The Fish Hidden Beneath the Mud

There is a saying in Cambodia that describes a remarkable seasonal phenomenon: “If there is water, then there are fish.” During the dry season, the rice fields near a water source will completely dry out, and all life is lost, even the grasses. However, when the long-awaited rainy season returns, it brings water to feed the rice fields, and amazingly, the fish reappear.
The rainy or wet season in Cambodia starts in June every year. During this time, rice field activities start to get underway. Farmers plow the rice fields with either small or big tractors or cattle to get the fields prepared for the season. At the same time, farmers also harvest fish from rice fields as the fish return with the rain.
Children living in the countryside are skilled in catching fish in the rice fields, and you can often find them enjoying themselves practicing this favorite childhood activity. As shown in the images here, children follow the tracks of the tractor to catch the fish left behind in the small pools. Some children use traditional gear made from bamboo to catch the fish, like a plunge basket, cover pot, or a wedge-shaped scoop basket.
Believe it or not, many Cambodian people actually prefer fish from the rice field fisheries. Normally, the most common fish caught are non-migratory “black fish” like the striped snakehead (Channa striata), climbing perch (Anabas testudineus), and the walking catfish (Clarias batrachus). Other aquatic animals such as crabs and frogs from the rice fields are also a preferred source of food for Cambodians and have long provided an important fishery production for local food provisions. Today, fish from rice field fisheries are popular items that sell easily at local markets.
However, an unsustainable fishing gear, called electrofishing, is a tool used to harvest fish from the rice fields. Electrofishing gear uses electricity to send pulses through the water, stunning or killing the fish, and also killing any aquatic animals that are buried in the mud. If electrofishing is used during the wet season, most of the animals and fish living in the pools will die, meaning there won’t be as many fish or aquatic animals to catch the next year. The Wonders of the Mekong project encourages farmers and fishers to use traditional bamboo fishing gear to catch fish in the rice fields instead of electrofishing gear this season, to save and protect rice field resources.
Photos and story: Chhut Chheana for The Wonders of the Mekong Project