What isn’t consumed as fresh fish is processed by local communities into prahok, a pungent fermented fish paste that can be eaten throughout the year. Farmers travel from faraway provinces to exchange rice or cash for prahok. The seasonal gathering of communities and families to make prahok is a millennia old cross-cutting tie that binds social cohesion and reinforces local Khmer tradition.
To adjust to the lake’s seasonal rise, communities of Khmer fishermen build stilted homes close to the lake’s edge. Most go to the lake every morning to fish and check their traps. In the monsoon season, livestock and local gardens are raised on floating platforms.
The landscape looks entirely different in the dry season. Locals still fish on the lake, but some also plant cash crops like mung beans and cassava in nutrient rich fields exposed by the retreating floods.
More than 100,000 people live in these resource rich communities and their livelihoods depend on a successful fish harvest. But cash cropping pressures the locals into converting the flooded forest into farm fields and this threatens the provision of nutrients that supports the explosion of the fish population during the monsoon season.
Other communities like Plov Tuok live in floating homes on the lake. In the Khmer language, Plov Tuok means “the way the boats go” and over the years, the boat traffic drew outsiders to fish in the community’s waters. Historically, fishing on the Tonle Sap was managed by commercial firms with licenses for huge fishing lots.
This practice excluded locals from fishing and into the early oughts threatened to entirely deplete the lake of its fish. In 2012 Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen abolished the commercial lot system as a way to conserve the lake’s resources and designated the lake as a common fishing area for local residents.
However, a lack of foresight and planning created a free-for-all situation for local fishermen who further depleted the lake of fish...
In Plov Tuok, locals and outsiders targeted a deep pool in the dry season where fish were known to use as their habitat. They nearly succeeded in removing all the fish from the pool. For two years, annual fish catches were at all-time lows for the community and many considered leaving to find wage work in Phnom Penh.
In 2014, the European Union provided financial support to establish a 24 hectare fish conservation zone at Plov Tuok. The Fisheries Action Coalition Team, a local NGO, and IUCN worked with the local community to protect the deep pool and prevent outsiders from fishing there.
The IUCN team frequently engaged with community members who at first did not understand the conservation approach. A ranger team composed of community members monitored the zone day and night in boats during the dry season.
When the occasional violator was caught, the rangers would invite them for tea and explain the benefits of fish conservation. After a few seasons of successful monitoring, outsiders knew to avoid fishing in or near the zone. And then the fish came back. Even some endangered fish species like the Mekong Giant Barb are beginning to reappear according to a local who showed me a photo of a Giant Barb that he caught and released.
The zone’s creation also helped protect the community’s “Ghost Forest” a large patch of flooded forest used to bury the community’s deceased in the ground during the dry season or in coffins in trees during the monsoon season when the water was high.
Locals prioritized the forest as important cultural space and its inclusion in the conservation zone has prevented the forest from being cut down or picked over for timber. It is one of the few remaining intact forest spaces around the lake and is home to a variety of mammal, lizard, and bird species.
Today, Plov Tuok thrives.
The local commune chief told me, “The people are happy and they have the urge to protect fish. They are happy because the fish are abundant.”
Only a few of Plov Tuok’s youth have left to seek jobs elsewhere and the commune is abuzz with activity entirely conducted on the water. Success can be attributed to IUCN’s approach to build capacity within the local community, effective local leadership, and investment in physical infrastructure to mark the limits of the conservation zone.
IUCN has provided a small investment grant to the community which will provide funding over the next five years to maintain the conservation zone’s infrastructure and compensate locals to keep up patrols. Beyond that time frame however, the future of the conservation zone is uncertain.
My talks with community members also revealed concerns about how dams upstream of the Tonle Sap will impact the lake’s natural resources. Most were aware that dams could cut off the migratory pathway of the fish between the lake and breeding grounds upstream. But few understood how dams threatened the Tonle Sap’s annual reversal and flooding cycle.
Laos has plans to build more than 150 dams upstream of the Tonle Sap on the Mekong’s mainstream and tributaries and Cambodia has plans for dozens upstream.
This increase of river regulation will keep more water in the lake permanently and with less water flowing into the lake during the monsoon season, fewer nutrients will be available for the robust food web that makes this lake the world’s largest inland fishery.
Indeed, Plov Tuok community members confirmed that the lake in 2017 flooded earlier than usual and maintaining higher level longer than expected.