Uniting in the Fight against the Mekong’s Illegal Fishing

An outpost for the CFi patrol team in Serey Monkul commune on the Srepok river, Ratanakiri province.

As our boat speeds along the Srepok river, the forest-covered banks look as if they're going to burst at any moment. However, Bunthev tells me that the water levels are still a lot lower compared to usual, but that’s not what he’s focused on telling me today.

Na Bunthev, 60, leads the Community Fishery (CFi) patrol in Serey Monkul commune on the Srepok — one of the largest tributaries in Cambodia, slicing across Ratanakiri province before eventually feeding the mighty Mekong River.

The boat comes to a stop in the middle of the river and the boat begins to swirl with the currents as if it’s going to be engulfed by a thick soup. As our boat begins to drift, Bunthev points to a deep pool — a protected zone on the river as a nursery habitat for numerous fish species.

In a bygone time, Ratanakiri was once home to the headquarters of the Khmer Rouge and suffered under heavy bombardment and violent conflict during the 20th century. Vivid memories of the war are still recalled by the elders of the commune, many who identify as an ethnic group known as Khme-Lao. The community depends almost entirely on the Srepok’s fisheries to support their livelihoods.

Bunthev points on a map to the four deep pools along the Srepok that the CFi he leads is protecting. He begins to recount one of his more memorable patrols. “We got a report from local fishers that there was illegal fishing in the deep pool, but the illegal fishing activity was big”.

Bunthev (left) and Pann (right) point out where their two different neighbouring communes share 6 deep pools along the Srepok river.

Bunthev tells me that the stakes can be high when confronting illegal fishers outside of their community. In fact, some CFis have reported a rise in the size of illegal fishing boats and crews — some of which are armed. Weighing up the odds, Bunthev decided the risk was too high for his single patrol team to go alone. Instead, he called on support from Sem Pann, CFi leader of the neighbouring Srey Angkrang Commune.
Despite being from different administrative boundaries and ethnic groups,  Pann and Bunthev mobilised an enforcement team of around 30 people, including District authorities, to confront the boat, aware of the importance of protecting their shared natural resources.
“In total, we confiscated 5 big illegal nets and electrical shock gear”, Bunthev tells me. With an enforcement team so large, fleeing the scene clearly wasn’t an option for the illegal fishers.

Into uncharted waters

A women sells fish caught in the Mekong at a market in Kratie province, one of the target areas in Cambodia of the PEM III project.

An estimated 60 million people in six countries rely on the mighty Mekong river to support their livelihood. This includes Cambodia, where the Mekong’s water feeds the vast Tonle Sap lake, one of the world’s largest inland fishery lakes.

However, dual threats of a warming climate and a rise in hydropower dam developments have been blamed for putting Lower Mekong communities in jeopardy. No country more so than Cambodia, one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries and greatly impacted by dams with its position downstream, where unprecedented impacts on the countries’ food security are already being felt.

In fact, a report released earlier this year evidenced how dams upstream had withheld water from Lower Mekong countries in 2019, turning off the tap for Cambodia. This exacerbated already severe drought conditions and caused severe impacts on precious fish stocks that year. In 2020, the Mekong River Comission reported that the Lower Mekong Basin is experiencing reduced flows, as well as a delayed onset of the wet season, for the second consecutive year.

With the Mekong heading into uncharted waters, there are more incentives for communities to turn to illegal fishing, which can provide a serious daily catch and income for those willing to take the risk. However, illegal fishing can also have devastating impacts on the Mekong’s fisheries, especially when conducted in spawning grounds such as the deep pool Bunthev’s team patrols.

Common threats but common goals

With illegal fishing on the rise, CFis are under more pressure than ever to adapt to the challenges thrown at them. Whilst the Mekong’s prospects might sound bleak for the many Cambodians livelihoods it supports, communities like Pann and Nabun’s are demonstrating that they can adapt.

Oxfam’s partner Save Cambodia’s Wildlife (SCW) provides technical and financial support to 14 CFis in Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia, including Pann and Bunthev’s. Crucially, SCW provides a platform for different CFis to discuss how they can work together as part of their law enforcement efforts.

Together Pann and Bunthev’s CFis protect a combined 6 deep pools along the Srepok river and now meet monthly to discuss how they can better work together as part of their efforts to protect shared natural resources. They also recently worked together on the demarcation of their neighbouring fisheries  — marking the boundaries of the protected zones  — Bunthev tells me that their cooperative efforts are paying off too, “In 2020, there have been a lot of achievements; especially the patrolling activities that have eliminated illegal fishing”, Bunthev said.

Uniting along the Mekong

It’s not just the SCW-supported CFis in Ratanakiri that are cooperating to crack down on illegal fishing activity. Follow the Mekong south towards Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh and you’ll reach Kratie province, famed for its endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.

In Kratie, Oxfam’s partner Northeastern Rural Development (NRD) is working with 12 CFis who are dealing with a whole new set of challenges. A crackdown on illegal logging in a nearby protected forest means the CFis are starting to see more illegal fishers in their patrol areas, equipped with bigger boats and more destructive electrical fishing gear.

Despite this, illegal fishers in Kratie have been met with a new force. For Kel Dom and Houn Sieb of the Samphen Village CFi patrol team on Rongeav Island, support from Oxfam’s partner NRD has provided them with a patrol boat and other equipment to combat illegal fishing. They’ve also received training on fisheries laws and regulations to better equip them in their confrontations with illegal activity.

Members of the CFi patrol team in Samphen village show confiscated illegal electrical fishing gear.

“I have more confidence in patrolling the river now that I’m trained on how to conduct patrols”, says Srey Pheak, Samphen village’s CFi leader.

Just like SCW in Ratanakiri, NRD is also providing a common platform for the 12 CFis they work with in Kratie to cooperate on their patrols when boats are deemed too dangerous to confront.

“Communities are working together. Communities are even asking other communities to do the patrols for them”, Pheak says.

Cooperation between CFis has become so strong that when called on by another Community, Dom and Sieb will travel as far as 40km up the Mekong to assist. Although the illegal fishers sometimes escape the patrol team, Samphen Village in Kratie’s Samboh District has reported a significant decline in illegal fishing in their patrol area to around 20% of what it was in 2016, estimates Pheak.

A catalyst for change

Samphen village patrol team out on patrol along the Mekong river in Kratie province.

Whilst the Mekong’s future hangs in the balance, communities are more determined than ever to safeguard their natural resources. Stronger collaboration between the supported CFis, facilitated by Oxfam and partner organisations, has demonstrated the value of working towards their common goal of protecting their vital fisheries.

“I believe the [patrolling] activity has contributed to an increase in fish in the area in recent years...In 2017 to 2018 there were no more fish to eat. But since then the fish numbers have increased around 40-50%. In 2017-18, families were struggling to get even 1-2kg of fish a day. Since the project has started, that’s increased to 4-5kg”, says Pheak.

With CFis supported by Oxfam and its partners starting to unite along the Mekong, it is hoped their success can spread to other CFis, acting as a catalyst to inspire other communities to protect the fisheries of the Mekong and 3S River Basin.

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