STUNG TRENG & KRATIE, CAMBODIA – Communities that relied on fishing in the Mekong River along the Cambodia-Laos border have seen their catches – and incomes – drop dramatically since work started on the Don Sahong hydropower dam in Laos.

Many have now given up fishing, and while some initiatives were launched to help villagers shift to aquaculture, not everyone succeeded due to a lack of long-term support and technical knowledge.

“I could not catch enough fish anymore,” said Sok Den, a 40-year-old fisherman from Koh Sneng community in Stung Treng province in the north of Cambodia. “All types of fish stocks have decreased in recent years.”

Source: Mapbox

His close-knit community was once vibrant and bustling with people making a living from fishing. But now, that once-thriving industry is in decline. Den saw how the situation went from bad to worse.

He used to earn up to US$1,900 per fishing season. But by 2018 his income had dropped to less than $1,000. When he could no longer afford fuel for his boat, he was forced to quit fishing.

Having no other choice, he experimented with fish farming after receiving training from a local non-governmental organization. But he was unable to make it work. 

“The association taught us [the aquaculture techniques], but there was no support like money or materials after the training. We had to buy the juvenile fish ourselves,” he said.

Located on an island in the middle of the Mekong River, Koh Sneng commune is about 60 kilometers from the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam. Construction of the dam was started in the southern Champasak province of Laos in 2016, and the dam is less than two kilometers from the border with Cambodia.

The dam became the second completed Mekong mainstream dam in 2020, three months after the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam was commissioned in northern Laos.

Most of the electricity generated by the two dams is exported to Laos’ neighbors, Thailand and Cambodia. Seven other dams are planned on the mainstream Mekong as the Lao government taps the economic benefits from the country’s abundant free-flowing rivers and streams.

Den and other fishermen in his community link the declining fish numbers to the Don Sahong dam. But so far, there has been no scientific study to confirm this link.

Sok Den, a 40-year-old fisherman from Koh Sneng community in Stung Treng province, northern Cambodia, pilots his boat along the Mekong River. His catches declined, which forced him to look for different jobs.  PHOTO: Try Thaney

‘Moderate’ impact

Released in August 2022, the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) report said the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams had caused “moderate” impacts on water flows, sediment and fisheries.

From 2017 to 2021, monthly catches per fisherman “seemingly increased” in villages upstream of the Don Sahong dam in Laos. Those catches reportedly rose from 14 to 46 kilograms per fisherman.

But interviews with local fishermen told a different story. They described a sharp decline in yields, forcing them to start diversifying their income sources.

The MRC report also highlighted the declining fish catches in a downstream village in northern Cambodia, where the monthly catch volume declined from 114 to 83 kilograms per fisherman between 2018 and 2020. The report noted that clear trends needed more observation time.

Brian Eyler, Director of the Stimson Center Southeast Asia Program, said the decline of fisheries in the Mekong River in Cambodia was due to several factors. One of those was dams that blocked fish migration to crucial spawning grounds. 

The Lower Sesan 2 Dam in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, for example, was expected to reduce the entire Mekong fish population by 9.3%, due to its poorly designed fish passage.

He believed that conserving the Mekong’s wild fishery grounds was possible, but would require placing greater value on the fisheries and food security in Cambodia than currently exists.

“It would take swift and smart action from the Cambodian government through good management practices both domestically and with upstream neighbors,” said Eyler.

Struggle to adapt

Responding to the crisis of declining fish stocks, the Department of Aquaculture Development at the Cambodian Fisheries Administration was working with local organizations to promote aquaculture and provide technical support to fish farmers.

“Population growth has led to an increased demand for protein from fish, but modern fishing practices, overfishing and illegal fishing have left fish stocks unable to meet market needs,” said Thay Somony, the department’s director. “The fishery output is declining and it cannot fully support people’s demands.”

The department has targeted 10 provinces where it will promote aquaculture, including six provinces surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake. It may also consider launching a program to support fish farmers in other parts of Cambodia. But Somony stressed that there were also water issues to consider as the areas experience a lack of water during the dry season.

While aquaculture is crucial, he said, it is also complex and fish farmers must understand the market, create a business plan and manage their cash flow to succeed.

Fishermen in many parts of Cambodia rely on support from local non-governmental organizations, which often have limited financial and human resources.

Doung Chantrea, a 30-year-old fisherwoman, at her fishpond in Damre village in Cambodia’s eastern Kratie province. She has experimented with commercial fish farming but was not successful and had substantial losses from dead fish. PHOTO: Try Thaney

In Damre village in Cambodia’s eastern Kratie province, the Northeastern Rural Development (NRD) organization and the district Fisheries Administration have worked together to help residents take up fish farming for a livelihood.

Doung Chantrea, a 30-year-old fisherwoman, was among the first to receive support under the program after she suffered from declining fish catches in the Mekong River.

Chantrea and her family started fish farming in 2018 by digging their own ponds and were provided with juvenile catfish to raise. But by the end of 2022, they could no longer afford to buy farmed fish due to substantial losses from dead fish in her ponds.

“I released the fish into the pond immediately without leaving them in the cold first, causing them to die,” she recalled.

Similarly, many former Mekong River fishermen in Koh Sneng commune in Stung Treng province failed to raise farmed fish despite help from NGOs and decided to quit.

Only 10 families from 100 are still practicing it, according to Sap Udom, head of the Koh Sneng Fishery commune. 

Pervasive illegal fishing

Mekong River fishermen in upstream villages in Laos also reported declining fish catches.

The Vientiane Times newspaper reported in January that a fishing community in Don Sahong village, near the Don Sahong dam, was forced to shift from fishing to commercial livestock and farming due to declining fish catches caused by “development.”

They switched to raising ducks and grew vegetables for sale. But their sales were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, prompting them to experiment with growing jasmine rice. The level of their success will be measured in the coming years. 

The Vientiane Times’ report added that local villagers had asked the dam operator, the Don Sahong Power Company Ltd, to subsidize 50% of their electricity costs used for agriculture, which would make an investment in commercial farming a more attractive choice for the fishermen.

The request was being considered under the company’s livelihood aid package valued at $1 million a year for 25 years of the dam concession period.

The Vientiane Times’ report also said fish stocks had been declining not only in the Don Sahong area, but also in other parts of the Mekong River – implying that the dam may not be the main factor causing declining fish stocks.

Kong Kin, a 62-year-old fisherman in Cambodia’s Kratie province, checks on the fishing net hung in his house. He now struggles to make an income from fishing due to the lack of fish to catch.  PHOTO: Try Thaney

Along with livelihood changes, the decline in fish stocks has also affected the illegal fishing industry in the Mekong River. 

“People can’t make enough from legal fishing, so they resort to illegal methods to be able to sell fish to the shops,” said Kong Kin, a 62-year-old fisherman in Kratie province’s Sambour district.

He has been fishing for nearly 10 years and was once able to earn $25 per day. But he now struggles to make only $5 a day due to depleted fish stocks.

He witnessed the spread of electric shock fishing in his community, which involves high-powered batteries run through an inverter, sending an electric field into the water via metal cables, killing all aquatic life within 40 meters. 

This fishing method continues even though it was banned by the Cambodian government in 2007 due to the harm it poses to river ecosystems.

Patrolling has been organized once or twice a month in Koh Sneng commune to tackle illegal fishing. But its effectiveness is questionable due to the local community’s limited financial resources.

“We have a motorboat, but we can’t use it to chase the perpetrators. We only use it to patrol our conservation area,” said Sap Udom, head of the Koh Sneng Fishery community.

“If we don’t take action, fish will continue to decline, and eventually run out.”

This story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in CamboJa and edited by the Mekong Eye’s editorial team.

About the writer

Try Thaney

Try Thaney is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He covers politics, business, social and environmental issues.