Fish conservation areas in the Tonle Sap: results of a mid-term review

In early April, we commissioned a mid-term review of our EU-funded project to establish community managed fish conservation areas (FCAs) in three pilot sites in the Tonle Sap: in Phlov Touk Commune in Kampong Chhnang Province; Boeung Chhmar in Peam Bang Commune, Kampong Thom Province; and Kampong Phluk Commune in Siem Reap Province. The review was carried out by Dr. Sarah Milne of the Australian National University and she presented the results at a meeting of the Technical Working Group on Fisheries, which meets every two months and is co-chaired by the EU and the Fisheries Administration (FiA).

Local fishermen in the fish conservation area,  Cambodia

The logic of establishing FCAs is that by protecting sites where fish congregate during the dry season, fish populations will be safeguarded for the benefit of local fishers. The three FCAs that the project has helped establish are relatively small (10-100 hectares) on the basis that it is better to strictly protect key fish refugia rather than to struggle (and likely fail) to protect much larger areas. The FCAs are also located close to where people live so that access is easy, making it possible for poor local families without modern boats and equipment to benefit from the FCA. In all three sites, the FCA is managed by locally elected community fisheries committees.

The first finding from the review is that in all three sites, protection has resulted in more fish in the FCAs: "Fish are jumping out of the water" according one respondent. This finding is promising but must be treated with caution because there are many other factors that affect fish stocks beyond the FCAs. The presence of more fish has attracted more fishers to the target areas and 24/7 patrolling is now required to protect the FCAs.

The apparent link between FCA protection and improved fisheries explains in large part the high level of local commitment to this project. To our surprise, committees and community members are now paying for half the fuel costs of the patrols, and they’ve taken the initiative to place additional demarcation poles around the FCAs and tree trunks in the deep pools to act as fish attraction devices (and also deter illegal fishing by snaring nets and hindering boat traffic).

One problem, particularly in Phlov Touk, is that families who live close to the FCA benefit most. One response to this benefit distribution issue is to set up a system whereby those who fish in the "spillover zone", whether local people or outsiders, must pay a fee to the committee. In addition to ensuring a degree of equity, this would generate income to pay for the fuel and other resources used in patrolling. It could therefore form the basis of a sustainable financing system for the community fisheries committeea vital but elusive goal.

In Boeung Chhmar, through our quarterly focus group discussion, we learned about a major threat to the FCA. Starting in September, fishers from Siem Reap laid nets across one of the two major rivers linking the flooded forest to the lake. These nets blocked the migration of fish into the lake. The villagers protested to local authorities who took no action despite the blatant illegality of the nets. They told us that if these nets remained there was no point in the FCA, because there would not be any fish to protect. We immediately contacted MoE and FiA and the nets were eventually removed, thereby building confidence in the local committee and a sense of their wider purpose.

This experience also makes clear the need to protect fish during their entire life cycle: in the flooded forest where the juvenile fish mature during the wet season, in deep pools where mature "mother" fish find refuge during the dry season, and in the rivers and canals that fish use to migrate in and out of the lake. This implies that functioning FCAs are necessary but not sufficient to ensure fish stock maintenance and food security and that interventions in flooded forests and waterways are required.

An issue in Kampong Phluk is that the community fisheries committee chief is also the commune chief. He therefore travels a lot and committee decisions are delayed. More importantly, there is a conflict of interest between his role representing local fishers and his role as political leader subject to pressures that may or may not align with the interests of local fishers. This may explain why the provincial FiA was happy to allow us to proceed with the FCA in ex-Lot 5, one of the richest fishing grounds in the lake that they wanted to retain control of, knowing that they could exert influence over the committee via the commune chief. The amended community fisheries sub-decree that is being prepared will probably ban such an arrangement by requiring that the community fisheries committee chief be a non-state actor.

Another insight from the mid-term review was the definition of "illegal" fishing activities. In Boeung Chhmar, fishers use hyacinth traps, which are traditional, and farm snakehead fish, which started 10 years ago. Both activities are illegal according to the 2007 Fisheries Law. Hyacinth traps are basically large fish attraction devices connected to a net that is pulled up 2-3 times a year, thereby capturing all the fish inside. People raise snakehead to pay for weddings and other special events, and as a safety net for emergencies and debt relief. Because Boeung Chhmar is far from the nearest large market, it is more economical for villagers to feed their low value fish catch to the snakehead fish, rather than to sell them. Snakehead rearing therefore allows the optimal use of the local fish harvests. Fishers here can't survive without these activities and it is unclear why these should be banned.

The mid-term review concluded that the project needs to focus on designing a sustainable financing system to pay for the on-going patrol costs, addressing conflict of interest issues within the community fisheries committees, researching whether or not hyacinth traps and snakehead farming should be legalized, sharing lessons learned with other community fisheries around the Tonle Sap and starting to scale up the FCA approach, while addressing threats in the flooded forest and elsewhere outside of the FCAs, and feeding the results into the amended community fisheries sub-decree. We have another 18 months to get all this done!

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