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Fisherman lives off river's bounty, but for how much longer

When children are born and live in a rural area they're likely to leave school early because there is a limited choice of schools and their parents don't have enough money to pay for their education. So when they grow up, so their first choice of work is to become a rice farmer while those who live by the river can supplement their income through fishing.

At the end of Liphi or Somphamit waterfall on the Mekong River in Champassak province there is a strip of sand where the fishermen park their boats. At around 4pm you might see a 40-year-old man named Mr Somsamak Keohavong, known locally as Liew, drying or preparing his nets there.

Mr Somsamak Keohavong prepares his nets.

Every day around 5pm, Liew goes out on his boat by himself to set his nets in the river and will return to the boat landing before it gets dark.

At dawn he goes back to his nets and brings the catch home before 6am as that's a good time for his wife to walk around the village selling the fish.

Every day, he catches around 5 or 8 kilos if he's lucky. He sells the small fish for 12,000 kip per kilo and the larger ones for 40,000 or 30,000 kip.

But he told Vientiane Times that it's become more and more difficult to catch fish as there are not nearly so many in the river as there used to be.

“It's good that the authorities have asked fishermen to stop using destructive methods that are likely to wipe out fish stocks and to refrain from putting tightly meshed bamboo fences across the width of the river to trap fish,” he said.

The river no longer yields large catches and some fishermen fear that soon they won't even be able to put enough food on the plate for their families as it's getting more and more difficult for them to bring in a good haul.

Having spent almost all of his life as a fisherman in Don Khon village in the beautiful Four Thousand Islands area of Champassak, Liew recalls the days when fish catches were bountiful.

As a youngster growing up in Khong district, he spent his boyhood fishing with his father and there was hardly ever a time when they went home empty handed.

“When I was small I liked fishing with my father but all I could do then was act as his boat driver. It took us just an hour to get enough fish to eat and some left over to sell,” he said.

In those days there were many kinds of fish including several catfish species, as well as pa phia. But not many people wanted to buy fish because they could catch their own.

Today fishing is no longer a very profitable business on the island of Don Khone and many people have turned to farming or the burgeoning tourist industry for work or sought other options elsewhere.

Most of those who remain are those who have been there all their lives and have nothing more profitable to do. Liew is one of them. He is now still fishing the Mekong River and living in Don Khone village whenever he is not required in the rice fields, just as he did when he was a child.

It can be tough at times, trying to make ends meet when the river isn't giving what it once gave before. There are many reasons for this. As times changed more fishermen came and they went home with more, putting additional pressure on fish stocks that were already being depleted due to the environmental changes that come with population growth and development. Many fishermen are now resorting to more destructive fishing techniques, some out of desperation but some out of greed.

When asked for his opinion on the reason for the decline in fish stocks, Liew apportions a good part of the blame to his fellow fishermen, not modest ones like him, but cowboys who employ shock tactics such as electricity, poison or bombs to stun large numbers of fish. These techniques are very effective and kill everything that happens to be in the water at the time.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that they are unsustainable over the longer term. Liew and his neighbours realise that but unfortunately others don't. Liew says shock chargers, poisons and bombs are banned in his village because people know they will only be shooting themselves in the foot down the track.

“I'm sure that there are no illegal devices in my village because the authorities always check and we don't need them anyway,” he says. As a responsible fisherman, Liew uses only a cast net and a gill net for fishing because he knows that the other practices are self defeating, despite the short term bounty they might yield.

In his village, even diving masks used to see fish underwater are among the items that are prohibited; this is unusual because in most places they are allowed, not being destructive in and of themselves.

Getting this message across to everyone in the area will be critical to the future of the river, as will better planning and preservation policies at the provincial and central levels.

Environmental protection is essential at all levels if it is to prove effective and a longer term consciousness must be allowed to permeate.

Two or three years ago Vientiane Times talked to another fisherman living on Don Det island, Mr Boun. He said he was confident that there was a future for fishing communities. “There's still a chance for us to survive. If we minimise or stop our harmful fishing practices, protect our forests and keep our rivers clean, then we can continue to rely on the river to sustain us.”

“Of course, people need to be educated about environmental problems, especially poor fishermen like me. We understand that our government is doing its best to save us from deepening poverty. But we should not wait for help from other countries. We can hear our river's call and we should do what we can to save it ourselves,” said the proud but wistful fishermen as he picked up his nets and headed towards the Mekong to see what it would offer up this time.

By Patithin Phetmeuangphuan
(Latest Update March 28, 2017)


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