Agriculture - - Contents - >BY DR. RAFAEL D. GUER­RERO III

THE TONLE SAP (“Great Lake”) is the big­gest and most pro­duc­tive lake in South­east Asia lo­cated in Cam­bo­dia. The lake has an area of 250,000 hectares, depth of 1-10 me­ters and sur­face el­e­va­tion of 0.5 me­ter. It is con­nected to the Mekong River through the 120-kilo­me­ter long Tonle Sap River. In the dry sea­son, the lake serves as a reser­voir of the Mekong River (travers­ing Cam­bo­dia, Thai­land and Viet­nam) with the back­flow of the Tonle Sap River; dur­ing the wet sea­son, how­ever, it reg­u­lates the flood­wa­ter down­stream.

The Tonle Sap has one of the rich­est in­land fish­eries in the world. It pro­vides most of the 400,000 met­ric tons (mt) of fish pro­duced in Cam­bo­dia and con­trib­utes 16% to the GDP (gross do­mes­tic prod­uct) an­nu­ally. There are an es­ti­mated 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple, most of whom are poor, who are de­pen­dent on the lake for their food and liveli­hood. With a pop­u­la­tion of about 15 mil­lion, fish con­sump­tion in Cam­bo­dia is 52 ki­los per capita.

The lake is in­hab­ited by 149 species of fish, 11 of which are threat­ened and six are near-threat­ened. The Mekong gi­ant cat­fish ( Pan­gasian­odon gi­gas), one of the largest fresh­wa­ter fish in the world that can grow as long as three me­ters, is found in it. De­clared as a Bio­sphere Re­serve by a Royal De­cree in 2001, the Tonle Sap has been iden­ti­fied by the UNESCO as an Eco­log­i­cal Hotspot.

An in­ter­est­ing species of rep­tile present in the Tonle Sap is the fresh­wa­ter Si­amese croc­o­dile ( Crocody­lus sia­men­sis) which is na­tive to Asia. Due to over­fish­ing, the rep­tile al­most dis­ap­peared in the wild in 1996. Through farm­ing, the croc­o­dile is now abun­dant again and is pro­vid­ing a source of liveli­hood and in­come for those who pro­duce croc­o­dile leather goods.

The fish­er­men in Tonle Sap use var­i­ous gears for fish­ing. One such gear is the cone-shaped net that can catch as much as 2-3 tons of fish per day. Eighty per­cent of the fishes caught in the lake are small in size. The large fishes are sold whole in boxes with ice in wet mar­kets for cook­ing in house­holds or grilled in fast-food restau­rants. The small fishes are salted or dried un­der the sun for preser­va­tion. The fishes are also pro­cessed into fish sauce lo­cally known as “pra­hok.”

When we vis­ited the Tonle Sap re­cently, we found out that the Nile tilapia and red tilapia are grown in cages with com­mer­cial pel­let feed­ing.

The red tilapia is cul­tured to a size of one kilo each in eight months and served in high-end seafood restau­rants as “red fish.”

De­spite gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions and pro­tec­tion, there is ram­pant il­le­gal fish­ing in the Tonle Sap that is typ­i­cal of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries (in­clud­ing the Philip­pines) with an “open ac­cess fish­ing pol­icy.” As a re­sult, the fish­eries of the lake de­clined from 347,000 met­ric tons in 1940 to 116,000 mt in 2008. The Cam­bo­dian gov­ern­ment through its Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, Forestry and Fish­eries has taken mea­sures to al­le­vi­ate the poverty of the sub­sis­tence fish­er­folk and to pro­mote sus­tain­able fish­ing and aqua­cul­ture prac­tices.

Fish net used for fish­ing in the Tonle Sap.

A fish cage used in the Tonle Sap.

The author in the Tonle Sap.

Fresh­wa­ter croc­o­diles of the Tonle Sap.

Grilled fishes from the Tonle Sap.

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