- A ban on illegal fishing in Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s largest lake, is hitting local communities hard—even those engaged in legal fishing.
- “By continuing to fish, we are forced into hiding, we are forced into crime,” one fisher told Mongabay, describing a climate of fear amid a heavy law enforcement presence.
- Another says the crackdown is being prosecuted with impunity: officers “will confiscate anything from anyone and then say ‘It’s illegal’” in an alleged ploy to solicit a bribe.
- This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network where Gerald Flynn is a fellow.
CHHNOK TRU, Cambodia—From her sun-bleached wooden houseboat in the floating village of Koh Tapov, on the southeastern side of the Tonle Sap lake in Kampong Thom province, Hai Sokha and her family looked out at the quiet waters one morning in late June. For more than three months, the family of fishers had not dared go out on the water.
In April, they’d fallen foul of a renewed crackdown meant to stamp out illegal fishing on Cambodia’s largest lake, and only by paying a fine the equivalent of $250 had one of Sokha’s family members avoided prison.
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The fine, or bribe as Sokha referred to it, had wiped out the last of their savings, and now, with authorities patrolling the water almost daily, she worried that they would soon have to risk taking to the water in search of fish.
This surge in enforcement began after March 23, when Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a scathing speech, excoriating provincial officials for failing to tackle illegal fishing on the Tonle Sap and the logging of the flooded forests that surround the lake.
Large-scale illegal fishing operations have long been a blight on the country’s largest freshwater fishery and have contributed to a steep decline in fish stocks in recent years, but local fishers rarely see the profits from these operations, despite working for them on occasion. Using methods such as nor-reav—nets than span up to 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) in length—illegal fishers can catch as much as 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of fish in a single day. They’ve also been known to use electrocution in various forms; both forms of fishing have devastating consequences for fish spawning grounds and migration.
The crimes that Sokha, and many in similarly desperate situations on the lake, resort to range from fishing out of season or fishing in restricted conservation areas to using illegal nets and traps that typically catch fish more efficiently than traditional methods—but also scoop up young fish, disrupting the natural fish stock replenishment in the lake.
While the crackdown ostensibly aims to net large-scale illegal fishing operations, small fishers like Sokha are getting caught up in the government’s dragnet.
Forced into crime
“This year’s crackdown isn’t just severe, it’s the worst I’ve seen,” Sokha said, noting that while the Kampong Thom provincial department of fisheries had typically enforced annual crackdowns on illegal fishing (usually when the fishing season closes from June to October), this year has seen contingents of military police, officers from both the national level of the Fisheries Administration and the Ministry of Environment, along with provincial authorities all descend on the lake at once.
“Previously, the police would close their eyes to us, they know we only fish to survive,” Sokha said. “Now all of these authorities are here almost every day, we need to fish with nets to eat and earn a living, but they tell us we cannot fish on the water or even in any of the rivers and creeks coming out of the Tonle Sap lake, we cannot use the engine on our boat, we cannot use our nets.”
The new crackdown comes at a critical time for Tonle Sap, a lake that’s regarded as one of the world’s most productive freshwater fisheries. Historically, it has provided roughly 70% of Cambodia’s total freshwater and marine catches. But a combination of overfishing and hydropower dam developments upstream on the Mekong River, exacerbated by climate change, has seen fish catches drop dramatically as the lake’s ecosystem contends with rapid change.
The estimated 80,000 people living across the 170 floating villages on the lake have suffered through year-on-year declining fish populations since at least 2019, when low rainfall meant the Tonle Sap River’s unique flow reversal came nearly two months later than usual. That year, the lake—which usually floods during Cambodia’s rainy season and swells from a surface area of around 2,500 square kilometers to up to 16,000 square kilometers (about 1,000 to 6,200 square miles)—was shallower and more oxygenated, spelling disaster for the estimated 6 million people whose income depends the lake’s fisheries. Research suggests that fishing communities lost 18% of their income in 2019.
Data from Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration showed that freshwater fish catches were down 13.7% in 2020 compared to 2019, with 413,200 tons of fish caught for the year. This dropped again by 7% in 2021 when authorities reported just 383,050 tons of freshwater fish were caught in Cambodia.
In the first five months of 2022, the government said 93,650 tons of fish had been caught across inland fisheries, but the ongoing crackdown could see another year of decline for the lake’s inhabitants.
The distant rumble of thunder above Koh Tapov village signaled a storm would soon be sweeping through, further reducing Sokha’s prospects of going out to fish.
“By continuing to fish, we are forced into hiding, we are forced into crime,” Sokha said. “The authorities being here meant that nobody in the village has been able to fish all week. We only survived because we had some money saved, but that’s gone now, so we have no choice but to fish.”
Tonle Sap is home to eight fish sanctuaries spanning some 235.4 km2 (91 mi2), known locally as “conservation areas.” More than 10,000 km2 (3,900 mi2) of private fishing lots on the lake were transferred to community fisheries in 2012 after pressure from civil society to address the rampant corruption that flourished among commercial fishing concessions.
These were designed to ensure community management of fish stocks in the hope that this would negate the need to resort to illegal fishing and would quell disputes over fishing grounds. In its objectives, it was largely successful, according to a June 2020 survey of some 500 households around the lake: 80% of respondents said they felt there was less conflict, 75% reported better access to fish, and 60% said they believed it had resulted in less illegal activity on the lake. However, more than half of the fishers surveyed said they had seen a decrease in both fish catches and profits.
Now, caught between conservation, a fresh crackdown and external crises beyond their control, the lake-dwelling communities face poverty. Sokha said she would escape the lake, if only she could afford it, but declining fish catches, volatile fish prices and the latest crackdown have left her stranded on the lake, at the mercy of the government.
Cracking down from the top
The origins of this year’s crackdown can be traced to the annual review for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, where Hun Sen lashed out at those responsible for the management of Tonle Sap.
“Our provincial governor said he could not catch the perpetrators because [their boats] were too fast. How fast? Let us park our helicopters nearby and fire from the above. Where could [that] person go?” the prime minister was reported as saying in his cabinet’s official newsletter. “[T]he army commander and the police chief are here today. Give them your supports and find a way to get rid of corrupt traders who destroy fish[.] The Ministry of Agriculture itself should be a little active. They have the fisheries department and why has it not been doing the job?”
Hun Sen, whose 37-year grip on power in Cambodia has been characterized by violence and corruption, questioned whether bribery could explain why illegal logging and fishing remained a blight on the lake.
“Those [perpetrators] are not poor people,” he told officials at the agriculture ministry. “[W]hen you talked about cracking down on fishing offenses, you can only crack down on small fishers, and/or small fishing boats operators.”
On July 19, Poum Sotha, director-general of the Fisheries Administration, told local pro-government outlet Phnom Penh Post that 50 cases of fisheries offenses had made it to court, while 25 people had been arrested and a further 19 summoned for questioning. More than 236 km (147 mi) of netting had been confiscated since the crackdown began in March 2022, which Sotha said had seen authorities seize 1,248 kits of electric fishing equipment, 2,261 traps, almost 150,000 trap poles, along with 105 boats and 77 engines.
‘I don’t want to pay bribes’
In one of the creeks flowing out of the lake, Nhut Phoeun has lived in Krosoam village for 15 years after marrying lifelong resident Chhean Chea. The pair said they welcomed the crackdown initially, as it promised the lake’s fish population time to recover from years of unregulated overfishing, but they too found themselves in the crosshairs of Hun Sen’s interagency enforcers.
“I don’t want to pay bribes,” said Phoeun, adding he only uses traditional nets and traps for crab and shrimp. “But that’s why they came here to catch me—because I don’t pay the bribes they want.”
The informal nature of fines issued by the Fisheries Administration, which are predominantly paid in cash and directly to arresting officers, are widely perceived as bribes among the lake’s residents. While authorities have detailed the volume of illegal fishing equipment seized and the number of arrests made, no official record could be found of the amount paid in fines by perpetrators of illegal fishing.
The issue, Phoeun said, is the relative impunity with which this latest crackdown has been conducted.
“Sometimes, the task force will confiscate anything from anyone and then say ‘It’s illegal’—they’ll take anything, so now we have to hide everything, even the legal equipment,” he said. “They come in, usually six or seven boats at once, they’ll tell us that our boats, engines, nets and equipment is all illegal.”
The pair have so far managed to retain their boats and equipment and both say they still hope the crackdown will have a positive impact on the lake’s ecosystem. But they say they’re also worried they won’t be here to see those benefits.
“We keep hearing that they’ll kick us off the lake next year, but we don’t know if it’s true or when it’ll happen if it is true, we don’t know where we’ll go,” Phoeun said.
“I was born here, it’s been more than 30 years for me, I don’t want to move,” Chea said. “I don’t know how to live on land.”
From the lake to the land
Back on land, in Chhnok Tru village, Kampong Chhnang province, 63-year-old Lay Yang Sar sits in a wooden shelter near the edge of the lake. As chief of the Khmer-Vietnamese Association for Boribo district, Yang Sar has seen his fair share of evictions from the Tonle Sap lake.
He was ordered off the water in October 2018, along with 1,377 people whom authorities accused of polluting the lake and engaging in fisheries crimes. While many lost their livelihoods after moving from the lake to the land, Yang Sar said many were optimistic, having already seen the signs that the fish populations were in trouble.
“Both Khmers and ethnically Vietnamese had to go, they [the government] promised each family a 10-meter by 25-meter [33-by-82-foot] plot of land,” Yang Sar said. “But they won’t let us own it, we have no titles, not even a receipt—instead the government leases it to us. There’s no rent, but there’s no certainty either.”
Yang Sar detailed how the differences between the relocation packages for Khmer citizens and ethnic Vietnamese embody the pervasive racism that is often directed at Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese communities—many of whom were born in Cambodia and have never visited Vietnam.
“[The ethnic Vietnamese community in Chhnok Tru] have a very hard time, there is no road to their village, their houses flood worse than other areas—you can’t even walk to their houses when it rains—they have no amenities and so they rent water for drinking and for washing from neighboring Khmer villages,” he said, adding that few have any skills beyond fishing after a lifetime on the lake.
Yang Sar said many ethnic Vietnamese fishermen snuck back to the lake at night to fish, an anecdote that circulated widely around Chhnok Tru, but countered that illegal fishing wasn’t confined to one ethnicity—everyone was reliant on illegal methods.
“It’s a vicious cycle, the lake is changing and so people have to fish illegally in response, so then the fish continue to decline,” he added.
For Yang Sar, there’s little hope to be found in this year’s crackdown, which he described as “too strong” and targeting small-scale, vulnerable fishing communities. He pointed to a floating structure that, the week before, reportedly served as a base for some 30 officers from the Fisheries Administration, the Ministry of Environment and the police.
“[The crackdown] doesn’t look good for the government, for the fish it gives them a chance to lay eggs and keep the stocks high, but for us, it’s bad—we cannot afford to wait months on end to fish,” he said. “They’re not arresting anyone in particular, just anyone they can catch.”
Whether more evictions are inevitable or not, the crackdown is driving internal migration as people have fled the water, some going as far as the coastal province of Koh Kong, bordering Thailand.
For Son My, a lifelong resident of Kampong Chhnang province’s Chhnok Tru village, the crackdown and the subsequent bribery that has followed rendered her family fishing business untenable. In late April, My said life had simply become too hard on the southernmost tip of the Tonle Sap lake and that she felt she had no choice but to abandon her life on the water.
“Because we fished illegally, we had to pay all these people, I’ve told my children not to fish anymore, I’m not sure what’s happened since I left, but if we could have made a living legally, we would have been fine,” My said, adding that almost everyone in her village had resorted to illegal traps.
For now, My said she will help her cousin run a guesthouse in Koh Kong province, but added her children were now also contemplating joining her in search of a different way of life. They are not alone.
In Peam Ta Our village, situated in the northern province of Siem Reap, the impact of the crackdown was already being felt keenly in April 2022.
“At the moment, I just stay at home. After the announcement of Hun Sen, he told us to stop the illegal fishing and farming, which I’ve been doing for 10 years,” said one woman who wished to remain anonymous. “We’re thinking about going to find a job in construction in Kong Kong or [Preah Sihanouk province]. I choose construction because I don’t have an education. The whole family will go and we will ask someone to look after our house here.”
Other residents of Peam Ta Our reported that they were sleeping on their boats to prevent them being confiscated, and were avoiding going out onto the water to fish. But for many, the prospect of moving away from the lake presents challenges, chief among them being that they have nowhere to go.
“If the government can give us land to plant rice, we would be happy,” one man told reporters. “We could make a living from that. The land here is fertile. That’s the only option if they stop us from fishing [illegally]. If we don’t have another option, we’ll starve to death.”
The starting pistol
For now, the rumors of eviction remain just that. But Sok Touch, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said numerous preservation strategies are being analyzed by the government in relation to the Tonle Sap lake, much of it based on his research. While unwilling to reveal exact details, Touch said this includes reclaiming all public land surrounding the lake; bans on fishing and farming; along with potentially deepening the lake itself and installing an underwater dam to provide artificial support to the Tonle Sap River’s reversal.
“There’s plenty of free land in Cambodia,” Touch said. “People shouldn’t affect security by living on the lake. Our government should have stopped people living on the lake already.”
However, Touch noted that land disputes are extremely common across Cambodia and often land grabs are tied to powerful individuals connected to the government. But he said this was part of the strategy he provided to the government.
“So, it depends on them and whether they’re willing to work with us to solve this problem,” said Touch, who declined to go into greater detail on the strategies presented or the research they were born of.
But it was Touch’s call to action that appears to have renewed Hun Sen’s interest in the Tonle Sap lake’s ecosystem, which has already seen provincial governors, subsistence farmers and everyone in between being caught up in a sweeping reclamation of flooded forests surrounding the lake.
The reclamation of the flooded forests coincided with the fisheries crackdown. And some two weeks prior to Hun Sen’s announcement, on March 7, Touch uploaded a widely derided video of himself taking the law into his own hands and firing a gun at an alleged illegal fisher.
“I tried to stop [illegal fishing], I used the gun and many people asked why does the president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia have the right to use a gun like that, but Cambodian law allows high-ranking officials like me to use a gun,” Touch said in an interview in early July. “Why do we not want to use the gun in that situation? We tell people and illegal fishers, if we wish [to use a gun], we can.”
Touch echoed claims that the majority of illegal fishing is done by ethnic Vietnamese communities on the lake, but provided no evidence for this besides the prevalence of Vietnamese fish vendors at Prek Pnov Fish Market in the capital, Phnom Penh.
Touch said he was frustrated with the inaction of provincial governors responsible for the lake, suggesting corruption had allowed crime to flourish. But he added he was disappointed with the government’s response so far, which local pro-government media have already heralded “a success.”
“We need more time to evaluate the success of the crackdown,” Touch said. “I cannot tell you the government’s methods, I’m just a researcher, you’d need to ask them.”
The best approach?
Officials involved in the crackdown appeared unwilling to discuss the impact their presence was having on the lake or the overarching purpose of the operation.
Ouk Vibol, director of the Fisheries Conservation Department at the Fisheries Administration, said the crackdown was an issue of law enforcement rather than conservation, and declined to answer whether there was any link between the two.
Neither Hong Hy, the Fisheries Administration’s director of law enforcement, nor Ung Try, its spokesperson, responded to questions sent by reporters. Similarly, three officials from the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology—Minister Lim Kean Hor, Deputy Director Chea Sok Ny and spokesperson Chan Yutha—all repeatedly declined to comment when asked about the crackdown.
Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, which is also involved in enforcing the crackdown, read but did not respond to messages.
But while officials couldn’t offer explanations for their actions, analysts and academics who visited the lake in recent months cast doubt on the efficacy of the crackdown.
Veteran reporter Abby Seiff, author of the book Troubling the Water about the problems besetting Tonle Sap, questioned whether the crackdown on illegal fishing would solve the myriad issues Cambodia’s largest lake faces.
“Of course, it’s critical to preserve and improve the Tonle Sap fisheries, particularly as they appear extremely imperiled at the moment,” Seiff said following a visit to Chhnok Tru in July. “But when you have a situation where the fishers who depend on these fish don’t have any alternative livelihoods—and aren’t catching enough in open season to support themselves year-round—it certainly raises the question of whether such a comprehensive crackdown is the best approach.”
The dearth of alternatives offered to fishers means that many will earn less, cut back on meals and pull their children out of schools, Seiff argued, adding that this—coupled with the necessity of paying bribes in order to fish—would increase debt among the lake’s residents, further pushing them toward illegal fishing.
In the years she spent reporting from Cambodia and while researching her book, which came out in March this year, Seiff said the fishers repeatedly told her about their desire for greater enforcement of fisheries laws, as they recognized the connection between their livelihoods and conservation.
“I think there must be a way to allow for conservation without completely depriving people of their means of survival,” she said, adding that corrupt officials should also be targeted. “Cambodia can’t control the impact of upstream dams on its fisheries and it can’t control the impacts of climate change, but it can manage how it protects the fish in the lake as well as the people dependent on it.”
But while the government’s endgame on the Tonle Sap lake remains clouded by a characteristic lack of transparency or accountability, the realities for those on the water are stark.
Leaning across from her houseboat, Hai Sreang, sister of Hai Sokha in the floating village of Koh Tapov, summarized the situation.
“How can we say anything good about this crackdown when we have no rice in our mouths?” Sreang said. “When we go out now, it’s like a trap. We can’t even move our house to somewhere we can fish.”
It’s the same story across Koh Tapov village, she said, noting that those whose savings have evaporated in the wake of the crackdown have been sneaking out at night to catch enough fish to survive.
“It was Hun Sen’s announcement that started it this year, I want people to know how hard life has become for us here,” Sreang added. “I request that Hun Sen looks into this, please, look at our community, the authorities should not be so brutal to us.”
Teh, L. S., Bond, N., KC, K., Fraser, E., Seng, R., & Sumaila, U. R. (2019). The economic impact of global change on fishing and non-fishing households in the Tonle Sap ecosystem, Pursat, Cambodia. Fisheries Research, 210, 71-80. doi:10.1016/j.fishres.2018.10.005