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Fishing futures under question in the lower Mekong basin

Standing at the head of a wooden fishing boat in the middle of the Mekong River where hundreds of fishermen are jostling for the best position to set their nets, a 65 year old fisherman named Mr Thong Ming has high hopes of landing a saleable catch.

Mr Thong lives in Stung Treng province in the northeast of Cambodia and makes a living from the bountiful fisheries of the Mekong River at the confluence of the many tributaries which join it in the region.

An elderly Cambodian woman living on the island in the middle of the Mekong River displays a catfish she caught that morning.

In the wet season especially, the catches can be lucrative and are more than enough to sustain his family as well as many others like his.

From May to July of every year, it is an extremely good time for the rest of the fishermen who are also living in the lower Mekong region, not only in Stung Treng province of Cambodia but also Champassak, Saravan and Xekong provinces in the south of Laos.

They take this opportunity to catch as many fish as possible while the fish are running upstream because this windfall will also help to sustain their families and allow for the purchase of daily necessities throughout the rest of the year when the fishing is not quite so plentiful.

Every day fishermen and traders meet each other at the port of Stung Treng near the mouth of the Sesan River to buy and sell fish among the local community and for resale further afield.

The fish trade here sustains the entire community and it is the only thing they have ever known. A good day's catch might be enough to feed the family for a couple of weeks, a month or even more when the going is good.

As a local Cambodian fisherman, Mr Thong Ming lives on an big island locally known as ‘ Smah Koh village' in the middle of the Mekong River in Stung Treng province, which is about a two hour boat ride from the port of Stung Treng downstream on the Mekong River.

His family is heavily reliant on fishing while growing the rice in fields abutting the river is an alternative occupation. However, for most families, their main income is derived from catching fish from the river.

“We actually rely on fishing rather than doing anything else. Fish is already the main dish for every day's meals and we also eat more fish every day as well,” Mr Thong told a group of foreign journalists recently during their visit to the site.

Mr Thong said he can make anywhere up to US$1,200 per day during the months of May to July each year.

The livelihoods of local residents of this province of Cambodia are similar to the people in the southern part of Laos because they too are mostly dependent on fishing.

“Everyone here in the village is heavily dependent on fishing and altogether we make a good income from the fishing industry and we can't think of any alternative occupations around here,” he said.

Reflecting on concerns about the future of fishing, he also shared his comments on climate change and the development of hydropower plants on the rivers in the region.

“I don't know much about the negative effects of the development of hydropower plants on the upstream rivers because at the moment fishing is still good but we are not sure about changes in relation to fishing in the future,” Mr Thong said.

On a major tributary of the Mekong River, the 400-MW Lower Sesan 2 dam is under construction in Stung Treng province of Cambodia.

It is being built by Hydropower Lower Sesan 2, a joint venture between local conglomerate Royal Group and the Chinese firm Hydrolancang International Energy Co. Ltd.

The major dam is expected to displace about 5,000 people living in the area. This creates a big concern for many villagers and local Cambodian fishermen when it comes to the loss of their occupation, health and livelihoods.

“Currently I don't know much ab o ut any possible negative impacts on livelihood and fishing activities because my place is some miles away from the construction of the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower plant but it may occur in the future,” he said.

Some researchers and non-governmental activists have expressed their concern that the Lower Sesan II dam will have significant negative impacts on the fisheries and biodiversity of the entire Lower Mekong Basin.

According to a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Lower Sesan dam will cause a 9.3 percent drop in fish stocks basin-wide, putting more than 50 fish species into extinction.

Experts have also warned that the LS2 will cause significant changes to the hydrology of the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake, as well as reduce sediment flows by approximately 6.0 to 8.0 percent.

The dam will have the largest impact on fish biomass amongst the planned tributary dams in the Lower Mekong Basin.

Its impacts will be felt as far downstream as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and as far upstream as Thailand and Laos, some experts warn.

Deputy Director General of the Environment Impact Assessment Department under the Cambodian Ministry of Environment Mr Duong Samkeat said currently nothing has changed regarding the project design but the mitigating impacts' study will be concluded by June next year.

Meanwhile Director General of Mines and Energy Department of Stung Treng province Mr Nou Sovanndara said that the construction of hydropower is necessary to decrease the imports of electric energy from neighbouring countries including Laos and Vietnam.

“People in Stung Streng province are planting more rubber trees so it means that more electricity is needed for the manufacturing factories after the rubber trees are tapped,” he said.

He noted that the construction of hydropower plants can cause negative impacts on the livelihoods of local villagers but said that the government also tries its best to minimise the negative impacts and bring potential benefits to local residents.

Some studies have already concluded that climate change and overfishing are among the reasons for the falling numbers of fish species in various main branches of the lower Mekong River.

On the other hand, the linkages between various small rivers with the Mekong River boast fertile breeding groups for many kinds of fish species, and some studies have concluded that the construction of hydropower plants will serve as a further blockage to fish migration.

The visiting group of regional journalists made a field visit at many different places during their training course ‘The Mekong Matters: Understanding Energy – focusing on the development of the hydropower investment projects and its positive and negative impacts on local livelihoods and the environment.”

The training course and field visit was organised by Internews and supported by Pact, an international non-government organisation working to help the poor and marginalised exercise their own voice and take ownership of their future.

The course and field trip aimed to enhance and promote the understanding of regional journalists on the environmental issues facing the Lower Mekong Basin in the years ahead.

More than 15 journalists from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam took part in the five day-long training course on June 22-26.

By Bounfaeng Phaymanivong
(Latest Update
ust 1 , 2015

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