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​Depleting fish stocks imperil local livelihood in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

Wednesday, May 30, 2018, 19:04 GMT+7
​Depleting fish stocks imperil local livelihood in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
A man removes entangled fish from a net on his canoe along the Mekong River in Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Fish populations in the terminal stretch of the Mekong River running through southern Vietnam have considerably declined over the past few years chiefly due to recent dam constructions, jeopardizing the livelihood of poor local fishermen.

When floodwaters seasonally submerged the Mekong basin in Vietnam, numerous boats and canoes ran on rivers and on flooded rice paddies to catch various fish, which were found aplenty.

Fishermen had a good haul, earned satisfactory sums of money, and fermented tiny dead fish in multiple ceramic pots to make fish sauce.

But this happy picture is part of the past, as floods with high water levels have not returned to southwestern Vietnamese provinces, which are crossed by the Mekong River, since 2011.

Even when they did, fish did not come in their heyday abundance.

The number of fish caught yearly has dramatically decreased after more than a decade, with the figure reaching 22,000 metric tons in 2016 and 2017, compared with 40,000 to 60,000 metric tons in the 2000s, according to Tran Phung Hoang Tuan, director of the Department of Fisheries in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang.

There are no records of how much of the fish stocks has diminished since new hydropower plants on the upstream Mekong River were constructed, but impacts on Vietnamese fishermen are clear, Tuan said.

Bui Thi Suong, a woman who has spent over 40 years fishing in An Giang’s neighbor Dong Thap Province, wistfully recalled that she and her husband used to make a large amount of money from catching fish in the flood season.

“It was not an easy job, since we had to stay up late, get up early and wear wet clothes most of the time. But we loved it because we got lots of money,” Suong said.

“But now,” she left her sentence unfinished with a sigh, implying her precarious situation of modest daily fish hauls.

Boats are moored along the Mekong River in Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Boats are moored along the Mekong River in Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Nguyen Van Hoa, a Vietnamese national residing in Cambodia, said the depletion of fish populations is present both at home and abroad for his compatriot fishermen.

Several Vietnamese crossing the border to catch fish in a privately hired portion of the Mekong River in Cambodia returned home empty-handed, he said.

“In the past, it was normal for one to make several dozens of millions of dong [US$800-2,000] at the end of the flood period. But now it would be lucky to able to scrape by after the time.”

A senior fisherman in An Giang, Huynh Van Be, described as desolate a vast expanse of flooded rice fields near his house on which canoes of poor residents would cruise at night to net fish when he was young.

Many affected residents who relied on inland fishing in the province are switching to fish farming or agriculture as the main source of income.

Tuan, of the An Giang fisheries department, attributed the severe fish stock decline to production activities in the upstream stretches of the Mekong mainstream, the impediment to fish migration and habitat loss, and shrinking spawning grounds due to dam building at these locations.

China, Laos and Cambodia have planned on hydropower dams along the river, with the first country completing eight and the second expected to build its third-largest amidst opposition from neighboring nations, according to domestic news media.

At present, local authorities in the Mekong Delta are taking proactive measures to deal with the limited fish population.

The government in Dong Thap, for instance, has banned residents from fishing during a certain period of the year and imposed punishment on fishermen who use small-hole nets, electrofishing equipment and explosives.

But a local official said that is not enough.

“Help should be extended to residents in the transition from fish catching to other jobs, and traders in young fish should receive penalties,” he suggested.

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Thai Xuan / Tuoi Tre News

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