Catfish farming in small, intensive tanks has the potential to help Cambodian families earn extra income, produce more food for their families and provide water for irrigating vegetable crops.

Surrounded by lush rice fields on the banks of the Mekong River is the quiet village of Koh Khorndin in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province.

Home to around 100 families, the people of Koh Khorndin make a living from aquatic agricultural systems, catching wild fish from the river, and farming livestock, vegetables, rice and now, African catfish (Clarias gariepinus).

Intensive catfish farming in small concrete tanks was introduced to the community through the Promoting Inclusive and Sustainable Growth in the Agricultural Sector in Cambodia project with the aim of providing households with a source of food and income, as well as water storage that can be used for irrigating homestead vegetable gardens.

Aquaculture currently provides 10% of the country’s fish production and can alleviate pressure on capture fisheries, which are under threat from over-fishing and habitat destruction.

"At the end of each fish farming cycle we use the tank to store water for possible use in another farming cycle. The tank also enables us to grow vegetable as the water is easily available." - Sem Sokhon, fish farmer

The dual purpose of the tanks makes them particularly useful for the 44 families across four villages that have adopted the technology, including Sem Sokhon and her husband in Koh Khorndin.

“We eat some of the fish and we thus do not have to buy it from the market,” explains Sokhon.

Fish is a staple food and source of nutrition not just for the people of Koh Khorndin, but throughout Cambodia where the population is estimated to consume 63kg of fish per person per year – well above the global average of 17.2kg.

Fish is rich in micronutrients and essential fatty acids, which can prevent illness and promote healthy growth and cognitive development in children.

The project found that on average around 15% of the fish the families cultured was consumed at home and 70% of participants had reduced their reliance on catching
fish from the Mekong.

“At the end of each fish farming cycle we use the tank to store water for possible use in another farming cycle. The tank also enables us to grow more vegetables, as the water is easily available,” says Sokhon, who was able to expand her cucumber patch.

“It takes time to pump the water up from the river. Now, once we pump the water we store it in the tank. We then take the water from the tank to irrigate vegetables manually and so don’t have to pump water as often as before,” adds the mother of four.

Pumping water less frequently not only frees up time for the family to work in their fields, it also saves money on fuel costs.

After harvesting their first cycle of catfish, 35 families in the area demonstrated the potential for a profitable business selling fish and vegetables, with adequate surplus for home consumption.

Together, the farmers from the four villages produced 2,602kg of fish during their first farming cycle, of which 85% was sold for a total of $USD3,738.

“Some of the money is spent on sending our children to school. We also use part of it to buy chickens, piglets and baby fish to continue our farming,” says Sokhon.

Along with 44 other farmers, of which more than half were women, Sokhon underwent training through the project on fish farming practices like feeding, health care, monitoring and harvesting. This training has helped farmers overcome challenges like disease outbreaks that occurred in some tanks.

The project focused on providing men and women with equal access to the training and services provided, as women often lack the opportunity to learn new skills and knowledge that can help improve their livelihoods.

The keys to success will be the farmers’ ability to reduce the cost of expensive commercial fish feeds by supplementing them with locally sourced feeds, like termites, and efficiently using the tank’s nutrient-rich wastewater to irrigate vegetables.

Support and advice for the farmers is provided through Village Enterprise Networks in each of the communities, which were established through the project from 2012 to 2014.  The network enables farmers to buy feed and seed at lower prices through bulk purchases, as well as obtain low-interest loans, and is sustained through regular contributions by its local members.

WorldFish and partners will also continue to improve the production techniques and enhance the benefits from this integrated system.

With Cambodia’s population expected to increase by 46% by 2050, aquaculture will become increasingly important to sustainably meet the growing demand for fish, and secure food and nutrition for the country’s 3.7 million rural poor.