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Nao Thuok
Fisheries Office, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia


The Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Great Lake create a vast inland water system extended into flooded forests, grasslands, rice fields and swamps. This water system supports extensive capture fisheries supplying more than 75% of the total animal protein intake by Cambodia's estimated 9.8 million people. Thus, inland capture fisheries in Cambodia play a very important role in the life of the people as well as in the national economy. During the last three decades of internal unrest, the inland fisheries have been and still are being overexploited. The inundated forests, which provide breeding, nursing and feeding grounds for many fish species, have been indiscriminately cleared for agriculture. To help rehabilitate and sustain these resources, a number of enhancement projects have been undertaken. This paper describes the current inland fisheries management and the socio-economic and livelihood practices of the fisher communities in the Tonle Sap Great Lake. It also recommends that more enhancement efforts be undertaken combined with equity in fishing rights. Small- and medium-scale fishers need to be given access to good fishing grounds and to participate in decision making and management activities.


Cambodia covers 181,035 km2, about 20% of which is used for agriculture. It is located almost entirely in the Mekong River basin, between the 10°N and 15°N latitude, and 102°E and 108°E longitude. It is administratively divided into 18 provinces and 2 municipalities, 13 of which are considered to be fishing provinces. Six of these provinces are located on the shores of the Tonle Sap Great Lake and along the Mekong River. The Mekong River creates a vast inland water system, comprising numerous rivers and lakes, extending into flooded forests, grasslands, rice fields and swamps (Table 1).

Table 1. Areas of various types of land and water resources which support Cambodia s freshwater capture fisheries. (Source: Ahmed et al., 1996)

Type of land and water resources in CambodiaAreas (ha)
Areas (ha)
Permanent water (river, lake, ponds, etc.)567,100411,100
Flooded forests795,400370,700
Flooded secondary forests28,200259,800
Flooded grassland80,80084,900
Receding and floating ricefields17,50029,300
Seasonally flooded crop fields366,800529,900

This water system supports an extensive capture fishery, supplying more than 75 % of the total animal protein intake by Cambodia's population of 9.8 million (Ahmed et al., 1996).

After travelling 120 km of rapids from the Laos border, the Mekong River meets the Tonle Sap River at the “Quatre Bras” in front of the Royal Palace. It continues to flow down as the Mekong and Bassac rivers into Vietnam. In the rainy season, the Mekong River feeds into the Tonle Sap Great Lake, causing the flow of the Tonle Sap River to reverse.

The Tonle Sap Great Lake is one of the largest and most productive freshwater lakes of the world (Bardach, 1959). Located in the middle of the country's north-west plains, the lake occupies an area of 3000 km2 in the dry season. During the monsoon, it expands by some 7000 km2, flooding forests and creating an enormous fish breeding, spawning, nursery and feeding grounds of more than 10,000 km2. The magnitude of the Mekong floods is highly correlated with the volume of water entering the Tonle Sap Great Lake and the expansion of the lake.

The total annual freshwater fish production reached 127,000 t in 1937 and 78,000 t in 1939 (Chevey and Le Poulin, 1939). The total production of freshwater fish in Cambodia for 1940–96 is shown in Table 2. However, this figure considers only the commercial catches with the exclusion of family and ricefield fisheries which are considered by many experts as important as the commercial fisheries. The Mekong-DANIDA sponsored Project for the Management of Freshwater Capture Fisheries in Cambodia being implemented since 1994, found that the freshwater fish production is still as high as 120,000 t per year (Mekong River Commission, 1996).

Table 2. Freshwater fish production in Cambodia (1940–96).

YearProduction (tons)Source of information
1940120,000Chevey and Le Poulin,1940
1957130,000Bardach, 1959
1960138,000Department of Fisheries
198018,400Department of Fisheries (with the exclusion of small-scale family fishing)


The objective of the project: Participatory Natural Resources Management in the Tonle Sap Region, initiated in 1995, are:


Three fishing communes in Siem Reap Province were studied using participatory rural data gathering and observation techniques in combination with some published and unpublished documents available in the Department of Fisheries.


4.1 Fisheries resources and management practices

The inland fisheries, especially of the Tonle Sap Great Lake, has a long history from the Angkor era or even before (Tana, 1996). About 800–1000 years ago, the freshwater fish were exploited for local consumption, as seen on the carvings on the Bayon and Angkor Vat temples. Chu Ta Quan, a Chinese observer in the 13th century, had appreciated the rich fishery resources of the Great Lake and the prosperous life of Angkorians at that time. Indigenous fishing practices were developed such as the use of ramie fibre to make cast nets and seine nets for fishing in the Great Lake. Intensive fishery started in 1864 and fishing techniques gradually developed. From the very beginning of this century the Government began taxing and demarcating good fishing grounds as fishing lots for exclusive use by individual fishers and companies.

Recognising the unique ecological characteristic of the Tonle Sap Great Lake and the importance of the fishery resources as indispensable to the Cambodian fish eating communities, the Government issued the Fishery Laws, established the Department of Fisheries and in 1954 opened a fishery vocational school to properly manage the resources and undertake research aimed at sustainable exploitation. This was interrupted by internal unrest from 1970 to 1975. During the period of the Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979, the fishery research institute was destroyed and there was no fishery management at all. It was not until 1987 that the fishery Fiat-Law was enacted and the fishery resources were clearly defined (Department of Fisheries, 1987). This fishery Fiat-Law comprises 7 chapters and 44 articles.

According to the fishery Fiat-Law, the fishing season, with one exception, is open from 1 October to 30 June and fishing gears are classified in groups according to their length and catch capacity:

Small-scale family or subsistence fishing: This small scale-fishing is open year round and is not licensed. It allows the use of simple fishing gears such as single hooked line fishing, harpooned fishing, handled-scooping basket, cast net of less than 5 m length, scoop net, vee-shaped deep net of less than 2 m mouth opening, small-handled drag net of less than 3 m length, gill net of less than 10 m length, etc.

Medium-scale or artisanal fishing: The medium-scale fishing is licensed per season through a fixed license per gear and can be operated only during the fishing season from 1 October to 30 June. The price of a license is fixed on the basis of an estimate of expected catch for each gear type. In this category are gill nets longer than 10 m, seine nets, fish traps associated with 500 m of bamboo fences, hook lines, etc.

Large-scale fishing: It comprises the fishing lot operations, barrage fishing, bag net (Dai) fishing, which are licensed through an auction system for a 2-year lease. The system provides a monopoly of the resource utilisation within a given area or at a defined site in a good fishing water body to a private individual fisher/company with some restrictions on the operation such as closed season before which all fixed installations must be dismantled.

The fishery domain is divided into 2 types, each with a set of regulations: The fishery domain assigned by group comprises 3 categories:

  1. The fishing areas defined as fishing lots (fishing lots, fishing barrages and bag net fishing or Dai) are reserved as resource monopolies for persons or enterprises, used for large-scale fishing. These fishing lots range from 20 km2 to more than 350 km2, both in the open lake and in the inundated forest.

  2. The fish sanctuaries within which all fishing activities are prohibited and reserved for fish fauna reproduction or for research of techniques and for scientific studies.

  3. The inundated forest areas: All forest areas which are flooded during the monsoon and serve as shelters for fish fauna, and as their feeding and spawning grounds.

In Cambodia there are 175 fishing lots, 96 bag net fishing lots (Dai) and 10 fish sanctuaries. Fishing in the fishing domain is not permitted for groups without permission The exploitation in the fishing lots can take place only with a valid fishing license and only during the fishing season mentioned in the burden book or on the fishing license.

The protected fishery domain: only small-scale family fishing and medium-scale fishing are allowed.

4.2 Social and economic conditions of fishery-dependent communities

The fishery-dependent communities live in floating villages in or around the inundated forest surrounding the Great Lake and important rivers. They comprise the fisher communities relying exclusively on fishing and farmer communities whose main occupation is predominantly farming. The latter can get access to fishing areas all year round when they are free from farming activities.

Fisher communities: Fisher communities live on boats or floating houses constructed on bamboo rafts or on high stilted houses in the lake or on the river bank. They rely exclusively on fishing and fishing-related activities such as fish growing, fish selling, fish processing, fishing gear making, fishing boat construction.

Of the 15,949 people who live in the three studied communes in Siem Reap Province (Table 3) 8922 are female (55.94%). 78.52% of these people earn their living from fishing. The majority of them are medium-scale operators (73.74%), operating seine nets, gill nets, bamboo traps and hook lines (Table 4). Only 0.26% of the fishers are large-scale operators who get access to exploit the so-called “fishing lots” (designated and demarcated good fishing grounds). The remaining 26% are small-scale fishers.

Farmer communities: They reside in lowlands which are flooded during the monsoon near the inundated forest areas. The majority of these people own a plot of land with a house and 1–1.5 ha of land for cropping. Their main occupation is farming combined with fishing activities and some petty trading to generate family income as well as to supplement their annual food consumption. Apart from the lowland cropping, these communities are very interested in clearing the inundated forests which is a very fertile area for growing mungbean and other cash crops such as high yielding dry season rice.

Table 3. Number of families engaged in different activities within the fisher communities.

Communes OccupationKompong Khleang comm.Kompong Plouk communeChong Khneas communeTotal
No. Of families1,3873647122,463
Fish raising38(2.74)145(39.84)68(9.55)251(10.19)
Petty trading136(9.81)4(1.10)78(10.96)218(8.85)
Fish processing48(3.46)25(6.87)12(1.69)85(3.45)
Mungbean cult.79(5.70)3(0.82)082(3.32)
Hired labor28(2.02)1(0.27)47(6.60)76(3.09)
Civil servant29(2.09)9(2.47)13(1.83)51(2.07)
Boat construction29(2.09)013(1.83)42(1.71)

Note: Figures in parenthesis are percentages.

The total number of families engaged in different activities is greater than the total number of families of the communes because some households report more than one occupation.

Table 4. Number of families of fishermen by scale.

Gears CommunesLarge scaleMedium scaleSmall scaleTotal
Kompong Khleang3(0.27%)906(82.44%)190(17.29%)1,099(100%)
Kompong Phlouk0(0.00%)208(62.46%)125(37.54%)333(100%)
Chong Khneas2(0.40%)312(62.15%)188(37.45%)502(100%)

Note: Figures in parenthesis are percentages.

The socio-economic conditions of the communities are generally very poor, with limited access to safe drinking water, sanitation, health care and basic infrastructure. Roads and communication to the communities are in very bad condition. It may take several hours to get to communities just 30–40 km away. There are only commune health centres with limited and low-quality facilities. Medicine is not available. Many villagers visit traditional healers. When someone is seriously ill, he goes to the private medical officer or traditional healer first. Only in serious cases will someone be taken to the district or provincial hospital.

Living and hygienic conditions are very poor. Litter and waste is left everywhere. Generally less than 10% of the villagers drink boiled water. There are few village schools. Children must go several kilometres to a neighbouring village for primary school and to district headquarters for secondary school. The education level is generally low due to the lack of schools and teachers and the difficulty in sending children to school. Children are needed on the farm to help their parents and there seems to be a general lack of interest as far as education is concerned. Table 5 shows the general education level of a sample of fishery-dependent communities.

There are no social organisations such as fishermens' associations or farmers' associations in the villages.

Table 5. Level of education in the fishery-dependent communities (a sample). Number (%).

Not at all56(68.30)78(19.54)134(27.85)
Can read18(21.95)173(43.35)191(39.71)
Primary school8(9.75)113(28.33)121(25.15)
Junior high school032(8.03)32(6.66)
High school03(0.75)3(0.63)

4.3 Enhancement efforts

4.3.1 Legal enhancement

Efforts have been made aiming at enhancing and pro perly managing the inland fishery resources for long-term use as well as keeping it for the generations to come. In this sense, in addition to a number of subsequent important regulations, His Majesty the King Samdach Preah Norodom Sihanouk promulgated the Royal Decree No 126 declaring the Tonle Sap Great Lake as a protected area for multiple-use under strict regulations (Ministry of Environment, 1993).

The Department of Fisheries (DoF) is the legal institution responsible for the management of the fishery resources using the existing law and regulations as tools. The management is based mainly on conservation and law enforcement although there are a number of extension programmes in aquaculture, stocking, inundated forest protection, data collection and some others.

At provincial level, there is the Provincial Office of Fisheries (PoF) under the administrative supervision of the Provincial Department of Agriculture (PDA), with technical assistance of the Department of Fisheries. The PoF also sends its staff to look over the fishing activities in each fishing commune. In addition, each district authority has 1–2 fishery staff members who are responsible for co-operation with the PoF staff in controlling fishery exploitation.

4.3.2 Natural resources enhancement

Since the early 1990s, in collaboration with some PoBs and IOs, the DoF has undertaken a number of fishery enhancement projects with the purpose of rehabilitating the degraded natural habitats.

Reforestation: Since the early 1990s, the DoF has started reforestation in some provinces, especially in Siem Reap Province. Around 2000 ha have been kept aside for regeneration to improve fish spawning and feeding grounds Observations have indicated that natural regeneration gives better results than reforestation, although reforestation is very important in creating people's awareness and participation in forest protection and conservation.

Fish sanctuary rehabilitation: 4 of the 10 fish sanctuaries have been partially rehabilitated by dropping trunks of trees to create a better and more convenient artificial habitat during the dry season as well as providing more spawning areas for many fish species. At the same time it makes poaching in such areas difficult.

Stocking: Some 500,000 fingerlings of carps and silver barb have been stocked in the natural water bodies of the fish-scarce provinces Takeo, Kompong Speu, Kompong Som. Around Angkor Vat temple, grass carp and silver barb were also stocked to biologically control water weeds in the moats. By destroying weeds, fish transform weeds into protein very much needed by the inhabitants of the surrounding villages.

Aquaculture: To promote aquaculture, a number of fish seed production stations have been established to produce enough fingerlings for stocking programmes and to fulfil farmers' fish seed needs. Around 5 million fingerlings have been produced every year since 1994 (Table 6).

Table 6. Aquaculture production in Cambodia (1984–96).
(Source: Department of Fisheries, 1996)

YearFingerling production (numbers)Table fish production (tons)

International co-operation: In 1993, an FAO Fishery Sector Programming Mission of five fishery specialists visited Cambodia to review the situation and to formulate programmes and proposals for rehabilitation and reconstruction (Csavas et al., 1994). The mission focused especially at the situation in inland fisheries and formulated five draft project ideas covering the following: improvement of floodplain fishery resources in the Mekong and Bassac rivers; multi-sectoral development plan for the Great Lake; rehabilitation of inundated forests of the Great Lake for a multi-use purpose; establishment of inland fisheries research station; and establishment of a central fisheries library and information centre. Since then a number of enhancement and management projects have been implemented in the major fishery provinces by various international development agencies.

In 1994, the Mekong/DANIDA Project for the Management of the Freshwater Capture Fisheries began its fish stock assessment and socio-economic survey to gather baseline information in the fishery-dependent communities.

In December 1994, The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nation began implementing the Participatory Natural Resources Management Project. The project, funded by the Belgian government, involves an integrated way of fisheries, forestry, agriculture and environment improvement in the area of Tonle Sap.

Padek (the Partnership for Development in Cambodia) is one of the first organisations to assist with the fishery development in Cambodia. Its target areas are Prey Veng and Siem Reap provinces where it promotes integrated rural development with fish pond culture.

The Asian Institute of Technology has also implemented small-scale pond culture projects in Svay Rieng, Takeo and Kompong Speu provinces. It also pays much interest to catfish pen-cage culture in the Tonle Sap Great Lake region.

The South-east Asian Outreach (SAO) and the Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA) are also helping to develop aquaculture in Kandal and Kampot provinces including the establishment of a fish hatchery and promotion of pond culture.


Fish is the main source of animal protein and the main staple diet of Cambodians, second only to rice. In the past the production of the freshwater fisheries was declining in quantity and quality as a result of poor management measures. Since the 1990s, enhancement effort and new technologies have been implemented but the enhancements are still very small as compared to the existing extensive capture fisheries. One of the major weaknesses of capture fisheries is the lack of local community interest and participation in the management. To comply with the objectives of sustainable and environmentally friendly development management, habitat enhancement and stocking together with promotion of aquaculture are the best alternatives. Law enforcement and control alone cannot be used effectively to protect fish stocks from overfishing.

To enhance the inland capture fisheries for sustainable use, the following recommendations are put forward:


Ahmed, M., T.S. Tana and N. Thuok. 1996. Sustaining the gift of the Mekong: the future of the freshwater capture fisheries of Cambodia. Watershed 1 (3): March-June 1996.

Bardach, J. 1959. A report on fisheries in Cambodia. USOM/Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Chevey and Le Poulin. 1940. La Peche dans les Eaux Douces du Cambodge. 5 eme Memoire.

Csavas, I., D.J. Doulman, T.O. Petr, J. Prado and L. Debas. 1994. Cambodia - rehabilitation and development needs of the fishery sector. FAO Fisheries Circular No. 873. FAO, Rome. 89p.

Department of Fisheries. 1987. Fisheries Fiat-Law No 33 on Fisheries Management. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Mekong River Commission. 1996. Progress Report 1996. Project for the Management of the Freshwater Captures Fisheries in Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Ministry of Environment. 1993. Royal Decree No 126 on Proclamation of National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, Protected Areas and Multiple-Use areas. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Tana, T. S. 1996. Status of biodiversity of the Great Lake, Boeung Tonle Sap. An approach for better conservation and future sustainable development. Paper presented at the Tonle Sap Technical Workshop, 26 March 1996, Ministry of Environment, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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