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Changing streams on the Mekong River

posted Mar 12, 2017, 12:51 AM by Long Quoc Tran   [ updated Mar 12, 2017, 12:52 AM ]
Mekong Change
The use of the Mekong River is changing rapidly. Aquaculture and fish farming are now among the high growth industries, offering employment and better standards of living, but at the expense of traditional fishermen who have plied these waters for centuries.
It's a significant shift which fishermen say has resulted primarily from a sharp decline of natural fish stocks in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) – a change welcomed by many who relish the prospect of an end to the back breaking work of fishing from rickety samphans under a harsh tropical sun.

Fishermen routinely caught between 100 to 300 kilograms of fish a day when casting their nets 10 to 15 years ago.

Then, fish stocks were near their highest levels as three decades of war came to an end. Today, they say their daily catches have been reduced to between five and 15 kilograms.

Overfishing, illegal fishing with electric nets, drought, increased demand and higher salinisation levels blamed on climate change have all played a part. Many fishermen however believe it is the upstream dams in Laos and China responsible for the disappearing catch.

“Fish are getting rarer, day by day, especially over the last two years and I think it is because of the changing weather, heavier rains plus the dam construction,” said No Isa, a 37 year-old fisherman, and spokesman for the local fishing community here.

Not all agree but his view is common in the fishing community.

OPPORTUNITY COSTS

About 70 million people in the LMB depend on the Mekong River for their food security, 10 million more than two decades ago, amid a wealth of development ranging from petrochemicals and tourism to dam construction and sand dredging.

Dredging too can be controversial if there is flouting of local environmental laws or the forced removal of too many people from their traditional lands.

But sand is still eagerly sought by countries such as Singapore for construction and Cambodia sits in an alluvial plain. The island-state has spent millions since exports from Cambodia resumed with the arrival of post-war reconstruction, a substantial contribution to government coffers.

David Totten, Director of Emerging Markets Consulting (EMC) said measuring the value of the Mekong River “in the strict sense” had to be achieved through “opportunity costs” -what it costs to replace what it currently provides. It's a measurement complicated by traditional values.

“That’s the issue facing Cambodia,” he said. “Basically a lot of poor people fishing in it, watering livestock in it, and growing crops in the land it fertilises.”

Totten said the Mekong River was also the source of much needed irrigation water and provided transportation for rice, cassava and other foodstuffs, including fish, even sturgeon breeding for the harvesting of caviar in the upper Mekong tributaries in Vietnam.

But within the LMB – the size of France and Germany during the wet season – increased demand for fish is resulting in a phenomenon scientists call fishing down: when large fish are depleted to the point they are replaced by once-discarded smaller fish.

With supply incapable of keeping up with post-war growth, aquaculture is emerging as a key industry, helping to offset losses among fishing families.

According to the fisheries newsletter, Catch and Culture, growth rates for aquaculture in the LMB are three times faster than the global total.

It valued the Mekong River fish catch in 2015 at $US5.8 billion, up from $US4.8 billion in 2010 and less than $US1 billion in 2003. The total fish harvest from the Mekong River and LMB was valued at $US11 billion in 2015.

Comparative figures for previous years and 2016 were not available.

Chinese firms are prominent here due to a lack of clean rivers in China. China Ocean Fishing Holding Ltd is negotiating a $US100 million aquaculture project in Cambodia that would include fish farms, a feed mill and a processing plant.

Norwegian group Vitamar wants to build a $US23 million dollar fish farm in the southern port town Sihanoukville while the Japanese International Cooperation Agency has its own plans for a fish breeding program and a research centre in Phnom Penh.

But business can also be fickle.

“Some months are good, some months are not so good,” said Sok Chanty, 40, who turned to fish farming as traditional fish stocks fell. He provides baby fish reared in ponds for restaurants.

“Still it's much better than the alternative. Fishing in the Mekong is physically tough and it hurts as you get older,” he said. “Why would you do that when the returns are so small?”

For those reasons world aquaculture production is expected to surpass the production of traditional fish catches by 2023 and that should help re-orientate food security and improve the lives of millions in the LMB, who still live a traditional hand-to-mouth existence.