The Small-Scale Fish Conservation Area Is a Solution for Fish Security in the Tonle Sap Lake

14 May 2014 | Article

As the largest lake in Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s Tonle Sap directly supports the livelihoods of more than 1.2 million people. Established by Royal Decree as the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve in 2001, this huge and dynamic wetland makes an essential contribution to national food security.

An EU-supported project has been implemented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in partnership with Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT). It helps local fishers to set up and manage small-scale fish conservation areas. The project intervenes in three pilot sites in the lake.

Every three months, focus group discussions are held with about 10 local fishers at each site. These discussions are used to collect information on project impact and build relationships and cooperation between the IUCN, FACT staff and the project beneficiaries. Aware of the important role they play, the fishers are happy to contribute.

By describing changes in livelihoods (e.g., income, spending, debt) and fishing (e.g., species, yield, equipment, time spent fishing), fishers provide insights that help us understand the costs and benefits of the fish conservation areas.

After introductions and a general discussion, a Most Significant Change (MSC) method is used. This tells us about changes that matter most to fishers and helps us to measure local social and environmental changes. Each focus group member tells a 5-minute story that is used to fine tune project activities.

The monitoring results show that most villagers still encounter difficulties meeting their basic needs. One reason is that illegal practices continue to increase despite the fish conservation area demarcation. This lies at the heart of fisheries management in the Tonle Sap and could have dramatic consequences if no effective action is taken. The sudden cancelation of the privately owned fishing lots in 2012 has been a mixed experience. On the one hand, there are fewer limits where people can fish. On the other, the focus group members report more and more fishing nets, bamboo fences, and more modern (and intensive) fishing gears. It is precisely this “tragedy of the commons” outcome that the project is trying to avoid. To address this threat, the project will lease boats for local fishers to patrol the fish conservation areas.

By Mahieu Léandro
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*Mahieu Léandro is from Belgium and is currently enrolled in the first year of a Master’s course on agronomical sciences and biological engineering at the Faculty of Gembloux Agro-BioTech. For Léandro, the time spent in Cambodia was an enriching opportunity to learn about food security and nutrition of economically weak families. After his internship, he discovered a world that is very different from Belgium and Europe in general, and returned home convinced that environmental management is a top priority in rapidly growing Asian countries.