Cambodia’s inland fisheries yield 20 kilograms of fish per capita per year, which is more than anywhere else in the world. Six million people, or nearly half the population, fish at least part time. Fish provides 75-85% of the animal protein consumed and 12% of the gross domestic product. The Tonle Sap — the “great lake” at the heart of Cambodia that covers 2,700-12,000 square kilometers depending on the season — produces 235,000 tons of fish per year, or most of the annual Cambodian catch of 300,000-400,000 tons. But floodplains extend far from the lake, occupying 60% of the country, including areas with fish deficits and widespread malnutrition. These rice fields and seasonal wetlands have the potential to produce 100,000 tons of fish per year.
Community-based fishery management has expanded since 2001, when half of the country’s normally auctioned commercial fishing lots were released to public access. Officials count 440 fishery management organizations, but many lack management capacity. Further complicating the introduction of community-based fish culture (CBFC) in Cambodia is the novelty of fish culture of any kind in the country, which makes fingerlings scarce and expensive.
Small-scale fisheries in flood plain, Cambodia
The CBFC project was implemented by the Aquaculture Division of the Fisheries Administration (FiA). Nongovernmental organizations with long experience in the project area in southern Cambodia — Chamroeun Cheat Khmer in Takeo Province and CARE International in Pray Veng Province — assisted with selecting sites and organizing the first stakeholder meetings. Initially, four sites were selected in seasonal floodplains of the Bassac River, a distributary of the Mekong. In the dry season, the sites consisted of family rice plots, generally smaller than half a hectare. Few were irrigated. In the flood period from August to December, waters rose to 1.5-2.5 meters.
Villagers interested in joining new community-based organizations (CBOs) to manage CBFC registered with the FiA, which facilitated a meeting at which 30-40 households discussed and voted on group regulations and benefit-sharing arrangements, elected the CBO leadership, and drafted a 6-month plan. Membership entailed a cash contribution of $2.50-5.00, which members of one CBO could pay with bamboo for constructing fences. Benefits were to be shared among members, with two CBOs setting aside 10% of the benefits for poor households.
The culture sites measured 0.7-2.5 hectares* . The lack of embankments or natural features meant that CBOs depended on net fencing, which limited the size of enclosures and the number of beneficiaries. Stocking density per square meter was 1.4-2.0 fingerlings, which were fed rice bran, insects or duckweed collected in the village. The stocked species included silver barb, tilapia, and Indian carp.
As constraints on CBFC became apparent midway through the project, the focus of implementation shifted toward supporting government-led initiatives to create fish refuges for the dry season. This incorporated elements of fishery management and aquaculture, as fish were stocked in managed environments. Communities collectively managed the refuges. An elected management body agreed on the refuge allocation with the FiA, in the presence of commune and district authorities. The body’s main duties were to manage ponds and dikes, release captured snakehead and catfish as broodfish, organize the night watch, and call meetings. In 2009, the project extended this model to three villages in Takeo, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces that displayed the requisite willingness to participate and had perennial water bodies connected in the wet season to flooded rice paddies.
Summary of Outcomes
Each CBFC site recorded a loss on investment, for several reasons. The onset, duration and height of flooding were unpredictable and varied significantly from year to year. Wild fish productivity in enclosures was low. Cambodia’s traumatic recent history of forced collectivization colored people’s attitudes, constraining cooperation. Migration to jobs in urban centers during the flood season limited the availability of labor. Vandalism of enclosures caused high losses.
Farmers were nevertheless keen to try fish culturing. Most have shown a preference for individual fish culture on private plots, but some areas have seen a move toward CBFC by smaller groups of 10-12 households who practice it in 3-4 enclosed rice fields.
Cambodia has great potential for aquaculture once constraints such as limited market linkage and supplies of seed and feed are understood and tackled. CBOs and extension services require capacity building. The project laid the groundwork for identifying which aspects of fish culture, community-based action, and fish refuges interest communities, for incorporation into future CBFC initiatives.