• River Wetlands

4’M’s Of Fishing Culture In Preah Rumkel: The Past & The Present

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

ABOUT | This article explores the 4’M’s that shape the fishery in Preah Rumkel – ‘Mouth’, ‘Markets’, ‘Methods’ and ‘Mekong’. Join us on our journey into the fishing culture of Preah Rumkel!

Team members: 
Din Phearun, Nur Farizan binte Abubakar, Yee Shen Hao


In Cambodia, there are over 1.3 million households that engage in fishing. Most of them operate in small-scale fisheries.[1] According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the fish consumption in Cambodia is very high at 33kg per capita annually.[2] In this article, we explore 4 ‘M’s of the fishing culture of Preah Rumkel Commune in Stung Treng Province, namely, ‘Mouth’, ‘Markets’, ‘Methods’ and ‘Mekong’. In particular, we discuss how this culture has changed over time by looking into the entire process from fish production in ‘Mekong’ to consumption in ‘Mouth’, in reverse order beginning from the lowest scale. Among eight phum (villages) along the Mekong River, we focus on four Phum: Kandal, Kram, Ler and Anlongsvay.


Mouth: Fish As A Staple Food

Fishing in Preah Rumkel is mainly done at the small scale and largely serves to meet the local demand. Both a 60-year-old Kandal village chief, Mr. Hut Seng and our 62-year-old homestay host, Mr. Seng Serng referred to fish as a staple food in their diet, akin to rice. The first “M” we look at is hence what goes into the Mouths of villagers. Although many households rear their own chickens and pigs, Mr. HS said that it was cheaper to buy fish.

Our group pictured with Mr. Hut Seng (second from the left)

All interviewees from the three villages expressed their explicit preference for and familiarity with fish over meats. Older interviewees, Mrs. Nuan Thum and Mr. Hut Seng also thought the river fish was more natural and free of chemicals. Hence, when asked whether they would consume farmed fish in light of declining river fish stocks, Mr. Hut Seng felt the villagers would not readily accept farmed fish. This rigid stance on consuming only wild fish from the river explains why many of them fish for themselves and sell only the extras. However, this may become more problematic in the future if fish stocks continue to decline.

‘Markets’: Informal Trades Between Neighbours

The second “M” we discuss is Markets where fishes are sold. There is no formal market in the villages, as the villagers either catch their own fish or purchase their neighbours’ extra catch of the day. The predominant character of subsistence, instead, allows them to engage in informal trades with neighbours. For example, along the main road that links the Ler, Kram, Kandal, and Anlongsvay villages are only a few shops who presumably source their fresh meats and produces from neighbouring villages. According to one such shop owner in Kram, she purchases fish from some fishermen hailing from either the nearby Phum on the mainland or Lngor Island on the Mekong River.

A fisherman selling fish in front of his house in Kram

Fishes on sale at a fisherman’s house

We also asked other villagers consuming fish about the declining fish stocks. Mr. Seng Sern provided a non-exhaustive list of fish species that he observed had rapidly decreased in the number of sales for the last 10 years.

Source: Personal communication with Mr. Seng Sern

Another kind of fish called ត្រីលីង (trei ling) has disappeared entirely. Mr. Hut Seng shared his sentiment that it is mostly larger migratory fishes that are experiencing the threat of extinction as a result of a multitude of anthropogenic and natural factors affecting the entire rive of the Mekong.[3]

However, the decline in fishery stock is not a completely new phenomena; it had begun to decrease in the late 1980s, 10 years after the collapse of Khmer Rouge, when people moved back and resumed fishing. We postulate that, in addition to overfishing, the recent construction of multiple dams in upstream Mekong may have also altered the flow regime. The dams could act as physical barriers that disrupt a significant portion of the fish migration routes and undermine the aquatic habitats required for the spawning and feeding of fish.[4][5]

Methods: Traditions and Trends

The third “M” we describe is Methods that are used for fishing. Mr. Lek Fran, a 32-year-old man, and Mrs. Nuan Thum, a 63-year-old lady, revealed that fishing methods have not changed much in recent times. They include the use of lop (nets with bamboo traps) and mong (fishing nets). Villagers use different types of lop and mong, depending on fishing seasons.

A fisherman in the Ler village retrieving his lop from the banks of the Mekong

Another tool that is often used by older women is fishing rods made out of tree branches. These are suitable for the use in riverbanks where the current is not strong. They usually fish twice a day at 7am and 3pm.

Two women fishing with tree branches by a river bank

Our interviewees also highlighted that illegal fishing methods emerged along with improvements in fishery technologies. These include electrofishing, poison and blast fishing. The methods, unlike the above-mentioned traditional ones, lead to the increased catch of not only targeted fishes but also by-catch. These extremely efficient fishing methods may result in a rapid decrease of fish stocks if left unmanaged.

Although the national and local governments have made efforts to outlaw such methods and put in place surveillance enforcement like village rangers, the illegal fisheries seem pervasive even across the river border. Laotian fishermen continue to practise the illegal methods, given no similar law in Laos.

Furthermore, fish farming has not gained much traction as an alternative to regular fishing in Preah Rumkel. This may be due to cultural inertia, though a ranger we interviewed revealed that the state and NGOs are looking into this option as a sustainable fishery.

Mekong: A Changing Hydrological System

Finally, we explore the last “M” – the Mekong river. By scaling out our analytical focus, we examine how the recent cross-border dam building and illegal fishing have contributed to the decline in fish stocks.

The Mekong has undergone many irreversible environmental changes over time, including the reduction of the fish population. These changes are caused by both anthropogenic and natural factors. A study suggests that the construction of dams in the upstream pose difficulties in mobility of migratory fishes[5]. This may further impede their regular breeding patterns and lead to a decrease in the fish population. For example, a research suggests that the construction of the Don Sahong dam is expected to alter fish habitats in the Mekong and lower the fish survival ability[6]. In response, some efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of the Don Sahong dam have been made, including the formation of adjacent channels that render migratory fish passable.[7]

Beside dam building, the above-mentioned illegal fishing may lead to the decline in fish stocks. As these methods do not allow smaller fishes to grow and reproduce, the continued practice will affect the fishes’ reproductive capabilities. Although the consolidation of Cambodian law enforcement could help improve the situation, a greater international cooperation among the Mekong basin nations would also be needed considering the transnational nature of the illegal fishing and the consequential negative impacts on fishery throughout the Mekong.

In addition to anthropogenic drivers, natural phenomena should be taken into account. Climate change may also be one possible factors in changing the water temperature, water levels and flow regimes. The configuration of such a hydrological system would impact the mortality and life cycles of fish in the Mekong.[8]

Looking Ahead

In light of the decrease in fish stocks, fishermen in Preah Rumkel may soon need to shift to fish farming. NGOs also provide certain incentives for fishermen to change to other livelihood sources, including aquaculture and stay-home business for eco-tourism. The latter may enable the regeneration of fish stocks as it encourages the expansion of conservation areas (please refer to the Fisheries Action Coalition Team[9] pilot project, planned in 2016 and implemented in 2018).

In response, many of the subsistence fishermen in Preah Rumkel and along the entire Mekong river have engaged in other livelihoods; they no longer depend on fishing as their sole source of income. This certainly renders them resilient to reduced fish catches. We hope that this trend will continue in the foreseeable future.



  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and National Institute of Statistics (2010) National gender profile of agricultural households.

  2. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2018) Fishery and Aquaculture Country Profile: The Kingdom of Cambodia. [Online]. FAO Fisheries & Agriculture. Available at: (Accessed: 11 November 2018).

  3. Phomikong, P., Fukushima, M., Sricharoendham, B., Nohara, S., et al. (2014) Diversity and Community Structure of Fishes in the Regulated Versus Unregulated Tributaries of the Mekong River. River Research and Applications. [Online] 31 (10), 1262–1275. Available at: doi:10.1002/rra.2816.

  4. Kummu, M. and Sarkkula, J. (2008) Impact of the Mekong River Flow Alteration on the Tonle Sap Flood Pulse. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. [Online] 37 (3), 185–192. Available at: doi:10.1579/0044-7447(2008)37[185:iotmrf];2.

  5. Grimsditch, M. (2012). 3S rivers under threat: understating new threats and challenges from hydropower development to biodiversity and community rights in the 3S River Basin. 3S Rivers Protection Network. Global CCS Institute.

  6. Baird, I.G. (2011) The Don Sahong Dam. Critical Asian Studies. [Online] 43 (2), 211–235. Available at: doi:10.1080/14672715.2011.570567.

  7. Hawkins, P., Hortle, K., Phommanivong, S. and Singsua, Y. (2018) Underwater video monitoring of fish passage in the Mekong River at Sadam Channel, Khone Falls, Laos. River Research and Applications. [Online] 34 (3), 232–243. Available at: doi:10.1002/rra.3239.

  8. Hoang, L.P., Lauri, H., Kummu, M., Koponen, J., et al. (2016) Mekong River flow and hydrological extremes under climate change. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. [Online] 20 (7), 3027–3041. Available at: doi:10.5194/hess-20-3027-2016.

  9. Fisheries Action Coalition Team (2018) Mekong Program. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 11 November 2018).

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