Fish catch declines in the Mekong River

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews/17 June) — In a makeshift house floating near the banks of the Mekong River, a 41-year old man fixed fish nets as the water catches the silver sparkles of the Monday afternoon sun.

Mr. Khamla Phimmalang, who has been fishing here since he was a little boy, would usually begin his routine at 5.00 pm and finish up the next morning, spending at least 12 hours catching fish with his nets.

“I’ve only ever used fishing nets,” he told Vientiane Times, as he straightened the tangled nylons.

Resembling a small hut, his boat was designed to shelter him from rain or cold wind while he stays on the river for hours at a time. He built a tarpaulin roof, with its posts supported by parallel floating platforms and his boat positioned in the middle.

Mr. Khamla said it was better to fish near the Thai side of the river, where the water is deep and clear, with much small and medium sized deadwood floating down the Lao side. He complained about his fishing nets getting caught up in the driftwood.

Gradual decline

Mr. Khamla said being a fisherman is the only thing he has ever done for a living, despite a gradual decline of fish over the last two decades.

“More than 20 years ago, I could catch at least 10kg of fish per day,” he said, noting that he had higher catches in April and May. “Now, my average fish catch per day is 4-5kg. But, sometimes, I don’t catch any fish at all.”

He attributed the decline of his fish catch to the presence of so many fishermen working the Mekong River.

“But, the fish volume decreases every day,” he said, adding that he has to increase fish prices to maintain his income.

He used to sell catfish weighing about 3-4kg each for 30,000 kip per kg, but now he sells them for 60,000-70,000 kip per kg.

“Most of the time, I sell my fish to other villages and markets. Sometimes, some people wait for me at the riverbank to buy fish,” he said.

Critical habitats

Deputy Director of the Living Aquatic Resource Research Centre, Dr. Sinthavong Viravong, told MindaNews the volume of fish in the Mekong has been depleted.

According to Dr. Sinthavong, the decline is mainly due to the decrease in the number of critical breeding and feeding grounds available for young fish.

He said more than a century ago, the Mekong River around Vientiane was linked to flood areas and rice fields via a small stream during the flood season.

“This link gave an opportunity for fish, especially small cyprinids, to be able to reach their breeding habitat during the spawning season,” he said.

Dr. Sinthavong said fish can produce a new generation each year, and the number they produce can cover or replace the number lost to fishing.

Since 1966, when a huge flood caused widespread damage to property in Vientiane, an embankment has been built along the Mekong River near the city to protect it against floods, he said.

“Since then, the link between flood areas, rice fields and the Mekong has diminished,” he said.

The deputy director said the increased use of modern fishing gear instead of nets and hooks had also caused fish numbers to decline.

He also said population growth and developments in the city may have caused fish to “escape the noisy environment to somewhere more suitable.”

Fish passage facility

Dr. Sinthavong said the Australian Agency for International Development was funding Laos to construct a fish passage for Mekong species in the Asean region.

He said through the passage, fish could move between the Mekong River and its tributaries or swamps, where there are suitable breeding grounds to be found.

The project is a collaboration between the National University of Laos, the Living Aquatic Resources Research Centre, National Agricultural and Forestry Research Institute, and Australian partner organizations.

Growing aquaculture

Contrary to Mr. Khamla’s belief that the number of fishermen near Vientiane is growing, Dr. Sinthvong said the growing aquaculture sector has led to a decline in Mekong fishers.

“Cultured fish can replace wild fish. This might be a reason for the decrease in the number of fishers in the Mekong River around Vientiane,” he said.

Mr. Khamla said he still hopes for better things to happen in the future despite the changes he has seen in the river.

“The river is getting dirty because many people throw their food wrappers, bottles and other trash into it,” he said.

He said the government could do something to solve the problem, like cleaning up the floating wood and other waste in the water. Being a fisherman all these years has not made Mr. Khamla a wealthy man, although he said he does not worry, as he has no dependents.

“I cannot go out fishing during strong rain or wind or flood. If I am not fishing, I stay at home to sleep. I have no other business or social life, so I am still single,” he said, with a laugh.

This full-time fisherman said he can still see himself fishing the Mekong River for the next decade. (With Patithin Phetmeungphuan of Vientiane Times.)

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]