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Srun Lim Song, Lieng Sopha, Ing Try, Heng Sotharith97


There were more than 500 fish species found in the inland water of Cambodia amongst more than 1 200 species that have found in the Mekong River Basin. The recent estimate of freshwater fish production in Cambodia was 300 000–450 000 tonnes per year with an estimated price at landing sites of US$ 150–225 million. It ranks fourth among the World's top in terms of total inland fish production, but it ranks first among the world's top in terms of fish consumption per capita.

Fish play a major role not only in the diet, but also in the economy of the Cambodian people. A household survey carried out in 1995–96 suggests that the average fish consumption rate of 4.2 million people in central Cambodia is 67 kg/capita/year. Small-scale fisheries (family and rice field fisheries) production contributes more than 55 percent of total catch. It is highly significant for food security in the country, especially for the rural poor. While, the marine catch contributes about 12 – 15 percent of the total fish production annually, due to Cambodia possesses a short coastline, about 435 km only.

The recent increase of fishing effort of the middle scale and family scale fisheries has lead to increase fishing pressure on wild fish stock and increase the practice of illegal fishing method, particularly electro-fishing and small-mesh size net (mosquito net), which leads to serious decline of fisheries resources. The decrease in number of fish spawners has resulted in the decline in fish productivity.

The changes of flow regime in the Mekong River floodplains may change the physical, chemical and ecological quality of river from upstream to down stream. The form and function of the rivers have changed in respond to the dam construction and canalization of the river or tributary. The human settlement has caused also the changes of land use. This has disruption the seasonal pattern of fish migration for feeding and reproduction.


Cambodia is a small and compact tropical country, located in Southeast Asia between Lao PDR, Vietnam, Thailand and the Gulf of Thailand. The population is about 13.4 million at a growth rate of 2.4 percent per annum. Agriculture is the major occupation and the backbone of the country's economy. About 85 percent of the population is rural dwellers. Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, it ranked 130th on the Human Resource Index (2002), out of 137 countries: around 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The level of education, health, gender equity and life expectancy remain relatively low and are improving gradually after more than two decades of internal unrest that ended in 1998. So the needs for social and economic development are an urgent and critical matter.

Rice and fish are the basic diets of Cambodian people and more than 70 percent of the animal protein intake derives from fish especially for the rural poors. Fish consumption of rural dwellers living in the floodplain around the Great Lake is estimated at 75.6 kg/person/year while those living in the fish deficit areas such as Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces is 22 – 40 kg/person/year (Gregory, 1997). The national average fish consumption is in the range of 30 – 40 kg/person/year, while the optimum level is about 48.5 kg.

Fish play a major role not only in the diet, but also in the economy of the Cambodian people. So far, because there is no proper statistical system set-up particularly for small-scale fisheries and aquaculture, it has resulted in the negligence of the important contribution from the capture fisheries to livelihood of the poor. On the other hand, aquaculture is widely seen as the principal revenue to fill the supply-demand gap, especially in those areas remote from the main capture fisheries, and also contributes to reduction of pressure from wild catch.

This paper is intended to assist FAO in examining the efficiency of fisheries instruments and other measures to address factors of unsustainability and overexploitation affecting inland fisheries in Cambodia.


Cambodia is rich in water resources and varieties of fish habitats. The Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac Rivers and many of their tributaries, numerous lakes and the Tonle Sap Great Lake and the floodplain comprise a wide range of different habitat types, from marshes/swamps, shrub lands, grasslands, flooded forest to rice fields. The flooded forest covers largest area after rice field and it is likely that the flooded forest has a largest potential contribution to fish production. The availability of habitat is influenced by flood regime of the Mekong River. This has resulted in changes of the extent of the floodplains of the Lake. The centre of the Tonle Sap Lake is largely open water that serves as important refuges for fish in the dry season while the lateral zone is dry. It is reported that fish production in the Tonle Sap Great Lake is about 139 – 190 kg/ha/year (Lieng, and Van Zalinge, 2002).

The large flood plains and extensive wetland areas surrounding the Great Lake are both highly valuable and very vulnerable. The high biodiversity and biological productivity allow these areas to offer a broad variety of livelihood opportunities to a large number of inhabitants. More than 500 fish species have been found in the Mekong River area of Cambodia (Rainboth, 1996).

The landing-site value of the total inland fish production is estimated (based on landing prices) between 150 to US$ 250 million (Van Zalinge et al., 1999). Following updated calculations of the market value of fish production in the Lower Mekong River Basin, freshwater capture fisheries of Cambodia would contribute more than US$ 300 million (Jensen, 2000). The Department of Fisheries generated US$1.9 million in 1998 (DoF, 1999).

Fishing in the Tonle Sap River

Table 1. Cambodia's Fish Catch and Aquaculture Production, 1985 – 2003

Year Inland ( tonnes)Marine ( tonnes)Aquaculture ( tonnes)Total ( tonnes)Value ( US$ Million)
1985 56 40011 1783 00070 57884.30
1986 64 1817 2472 20073 62876.90
1987 62 15417 4172 50082 071108.70
1988 61 20021 004 60086 800121.70
1989 50 50026 0505 53882 088130.50
1990 65 10039 9006 400111 400187.90
1991 74 70036 4006 700117 800165.20
1992 68 90033 7008 550111 150155.10
1993 67 90033 1007 900108 900151.90
1994 65 00030 0008 200103 200140.60
1995 72 50030 5009 510112 510147.60
1996 63 51031 2009 600104 310138.90
1997 73 00029 80011 800114 600140.80
1998 75 70032 20014 100122 000152.10
1999 231 000*38 10015 000284 100142.05**
2000 245 600*36 00014 430296 030148.02**
2001 385 000*42 00017 500444 500222.25**
2002 360 300*45 85018 200424 435212.25**
2003308 750*54 75026 300389 800194.90**

Source: Fisheries Department (2002); Lim Song S. et al. (2004)

* Total production, including rice-field fisheries, small-scale, medium and large-scale fishing. Before 1999 the rice-field fisheries and small-scale fishing were not included.

** Estimation of average price of fish US$ 0.50/kg, derived from DOF (1999 – 2003) and personal communication (1999 – 2003).

The importance of the fishery is still under valued. Figures are usually underestimated because secondary and tertiary occupations in fisheries are not revealed. The national census for example only records the main occupation. This approach somehow obscures the essence of subsistence production in Cambodia, where agriculture and fisheries are tightly intertwined as the main components. Even in areas not adjacent to permanent water bodies or streams, fisheries in the form of rice field fisheries play an important role in subsistence production. For example, a household survey of 5 117 households conducted in eight inland provinces along the main water bodies and inundated areas found that for 10.5 percent of the households, fishing was the primary occupation. Yet 34.1 percent of households that did not cite fishing as their primary occupation reported a part-time involvement in fisheries (Ahmed et al. 1998). A limited farming systems study in regular rice farming areas reveals that 13 percent of farm labour requirements are spent in fishing activities. However, more than 18 percent of the value of their subsistence production comes from fishing (CIAP 1997).

However, with the increasing population pressure and owing to various causes production from capture fisheries has been showing a decline, resulting in the reduced availability of fish for consumption in most parts of the country. In order to overcome this shortage of fish supply, with the involvement of a number of non-government organizations (NGOs), international organizations and other projects, small-scale aquaculture has been promoting in different parts of the country and this activity is helping farmers in rural areas to grow fish both for family consumption and also generating their income.


According to the Cambodian fishery law, the small-scale fishery or family fishery is a fishery for subsistence living only and can take place year round in the family and open-access areas (excluding fishing lots, fish sanctuary, and flooded forest). Small-scale fishing implies all kinds of small-size fishing gears which can be operated by one or two persons, such as short gill nets, cast nets, scoop nets, shrimp scoop nets, hand push nets, small bamboo trap, short hook lines, single hook lines, spear, etc (Touch Seang Tana, 2002).

Rice field fisheries are subsistence fisheries for rural farmers. A study has been conducted on rice field fisheries and was found to be a socio-economic importance for the rural poor in rural Svay Rieng Province (Touch Seang Tana, 1993).

Fishing-related employment is very important for rural livelihood. The household survey of fishing dependent communes in 1995 conducted in eight provinces around the Tonle Sap Lake and the southern floodplain with the total population of 2.4 million people or 453 000 households indicated that 10.5 percent of the households fishing or related activity was a primary occupation and another 34.1 percent were part-time engaged (Ahmed et al. 1998).

Most of the household (about 87 percent) was involved in family fishing activity and nine percent carries middle-scale fishing. Only about four percent of the households involved in large-scale fishing (Ahmed et al. 1998). The family fisheries are often held in rice field or nearby water bodies, canal, swamp or small lakes.

The average annual catch per household for middle-scale and family fishing was 3 319 Kg and 647 Kg, respectively. Nearly 40 percent of the fish catch was consumed within the communes. In addition to the food and employment, fishing provides cash to local fishers. With this fishing and other source of income they could earn cash of around US$ 380 per year (Ahmed et. al. 1999).

Fish sale in market at Stung Treng Province

The Management of Freshwater Captures Fisheries of Cambodia of MRC/Danida/ DoF Project has set up a more scientific system of data collection since 1994 – 1997. It is based on the stratified sampling (by species, by gear and district) and frame survey information on fishing gear in order to get a more realistic idea of the size of fisheries (Van Zalinge et al., 1996; Diep et al., 1998). Their data for the annual inland water catch from 1994 to 1998 varied from 280 000 to 445 000 tonnes as the result of large-scale commercial fishing (fishing lots and Dai), middle-scale fishing (mobile gear), small-scale and rice field fisheries are shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Range of annual inland catches in the year from 1994 to 1997

Type of fisheriesAnnual catch ranges (tonnes)
Large-scale fisheries  
  - Fishing lots125 000 – 75 000
  - Dai (bag nets)210 000 – 20 000
Middle-scale fisheries385 000 – 100 000
Family-scale fisheries3115 000 – 140 000
Rice field fisheries445 000 – 110 000
Total 280 000 – 445 000

Source: Ahmed, et al. 1998, and Diep et al., 1998

1. Range reflects uncertainty in actual catch levels
2. Range shows approx. minimum and maximum values since 1994–98
3. Based on socio-economic survey data extrapolated to entire country
4. Approx. 1.8 million ha × likely range of fish yield: 25 – 62 kg/ha

The large-scale inland fisheries, the fishing lots and Dai fisheries are now limited and are managed as government concessions. The system predates the French colonial time. The largest reduction took place in 2001 apparently as a reaction to the mounting conflicts over access to fishing grounds between lot managers and fisher communities. About 56 percent of fishing lots were abolished and placed under community fisheries management. So far, there are 339 communities has been established, but they are not experienced in handling management and moreover appropriate laws have not been adopted yet.


In Cambodia, the fishing lot management system is based on the generation as much as possible of the resources-rent while ecological and geographical environment are changing and the population is growing. Indeed, in each of the fishing lot, there were some open-access areas for family fishing. But during recent years lot leaseholders have deprived local communities from access to those areas and sometimes the lot armed guards confiscated fishing nets, traps, rowing boats of subsistence fishers. Some fatal incidents have been occurring in this conflict of interests (Nao Thuok, 2001).

Table 3. Number of fishing lots remained after the reform

Fishing lotExistedAbolishedRemaining
- Lake-stream (Lacustrine)1355382
- Bagnet (Dai fishing)630360
- White Lady Bagnet080008
- Prawn Bagnet
- Sand bank (Riverine)

Source: Nao Thuok 2001

In this context, local people used to come to Phnom Penh to protest in front of the National Assembly claiming that they were deprived from access to fishing grounds where they used to fish. On the other hand, lot holders sub-lease portions of the lot to other sub-sub-leasers for more profits.

Responding to this situation, Samdach Hun Sen, Prime-Minister of Cambodian Government ordered the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) to revise the fishing lot management before April 2001. He recommended that:

  1. the lot area be reduced by 30 percent;

  2. the lots worth less than 30 million Riels (Cambodian currency) be abolished and kept for subsistence fishing; and

  3. community fisheries be organized around the area set aside for communities to cooperatively manage the resources for sustainability purposes.

In general, the area set aside for local communities resulted from the fisheries is 536 302 ha or 56.23 percent of the total lot area of 953 740 ha in 12 provinces. Thus the lot area remained after the reform is 417 438 ha (Nao Thuok, 2001).

In addition to the release of 56.23 percent of the fishing concession, the government has decided the exemption of fishing fee from all middle-scale fishing by issuing the sub-decree No. 24 of 19 Feb. 2001 to help alleviating pressures on middle-scale fishing (Nao Thuok, 2001). Following the government policy on fisheries reform, the MAFF has approved the establishment of a new “Community Fisheries Development Office” to facilitate and coordinate the urgent need in organizing and coordinating the organization of community fisheries.

At present, the Department of Fisheries in collaboration with various NGOs and local authorities has established country-wide 339 communities fisheries in order to implement the Royal Government policy in fishery management and to guarantee equitable distribution of benefits from fisheries resources among small-scale fishers and ensuring the sustainable management, development, utilization and conservation of fisheries resources for the generation to come.


The Department of Fisheries is in the process of drafting the Ten Year Fisheries Management Plan and is undergoing stakeholder's consultation soon. On the other hand, with technical assistance of the ADB, the first ever Five Year Tonle Sap Fisheries Management Plan has been produced and will serve as the basis for the development of the Tonle Sap fisheries.

In the new Political Platform of the Royal Government of the third legislature pertaining to natural resource management, it was clearly mentioned that the fisheries sector reform will be undertaken by in-depth researches to transfer some of the fishing lots whose concession contracts have expired into Fish Sanctuaries, thereby help increasing natural fish stock and conserve endangered species. Community-based fishing lots will be expanded and aquaculture promoted to respond to the increasing needs for fish as well as reduce the pressure on the natural fisheries resources.

In the Fisheries Management and Development Plan, the fisheries policy is:


The recent increase of fishing effort of the middle scale and family scale fishery may have been caused by improper access to the lake and fishing grounds and the possible influx of internally displaced persons and refugees. The increase of population leads to the increase of number of fishers, therefore giving high fishing pressure and conflicts between small-scale fishers and fishing lots. Some of the refugees and displaced people have little alternative employment. It is easy to take-up fishing as low required capital investment and the fishing gears are easy to produce. The increase in number of fishers has lead to the decline of fish catch per fisher. Fishers living in the nearby fishing lots have turned to illegally exploit the richer resources of these lots. This has given the rise to conflicts between the lot owners and small-scale fishers.

The electro-cute and small mesh size nets (mosquito net) are illegally fishing gears which have been practiced everywhere in Cambodian water bodies recently. A large number of local fishers used this gear commonly, since it is cheap and available at all locations. These types of fishing practice are prohibited by law/regulation and it is the most serious destructive method that is very much harmful to all types of living aquatic resources. Recently, the fish production declined due to this practice.

Electrocution fishing gearSmall mesh size nets

Aquaculture of high carnivorous species such as snake-head fish (Channa micropeltes) and (Channa Striata) also caused a critical problem. The farmers usually collected small fish to feed the snakehead, even during the closing season (fish spawning and nursing season during June–October). Therefore, the aquaculture development of high carnivorous species seems to be encouraging farmers to practice illegal fishing methods, which causes high fishing pressure and contributes to unsustainable utilization and management of fisheries resources; eventually leading to decline wild fish productivity.

Collection of small fish to feed the Snakehead

Small-scale fisheries suffer many problems covering the degradation of fish habitat and the increasing number of fishers leading to the increasing pressure on the aquatic resources, fish habitat, decline in fish catch per fisher and causing competition among natural resource users. The area of the fishing grounds is very limited for the increasing demand and number of fishers. The population growth may cause an impact on biodiversity and other aquatic resources.

The change in water quality (pollution) and quantity of water also causes problems for living aquatic resources as result of storage in dams and abstraction for irrigation. The pollution may occur due to the development of industrialization and urbanization. Flood controls will result in the lesser inundation of floodplains. The change of the time of flood may also cause it to be out of phase with natural occurring cycles of fish reproduction, especially in longitudinal migrants. The cumulative effect of water regulatory works will result in the reduction in the average peak flows and the changes of the occurrence. The extent of the flooding is positively related to fish productivity (Van Zalinge et al., 1998).

The construction of barriers (dams, weir, and diversion) may cause a disturbance and change the physical shape of water bodies and act as a barrier to fish migration. The negative consequences of the deforestation, inappropriate agriculture, road construction, hydropower and other forms of development are already evident. The major concern is the loss of riparian vegetation cover, and particular, the rapid loss of flooded forest, which provide crucial aquatic habitat for fishes.

The catch rates per fisher have declined because the increase in population and number of fishers has outstripped the increase in catch (Van Zalinge et al., 2000). If fishing pressure were to increase further, the total catch probably could not increase and the catch rate per fish may continue to decline. However, the situation is more complicated for the multiple species fisheries.

The decline of the catch rate of the small-scale fishers has led to conflicts between small and large-scale fishers. The large-scale fishers, especially in the fishing lots, occupy the productive and rich fishing grounds in the flooded forest. The rapid increase in the number of fishers, and limited fishing grounds, has caused an over crowded number of fishers in the open-access areas. Small-scale fishers often poach fish in the productive fishing ground in the fishing lots. The fishing lot operators use armed guards to protect their lots. In addition, small-scale fishers also often complain that the lot boundaries have been violated and lot holders want larger areas, so that they can fish more. Upon these issues the government has abolished more than 56 percent of the fishing lots for community fisheries to fish and manage by themselves. The small conflicts are still occurring in some areas, but the scale has been brought down to local levels.

Table 4. Tonle Sap Lake region: Changes in population size and fish catch between 1940 (Chevey and Le Poulain) and 1995/96 (MRC/DoF) data

PeriodPopulationFishing inhabitants (11.2 percent of total pop.)Increase in populationGreat Lake fish production (tonnes)Increase in fish catchFish catch/ fishing inhabitant/year (kg)Decline in catch/ fisher
1940's3.2 million0.36 million 125 000 347 
199610.7 million1.20 million 3.3 x235 0001.9 x19644 percent

The practice of illegal fishing methods leads to conflicts as some people gain an advantage over others by breaking the law and causing serious decline of fish spawners. The use of explosives, especially in the deep channels of the upper Mekong in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces, is particularly distinctive as it targets spawning populations sheltering there during the dry season (Van Zalinge et al. 2000). This is done mainly by fishers under armed protection, but also by villagers on their own initiative. The decrease in the number of fish spawners have resulted in the decline in fish productivity, particularly of the large species that requires some years to reach maturity maybe hardly escape from fishing and getting the chance to reproduce.

Environmental risks and degradation of the natural resource base are an important threat to aquaculture development and fisheries. Aquaculture is affected by natural disasters, aquatic animal diseases, possibly by introductions of exotics, loss of genetic diversity through poor genetic resource management strategies and water pollution.


Inland fisheries are very important for livelihood needs. They are significant to food security, as it is hardly possible for the rural poor to find other cheap and affordable alternatives. Fish is an important source of nutrients. In addition to the contribution of the fisheries to food, it also provides income generation to government and especially to the family economy of the rural dwellers.

The Cambodian inland floodplain fisheries are economically most important, where they presently contribute 7–13 percent to the GDP. Fish and rice are the basis of the food security in the country. Export of fish and fish products to the neighbouring countries is one of the main businesses for many fish traders, particularly to Thailand and Vietnam. The seasonal inundation of the large floodplains, for instance the Tonle Sap Great Lake, provides very rich fish resources. Fish yields in the Tonle Sap floodplain area range from 139–190 kg/ha per year (Lieng and Van Zalinge 2002). Fisheries provide employment to the rural people, full and part-time fishing. However, fish catch per fisher have gone down very much. Catches are dominated by smaller short-lived species.

However, the inland fisheries suffer the unsustainable exploitation through habitat changes, and degradation of the resources. The fisheries suffer from high fishing pressure as the increase of human population causing competition in harvesting fish resources and irresponsible fishing practices.

The levels of the exploitation of the resources are very high and at the same time, most of the rural population is low-income and poor. Because the flooding regime and the state of the natural environment are the main factors that determine the survival rate and productivity of the fisheries resources, the condition of the fish habitat may be deteriorating. Alteration of the river system still continues. The increasing construction of rural infrastructure and irrigation works, some of which create barriers, prevent fish from migrating to large areas of the floodplain for spawning and feeding. These issues which cause unsustainable utilization of the aquatic resources need to be analyzed and solutions need to be sought using the best scientific information available. Careful planning and implementation and coordination participated by all stakeholders from government official, planners, decision makers to community and local authority.


Fisheries resources can retain a role of contributing great economic importance to Cambodia, if their habitat and the resources themselves are kept healthy. Law enforcement needs to be further strengthened. Other economic development activity will contribute to the improvement of fisheries management by providing other job opportunities, releasing the pressure on the wild fish stock.

Before introduction of flood controls, irrigation schemes, and other water-related structures, there is a need to carefully study the impact on fisheries, including by fisheries biologists. There is also a need to be careful with the introduction of pesticides and waste disposal, because they are sources of pollution and cause change to fish habitat quality. Direct habitat destruction for conversion to rice fields and settlements is not helpful either.

Fisheries should be considered a high priority in the decision-making processes on such issues as land tenure, dam building, and irrigation. The habitat improvement will be very costly and require high expertise and study, therefore habitat protection is the important strategy, and should be implemented before the habitat has seriously deteriorated. Migratory routes must be kept free, as most white migratory fish species need to seasonally migrate between different habitats for their major spawning feeding grounds.

We also need outside interventions, for example rural credit on agro-industries will attract people out of fisheries and decrease open-access pressure on the resources and ensuing conflicts. Awareness needs to be made to increase understanding of the importance of fish resources, protection of fish habitat and refuge and protection of spawners to increase fish productivities.

The alternative employment opportunities such as the promotion of aquaculture development in the Cambodian floodplain and Tonle Sap area will help solve the problem of overexploitation and provide an important contribution to the food security and family income in the country and is the source for most of the large fish exports from the country.


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97 The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors, Srun Lim Song, Director of Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute; Lieng Sopha, Deputy Director of Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute; Ing Try, Deputy Director of Fisheries Department; Heng Sotharith, Chief of Exploitation Office, Department of Fisheries.

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