Se San 2 Dam one of more than 60 dams in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB).

Aimed at harnessing the power of the Mekong to meet increasing energy needs, dams also risk draining it of natural resources. The Mekong’s fisheries have been heavily impacted by the dams, as they increasingly block fish migration routes and trap nutrient flows. No country more so than Cambodia has taken the brunt of dam impacts in the LMB; the country takes an estimated ¾ of total fish losses in the region — the remaining minority of losses divided between Thailand, Lao PDR and Vietnam.

Dam development is also having a knock-on effect; forcing some fishers to turn to illegal methods for their daily catch. Communities like Serey Monkul are now dealing with more illegal fishing; a significant and localised impact often targetted in the communities’ protected fishing grounds, most notably deep pools — a critical nursery habitat and refuge during the dry season for numerous fish species. It wasn’t so long ago when Kourny recalls local fishermen reporting to him a sighting of a large-scale illegal fishing boat using electrical fishing gear that can catch many fold times more fish than traditional methods.

Leveraging community support

The patrol post funded by the Serey Monkul commune at one of the deep pools on the Srepok river.

Twice a year in Serey Monkul, Kourny and the other members of the commune council invite the community to raise pressing issues in their villages; land rights, education, and emergency relief are almost always on the agenda. Talking to members of the community, it’s hard to believe that fisheries was once at the bottom of the list; now it’s all the talk.

Serey Monkul is one of 14 Community Fisheries (CFis) supported by Oxfam’s partner Save Cambodia’s Wildlife (SCW) in Ratanakiri province, who has helped communities review their fishing regulations, management plans and maps of their community fishing areas. Previously though, the commune council previously lacked the technical knowledge to convince the community of the importance of fisheries conservation and rally support for the CFi. “Without the participation of SCW [in the forums], we don’t have in-depth knowledge of the sector...The benefit is not only financial support from SCW but also technical support in explaining to people more clearly [the importance of fisheries]”, Kourny says.

Through SCW’s assistance in the forums, the community of Serey Monkul have taken full ownership and responsibility to protect and manage their fisheries resources. Kourny says that the support is now so strong from the commune council and community that they’ve begun to provide small financial contributions towards the CFi’s patrol efforts, alongside those from Oxfam and its partners as part of the Protecting their Ecosystem in the lower Mekong (PEM) project. “If the community has no more budget for the patrols, the commune will share the budget”, Kourny says. The commune council even recently spent $500 to build an outpost to guard against illegal fishing on the Srepok River —  and the enhanced enforcement is working, they tell me.

Thinking ahead

Through the support of Oxfam and their partners, a total of 26 CFis along the Mekong and its tributaries are now equipped with better leadership, closer ties with the authorities, and are recognised by the Government. Furthermore many of these CFis, just like Serey Monkul, have won over the community who have been empowered to take ownership of their fisheries and deal with the threat of illegal fishing.

As a result, the Nabun Thev, Serey Monkul CFi leader, tells me the community are reaping the rewards, “In 2020, there’s been a lot of achievements. Especially the patrolling activities that have eliminated illegal fishing...The fish has increased. People can catch between 20-30kg a day now”.

However, as the PEM project enters its final stages, Oxfam and its partners are beginning to prepare CFis like Serey Monkul to ensure that going forward they continue to be managed effectively and have access funding to protect their fisheries in the long-term. “Protecting our fisheries is important to protect the abundance of fish yield for the community and that’s why we’ve made a plan to receive more support from other organisations”, Thann Kourny says.

Aquacultured fish are released as part of a ceremony to enrich fish stocks in a protected lake in the commune called Chress lake

With support from SCW, the commune has now put their CFis into their Community Investment Plan (CIP). CIPs are presented by communes in forums delivered to local authorities, as well as NGOs and other organisations who can put in bids to financially back various projects, such as infrastructure or education initiatives, or in this case CFis. In a recent CIP, the council put in a request for financial support to educate community members on the status of fisheries in the Srepok and training for the patrol team to better understand the laws and regulations surrounding CFis.

“I want to see our fisheries become abundant...That will offer us benefits to our community. Therefore, the commune council developed a CIP incorporating fisheries conservation in order to attract support from NGOs and other organisations”, Kourny says.

Fisheries conservation has now been built into the CIP across all 26 CFi’s support by Oxfam and their partners in Cambodia. In turn, this mobilises stronger support for fisheries conservation and put it as one of the priorities in the local planning process. The next step is to provide technical support to all 26 CFi’s in the development of a Community Based Fishery Management Plans (CFMP) to integrate into the CIP. This will build a stronger case and incentive for bidders to financially back the CFI’s conservation efforts, in turn ensuring they can continue to do their work to take ownership of their fisheries and guarantee their protection.

Fisheries for the future

With the fisheries in Serey Monkul stabilised according to the community, There’s also more good news for the fishing communities on the Mekong and its tributaries; the Cambodian Government have put a halt on dam development in the country until 2030. Despite this, Kourny says their work is far from over. “The fish population has stabilised but the population of the village continues to grow. We need to continue to protect our fisheries in order to meet the demand”.

With help from Oxfam and their partners, who have provided the financial and technical support to communities like Serey Monkul, Kourny is thinking ahead, building partnerships and taking ownership of his commune’s fisheries to ensure their fisheries remain stable for generations to come.

Funding for the People Protecting their Ecosystem in the Lower Mekong III project was provided by Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.