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He once electrocuted fish, now he’s a reformed river protector

By Savann Oeurm
Kem Soth paddles his boat on the Mekong River near his river-side home in Koh Khnher village. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

In Cambodia, awareness about environment turns fisherman into defender of the river.

Kem Soth and his wife Phun Lai used to buy fish off the boats along the Mekong River to sell in local markets near their home in Kratie province. A few years ago, he noticed something: While most of the fishers would come in with two or three kilos (five or six pounds) of fish, he saw one boat that consistently had 30 or 40 kilos. “I was wondering why they caught so many fish every day,” Soth, 37, says.

So he asked. “’Electrocution,’ the fisherman told me,” Soth says. With the secret now out, this boat captain and his crew invited Soth to join them.

It was a tempting offer. Soth and Phun Lai have five children, and making ends meet selling fish is not easy in Sambor, the district where they live near Kratie city. The family is from the Kouy indigenous group, many of whom rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

Electrocuting fish, however, is illegal. But Soth considered it, because fish catches had been dwindling and there was more and more economic pressure on his household. “They said if I want to have more fish and earn more money, I have to join them.”

The offer was too hard to pass up. The fisherman told Soth to wait in his boat at the river behind his home, a typical house raised up on stilts to stay above the rainy season flood waters. When the fishermen arrived, they had powerful batteries and an illegal fishing net.  (An illegal fishing net is more than 50 meters long, with a very tight mesh that catches even the smallest fish.) They then went to the fish spawning area near his village.

Kem Soth casts his net in the Mekong River. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Pressure to change

Meanwhile, officials in Soth’s village, a place called Koh Khnher, were concerned about illegal fishing and the precipitous drop in fish population. The village chief was taking steps to enforce laws on his own. He suspected Soth was involved in illegal fishing, so he approached Phun Lai, Soth’s wife.

“The village chief asked my wife to tell him about the location where we were fishing illegally and said he will not arrest me…but that if she did not tell him, when he caught me he would send me to prison,” Soth says.

The prospect of prison pushed Soth and Phun Lai into informing on the illegal fishing gang. The next night, the illegal fishermen spread their big fishing net, and started to electrocute the fish. By about 11:00 they had caught about 20 kilos (about 44 pounds) when the village chief and a few volunteers arrived and stopped them.

“I was arrested and some of those illegal fishers were also detained at the island next to the spawning ground,” Soth says. Two of the men escaped, but the village chief confiscated the illegal equipment.

“After I was detained, the village chief advised me to stop illegal fishing, and he asked me to join his team to protect the river,” Soth explains. He added that the chief argued that Soth needed to set a better example to other families in the village, and discourage others from illegal fishing. The chief warned him: If illegal fishing continues, none of the families in Koh Khnher would make a living fishing when the fish are all gone.

Since this was his first offense, when Soth committed to helping the chief, the chief did not bring the case to the authorities.

On the team

It’s been about a year since the crackdown on illegal fishing in Koh Khnher. Oxfam and its partner Northeast Rural Development (NRD) are now helping the community to establish a community fishery, an official designation granted by the government that allows community members to protect a fishery area, and enforce fishing rules.

Sambor district is a rich fishery, close to where the Mekong River connects to the vast Tonle Sap Lake. There are 62 spawning grounds in Sambor. Fish are a crucial resource to the Kouy indigenous people in Kratie province, so they are mobilizing people to protect their river and their fish.

Soth is now a member of the fishery patrolling team in Koh Khnher that was formed by NRD. He and the other volunteers on the fishery patrol participated in training programs on water management and fishery laws from NRD.  He says he always participates in the regular patrols (two or three times each week) along with six or seven others. Families in the village make modest contributions (about $1 a month) to cover fuel and other costs. NRD and Oxfam have provided a boat, engine, life jackets, flashlights, rain jackets, and tools.

NRD has helped communities establish six community fisheries, and train local people to manage them on their own.

Kem Soth heads down to the Mekong River. Once inclined to use illegal fishing methods to increase his catch and income, he is now part of village efforts to cut down on illegal fishing. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Committed to save the river

Being part of the fishery patrol has changed things for Soth. “I stopped doing any illegal fishing and I take part with other villagers to search for illegal fishing activities,” Soth says. “I can see the illegal fishing activities in my community have been decreased significantly because of our patrolling team.”

Soth is still a fisherman. He says the fish he catches earns enough profit to cover his children’s education. He and the other indigenous Kouy families consider fishing a significant part of their culture, and are concerned about fish populations because they could not imagine not having fish as part of their diet. Their lives revolve around the river.

Soth also grows vegetables like tomatoes and eggplants and corn , as well as rice, to supplement his income, in case fishing is slow.

Soth is committed to protect the river and tries his best to persuade other illegal fishers to stop their activities in the Mekong River. He said, as long as illegal fishing happens in the river, he and his Kuoy indigenous community will continue to fight.

“I hope my team and I can protect the remaining fish in the Mekong River,” Soth says.