From River to Table: the job-creating power of fish

Here in Southeast Asia, customers are used to having their pick of live fish from big bowls out in front of the restaurant before dinner, with everything from long and skinny, eel-y looking fish to big catfish available to be stuffed with lemongrass and grilled. And this is in addition to the seemingly-endless piles of powerful-smelling dried and salted fish available in any market in the region.

Fish seller at the market in Stung Treng, Cambodia

The Mekong River is one of the world’s most plentiful fisheries, home to all these yummy fish types, as well as some of the most exciting “extreme” fish species out there, such as the Mekong Giant Catfish and giant freshwater stingrays. But development, dam construction, over-fishing and pollution have started to take their toll on the river’s habitats and fish.

Most research on the river has had a biological focus, looking at these fish populations themselves. But IUCN Lao PDR wanted to put a human face to the fish trade. How exactly does that fresh grilled fish get from the river onto the plate at a restaurant? Who catches the fish, who transports the fish in the back of his/her pick-up truck, and how much do these people rely on these fisheries for income? How will these people be affected by a decrease in the fish stock?

IUCN Lao PDR put together a team of researchers from three neighboring countries of the Lower Mekong Basin, namely Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Thailand, to answer these questions. The three teams studied one of three major fish trade routes through these countries. They interviewed fishers, fish farmers, traders, exporters, government officials, and others in villages and cities along the route about how much fish they catch, trade and buy, how much they buy and sell for, and where they take it. Their research painted a clear picture of the trade along this route, and showed how many households rely on it to survive. They ended up with a much larger estimate of the size of the yearly trade—over 600,000 kilograms per year—than previous studies had made. The study also found that many people involved in the fish trade are members of vulnerable groups; including women, people with low levels of formal education or training, and the rural poor with few other job options.

The results reveal that the fish trade is an irreplaceable and significant source of income for most of the people who are engaged in it, providing almost a quarter of household income for fishers in Cambodia and up to 70% of household income for Lao fishing families. We also were able to more accurately trace the route the trade follows today, with more fish going to cities in Lao PDR instead of on to Thailand now that better roads connect southern and central Lao PDR.

More than 7,000 households were directly involved with buying or selling fish along the route studied, and this is just the smallest of three routes that go through Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Thailand. And only direct employment was counted in the study, not other forms of involvement including truck drivers and ice-sellers, meaning many more people overall are involved in this important trans-boundary trade!

Based upon the results of the study, researchers proposed policy recommendations to maintain the health of Mekong fisheries. These fisheries are an incredible resource that comes free from nature, providing both nutrition and income for the people who live there. Therefore, their value should be counted in the economic analysis that factors into these governments’ decisions that will affect the river and its natural resources. Not only is it in the long-term best interest of each nation to take responsible steps now to regulate the fish trade fairly and preserve fish populations and habitat, but the three governments must also work together to successfully implement these steps.

“Actors in [the] fish trade really need policies and regulations that support their activities to ensure that they could be done more appropriately, profitably and sustainably,” explained researcher Navy Hap. There should be an on-going international dialogue to match the transboundary nature of the trade so that policy can be designed and enforced, and monitoring responsibilities shared, evenly on a regional level. Environmental impact assessments should be made for future development projects, and the considerations of each country, as well as potential negative impacts on the rural poor, taken into account.

The river has no boundaries; what one country does will impact people everywhere who rely on the river to make a living.

By Eleanor Elbert


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