Cambodia's "floating villages," communities of boat-houses that line the country's major river causeways, have sustained themselves in much the same way for generations. Fish and seafood harvesting in the ecologically-diverse waterways accounts for up to 80% of the animal protein in Khmer diets. But fisherman across the country report that it's getting harder to catch enough fish to support themselves - from the sprawling in-lane sea of the Tonle Sap Lake to the delta where the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Tonle Bassac rivers converge north of Phnom Penh, where these photos were taken.

 

There are any number of contributing factors - warming water temperatures, population increase, industrial pollution - but the consequences appear the same: freshwater fish populations are declining at uprecedented rates. Global climate change may also be to blame for the disruption of cyclical weather patterns and late-shift of the wet season, on which agricultural and fishing laborers have been able to reliably depend for centuries. The government's 2012 elimination of commercial fishing lots, intended to preserve biodiversity and stave off overfishing, has instead permitted larger enterprises free reign over Cambodia's waters.

In Cambodia's many river fishing villages, an ancestral local industry confronts the effects of a modern ecological crisis.

Crime and Crisis in Cambodia's Floating Villages

Fisherman resort to life-threatening measures as freshwater fish populations dwindle   

Some local fisherman, unable to compete, are falling back on a dangerous methods to increase their haul: electric fishing. A car battery is wired to long poles, which are used to probe the water. Any fish idling underneath are dosed with an electric shock; paralyzed, but alive, they float to the surface for easy picking. The process is perilous for the fisherman, who risk electrocution and death, as it is unsustainable for fish populations - even if they manage to evade the fisherman's nets, fish populations can be rendered infertile from repeated shocking.

 

It's no surprise that electric fishing - often carried out by night to evade Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries officials - has also led to violence. In November, two officials drowned in pursuit of a fisherman in Kampong Cham province, while a commune police chief who disappeared while investigating illegal fishing was discovered with knife wounds in his head. Aquafarming, or breeding colonies of fish to maturity in private pens, is promoted as a solution, but the costs of maintenance and the insecure nature of floating villages, which relocate seasonally or to follow migratory paths, prevents it from replacing traditional line-and-net fishing. It is a tragic conflict of self-preservation, with no clear conclusion or compromise in sight: arguments of environmental preservation and sustainability - policies that very well may benefit Cambodia's agrarian-dominated economy as well as its threatened ecology - fail to sway public opinion before the very immediate concerns of hunger, poverty, and survival. For more information about this ongoing issue, check out coverage in The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily, or read the World Fish Center's brief on climate change vulnerability in Cambodia.