• River Wetlands

Fishery Degradation In Chhnok Tru: Alternative Livelihoods And Their Limitations

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

ABOUT | A wide area of grassland and forest that surrounds the Tonle Sap Lake becomes flooded in the wet season. During this period, many families of Chhnok Tru earn a living from small-scale fishing. Recent years, however, have witnessed declines in fish catch and the subsequent income reduction. This article sheds light on how they respond to such challenges and what limitations they need to tackle.

Team members: 
Chen Yu Hong, Xu Shiying, En Chhunna


Fishes and other aquatic resources of Tonle Sap Lake account for over 75 percent of Cambodian’s protein intake[1]. This high contribution is shaped by a unique hydrological feature of the Mekong River. The river flow increases during the wet season, and much of the excess water flows into its tributary, the Tonle Sap River. This, in turn, fills up the Tonle Sap lake, causing flooding in wide-ranging surrounding areas of grassland and forest. Such annual inundation of the Tonle Sap floodplain indeed provides an array of seasonally available fishery resources. For example, fishermen could catch up 30kg of Trey Chhpin, a fish commonly caught in the fishing season between October and March[2], as compared to  3-4 kg in the low season. In the wet season, therefore, small-scale fishing is therefore a key livelihood source for many households[3], including ones in a floating village of Chhnok Tru.


Recent years, however, have witnessed declines in fish catch per unit effort. Mr. Puth, a local fisherman aged 25, stated that, over the past few years, the amount of fish caught during the peak season has reduced from 20-30 kg to only about 12 kg per day. This decline is induced by many direct and indirect factors, including population growth, water pollution, overfishing from the use of unsustainable illegal methods such as electrofishing and fixed gillnets. Fixed gillnets with very small meshes equipped, for example, are commonly used to catch baby fishes. The nets are attached to water plants, which act as a camouflage.

Fixed gillnets camouflaged by water plants

Some of the fishermen we interviewed expressed that, due to the reduction in fish population, it became more difficult for them to make a living. The fish that is most commonly caught today is known as Trey Chhpin, which is sold for only USD$1 per kilogram. In contrast, rare species like Peacock Eels can be sold for USD$2.5 per kilogram. Due to the decline in fish catches, however, earning from fishing reduced and it would not be even enough to cover the high maintenance cost of the equipment used.

Fishing nets: a relatively cheap method of catching Trey Chhpin

Bamboo traps: high-maintenance equipment used to catch Peacock Eels


Many fishermen make a living by adjusting their livelihood sources according to the seasonally-changing hydrological system of the lake[4]. In the dry season when the floodplains are completely dried up, for example, many of them switch to farming on land.

For those who live on water in Chhnok Tru, fish farming under their floating houses – known as caged fish – is a commonly practiced alternative livelihood. This type of fish farming, unlike fishing, allows continuously fishing in the dry season, as fishes in the ‘cage’ could move along with the water level. However, the chance of their survival during the dry season is low, as the level of pollution increases when the water level is low. In response, fish farmers try to utilise them before they die. For example, Ms. Nural, a villager who has been running a caged fish farm for 10 years, dries, smokes or grills fishes to be readily sold for consumptions.

Mr. Heng’s caged fish farm, with more than 10,000 snakehead fishes


For people in Chhnok Tru, fishing is the only way of earning a living during the wet season. They do not know or are unable to access to, other possible livelihood sources. The decline of fishes in Tonle Sap Lake is, therefore, a very pressing issue for them, as it leads to income reduction. Some end up doing illegal fishing and overfishing to maintain their income level, even though they know that such measures are destructive to the lake’s ecosystem. Instead of sustaining their livelihoods, however, this action exacerbates the condition by keeping them stuck in a vicious cycle. The deteriorated ecosystem causes further reduction of the fish population.

During our short stay in Chhnok Tru, many of these fishermen expressed their desire to live on land. They are concerned about the inconsistency and instability of their livelihoods that are largely shaped by the seasonally-changing water level.  The desire would remain a far-fetched wish unless as they receive financial and technical supports; they need certain assets and knowledge to survive on land.



  1. Baran E, Starr P, Kura Y (eds) (2007) Influence of Built Structures on Tonle Sap Fisheries – Synthesis Report. Cambodia National Mekong Committee, Phnom Penh and WorldFish Center, Penang. Available at (Accessed 24 September 2018).

  2. Hap N, Seng L, Chuenpagdee R (2006) Socioeconomics and Livelihood Values of Tonle Sap Lake Fisheries. IFRDI, Phnom Penh.

  3. Kummu, M., Sarkkula, J., Koponen, J., and Nikula, J. (2006). Ecosystem management of the Tonle Sap Lake: an integrated modelling approach. International Journal of Water Resources Development 22: 497–519

  4. Brooks, S., Reynolds, J., Edward, A. (2008) Sustained by snakes? Seasonal Livelihood Strategies and Resource Conservation by Tonle Sap Fishers in Cambodia. Hum Ecol (2008) 36:835–851

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