For centuries, Cambodians have looked to Tonle Sap, both a river and a lake, for dinner. But a repast of grilled river fish, sprinkled with salt and stuffed with lemongrass, may soon be a very special event.
Today, “there is only water but no fish,” said Nan Sok, 60, gazing at Tonle Sap Lake from his house on the outskirts of the capital city of Phnom Penh.
A Cambodian Muslim fisherman, he recalled that in 1979 he could “catch the fish just by dipping my hand in the water there were so many. … But now even if I use a big net for a whole day, there would be nothing.”
Cambodia’s growing population and changes to the lake’s unusual seasonal rise and fall, are contributing to the decline in the catch. Other contributing factors include dam construction and indiscriminate, often illegal fishing practices, according to a 15-year study of Tonle Sap conducted by Ngor Peng Bun, a Fisheries Administration officer, and published in 2018.
By some accounts, the lake may be reaching its capacity for fish production. Or, as Ngor Pengbun wrote in a 2018 Nature article, “Stakeholders, government and developers must put conservation and mitigation measures in place before it’s too late.”