Tag Archives: Delta

The End of Mekong Delta Fishing

A fisherman carries supplies from his boat in the early morning near the island of Long Binh. Throughout the Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A fisherman carries supplies from his boat in the early morning near the island of Long Binh. Throughout the Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

“I’ve been fishing here for more than ten years, and the plastic has always been like this,” Giau told us as she sorted though the pile of fish, which was pathetically small considering the enormous size of the net she had emptied them from. With deft fingers she sorted through the catch, picking out the most valuable shrimp and fish first before working her way through the less prized species until only a few minuscule creatures remained, flopping amongst an assortment of plastic bags and food wrappers. I counted two Nescafe packets, three shopping bags, an empty package of instant noodles, and a cigarette butt. In total she had kept around ten fish.

We had come to the island community of Long Binh early that morning with the goal of finding at least one person who was deriving their entire income from fishing the Mekong. After nearly three weeks following the Mekong through southern Vietnam, we were running out of time to disprove what we had heard over and over again throughout our trip: that the river no longer supported a large enough wild fish population to sustain the people who lived on its banks. With just a few days remaining until we had to cross the border into Cambodia, we had agreed to give Giau and her husband Bich the equivalent of $10 to pay for the morning’s fuel in exchange for passage.

As we motored into deeper waters, the sun barely above the horizon, it was clear that the couple was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of having us on board. Bich, who was perhaps not the most talkative of men to begin with, seemed reluctant to answer any of our questions and instead silently smoked cigarettes as he worked the small boat’s engine and tended to the nets. Giau was more obliging and did nearly all of the talking, but only, I suspect, because we were seated around the hatch of the fish hold which she needed to access. If it had been possible to get her job done without interacting with us at all, I imagine she would have been all the more happy.

Bich, a professional fisherman, repairs wires in his boat's engine before heading onto the river to fish. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Bich, a professional fisherman, repairs wires in his boat’s engine before heading onto the river to fish. numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich feed line into the river, dragging a large net behind. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich feed line into the river, dragging a large net behind.

Water is pumped from the bilges of Bich's wooden fishing boat. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Water is pumped from the bilges of Bich’s wooden fishing boat.

That isn’t to say that Giau and Bich were inherently rude or unfriendly. They had a difficult and tiring job to do, and judging by the meagre catches they had pulled in, times were not overly profitable. The presence of two bulky foreigners on their cramped boat was likely not helping.

After two hours on the river, Bich steered the vessel back towards land, the effective window for morning fishing apparently closed. Though we couldn’t tell exactly how many fish they had caught, it was obvious that they would not be earning much from their efforts. The largest fish of the day was less than ten centimetres long. Clearly the river’s most bountiful days were over.

Giau and Bich pull up their nets, which are mostly empty. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau and Bich pull up their nets, which are mostly empty.

Plastic is mixed in with each net of fish. In some cases, the ammount of plastic debris outnumber the fish. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Plastic is mixed in with each net of fish. In some cases, the ammount of plastic debris outnumber the fish.

Giau releases a fish back into the river, as it's low market price will not make it worth the effort of cleaning. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Giau releases a fish back into the river, as it’s low market price will not make it worth the effort of cleaning.

The End of Plenty

“Seven or eight years ago I noticed a dramatic drop in the number of fish I was catching in the river,” Ngo Than Thai told us. A fifty-year-old man with a welcoming smile, we met Thai almost immediately after getting off Giau’s boat. Spotting us walking away from the cluster of fishing boats, Thai had beckoned for us to follow him further inland. After a few minutes of uncertain walking (he had not yet told us why we should follow him), we approached a series of massive ponds. After visiting several shrimp farms earlier in our trip, we knew that the pools most likely had something to do with seafood, but nothing more certain than that.

“I started fishing when I was fifteen years old but it became impossible to make enough money fishing in the river. So three years ago I built these,” Thai continued, gesturing to the ponds. After he shouted something that we didn’t understand, two young men scrambled onto a wooden dock that extended over the surface of the nearest pond, carrying fifty kilogram sacks of fish food over their shoulders. No sooner had they set the bags down then the water exploded into life, roiling and bubbling furiously.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish teem on the surface of a fish farm on the island of Long Binh. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

Fish teem on the surface of a fish farm on the island of Long Binh.

Initially it was hard to tell what we were looking at, so frenzied was the burst of movement just below the water’s surface. As the fish started leaping a metre into the air in anticipation of the feast to come, Thai explained more fully. After nearly thirty years of fishing in the river, the catches had dwindled so low as to make it impossible to support his family. Turning away from the water that had supported him for most of his life, Thai borrowed $5000 to build his first fish farm. Three years and two more ponds later, his fortunes have soared.

“I am making much more money than I ever did before. Each of these ponds has around 45 000 fish in them, and they are much bigger than those left in the river,” Thai told us. And it was hard to dispute his claims after what we had seen on Giau and Bich’s boat earlier that morning. Thai’s fish were huge by comparison – at least a foot long, shimmering and fat.

His transition from river fisherman to inland farmer has been so profitable that his neighbours are emulating his success and everywhere around us new ponds were being excavated. Like Thai, the other residents of Long Binh were rushing away from the river to fish inland, where the money was.

“I haven’t fished from the river in years,” Thai said. “Since I started these ponds, I haven’t been back.”

A new fish farm under counstruction on the island of Long Binh. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A new fish farm under construction on the island of Long Binh.

Parting Thoughts

After three weeks of exploring the relationship between the Mekong and the millions of Vietnamese who depend on its flow, this was perhaps not the most uplifting end to our time in the delta. Though over the course of our trip we had seen many ways in which people lived from the river, the overall picture was not of a healthy waterway.

From tourist ferries to brick factories to shipyards, the people who seemed to be profiting most from the river were those who didn’t rely on its natural gifts. For people who counted on an ecologically thriving Mekong to survive, the future seemed grim. The abundant use of agrochemicals had made most of the water unfit for bathing, let along drinking or cooking; eroding banks were threatening farmers near the coast; fish stocks had been decimated by the use of electrified nets. After millennia of sustaining life, it seemed as though the river was breaking under the ever growing demands of humanity.

Though the future is not set in stone and there is always hope for a less destructive relationship between society and nature, as we drove towards the border station at Chau Doc, both Gareth and I were shaken by our experience in Vietnam. While the people we had met were nearly all warm and their culture welcoming, the overriding narrative was of a waterway under siege.

With four more countries to visit and roughly four thousand more kilometres of river to travel, there was a lot more river ahead. Would we find a similarly embattled ecosystem as we headed towards the Mekong’s source on the Tibetan plateau? Was Vietnam doing something wrong in its stewardship of the delta, or was it simply at the mercy of geography – destined to bear the brunt of four rapidly developing economies upriver? Only time would tell.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , |

A River’s Tail: The Journey Begins

Passengers on the Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh bus watch Rambo II.

Passengers on the Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh bus watch Rambo II.

A River’s Tail started as few serious endeavours should – with Rambo II. Dubbed into Vietnamese by overly enthusiastic voice actors, none of the local passengers seemed bothered in the least by Sylvester Stallone’s killing spree through the Mekong Delta. Many chuckled periodically as their fictitious countrymen fell to Rambo’s merciless knife.

Col. Trautman: “Where are you going John?”

John Rambo: “I don’t know.”

As inappropriate as the film selection on a Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) bus route may have been, we found an unlikely counterpoint to our own feelings of uncertainty about the journey ahead in Rambo’s ever-stoic words. After months of endless preparation and speculation about how to best document the health of the Mekong River and the stories of the people living from its waters, we were less than an hour from the Vietnam border with no real picture of what lay ahead.

Looking across the isle of the bus, Pablo Chavanel, the project’s chief videographer, was shooting sporadic b-roll footage of the dusty Cambodian countryside while glancing indifferently at the blaring TV screen. In contrast, fellow photographer Gareth Bright – an unapologetic fan of the Rambo series – had his eyes glued to the film, impossibly uncomfortable though he was with our 20kg aerial camera drone wedged under his legs.

Children are splashing by a rogue wave as they hunt for clams int he cracks in a boardwalk along the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

Children are splashed by a rogue wave as they hunt for clams int he cracks in a boardwalk along the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

Where were we going? Perhaps more importantly, what would we do when we got there? Documenting the entirety of the Mekong from sea to source over a one year period seemed like a fairly straightforward idea during our project meetings in Phnom Penh’s coffee shops, but as we drove further and further from the comforts of our apartments, our best laid plans seemed meaningless in the face of the vagaries ahead.

When the middle aged Vietnamese man in the seat next to me turned his iPad to full volume, the bus’ on board wifi allowing him to stream Justin Bieber’s “Baby” to his heart’s content, I glanced back at my colleagues to see Pablo drifting into sleep. The French, it would seem, have little love for Rambo.

Looking South

The border station at Bavet/Moc Dai (the respective Cambodian and Vietnamese towns), provided subtle insights into the cultural and political differences between the two countries. While the Cambodian side was comprised of a relatively welcoming collection of squat pseudo-traditional tiled structures, the hard grey concrete of Vietnam’s immigration checkpoint – alternately adorned with the red and yellow of the Vietnamese flag and the hammer and sickle banners of the Communist party – seemed far more imposing. And while we passed through without any problems, save for a cursory (and surprisingly disinterested) inspection of our Star Wars-looking drone, officially arriving on Vietnamese soil made the start of the project all the more real.

Vietnamese tourists walk along a pier that extends into the ocean near the town of Den Do. The Mekong river branches into 9 major distributaries before exiting into the South China Sea, and is locally referred to as The River of Nine Dragons. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Vietnamese tourists walk along a pier that extends into the ocean near the town of Den Do. The Mekong river branches into 9 major distributaries before exiting into the South China Sea, and is locally referred to as The River of Nine Dragons.

We entered Saigon a few hours later, changed our dollars into dong (Vietnamese currency), and secured a musty dorm room for the night. Our fixer/translator, Mi, arrived late that evening and after a quick meeting to get to know each other and discuss our departure time the next day, we took to our beds. With the approach of sleep the unanswerable questions returned – how exactly were we going to pull this off? Where were we going?

The next morning, over a bowl of wanton soup, Mi pointed out a few possible starting locations on her smartphone based on the minimal criteria we had given her: “We want to see where the Mekong ends.” After conferring over distances and travel times with the driver we had hired to help us move around the sprawling Mekong delta (a relentlessly energetic young man who asked us to call him Stephen) we opted to head for the coastal province of Tan Thanh. In theory, the plan was simple. Get to the sea and then follow the river back to Cambodia, meeting as many people along the way as possible.

A man checks his cell phone at a popular tourist rest stop on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man checks his cell phone at a popular tourist rest stop on the coast of the South China Sea.

Stephen, dressed smartly in dark slacks and a blue button down shirt (neither of which we ever saw him wear again, as he apparently discerned quite quickly we were not formal types), piloted his Toyota Zace 4×4 towards the ocean, stopping only once, at a gaudy roadside restaurant appropriately named The Mekong Rest Stop. As we stood around the car sipping terribly strong coffee, Stephen made the first quip in what was to become a profoundly unorthodox (and wonderful) working relationship. Staring at Pablo’s shaved head he noted gravely, “You look like Vin Diesel. I drive like Vin Diesel. Fast and Furious.”

The Eastern Sea

At its terminus, the Mekong and the sea are barely distinguishable from one another. The river’s sediment-laden water and the ocean’s chop blend together organically, and it is difficult to tell exactly where one ends and the other begins. The only noticeable difference was in the concentration of tourists – nearly all Vietnamese apart from us – who flocked around the coastal seawall, but seemed completely disinterested in the river banks.

We spent most of the remaining daylight bouncing back and forth between the river and the seashore trying to find the first traces of a story. Looking past the throngs of seafood-hungry tourists, our first impressions of the coast were mixed. A beautiful if aging pier extended a few hundred meters out into the water and made for an idyllic evening backdrop, while clam harvesters worked the beach, their backs hunched towards the sand. Stilted wooden houses stood above the tides, their windows opened to receive the sea breeze.

A couple walks above a plastic-strewn beach on the coast of the South China Sea. At low tide, the cumulative waste dumped into the Mekong and the ocean gather around the pilings of coastal houses.

A couple walks above a plastic-strewn beach on the coast of the South China Sea. At low tide, the cumulative waste dumped into the Mekong and the ocean gather around the pilings of coastal houses.

The scene would have been wonderfully picturesque had it not been for the plastic. An endless mottled mass of shopping bags and Styrofoam food containers in various states of decay were bunched around the foundational pylons of the community. After spending more than 12 years in Southeast Asia collectively, we were all aware that the economic realities of lower class life in the region prevent many people from making carbon free lifestyle choices. We understood it was neither fair nor realistic to expect that nearby farmers living near the poverty line could switch to reusable shopping bags or washable diapers, but the sight of such heavy pollution at the absolute start of a long trip was disquieting nonetheless. Where exactly was it coming from and where did it go, we wondered? What did it mean in relation to human and animal health?

Deciding that the touristic nature of the seaside made it an unsuitable place to question locals on the health of the water, we returned to the Mekong. In the quiet town of Den Do, we stopped at a concrete pier and chatted with a few men who were squatting idly, smoking cigarettes. Den Do, they said, was all about shrimp.

A shrimp boat pulls into harbour in the town of Den Do to offload its days catch. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A shrimp boat pulls into harbour in the town of Den Do to offload its days catch. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Workers sort the day's shrimp catch and sort the seafood before sending it to family owned processing facilites. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Workers sort the day’s shrimp catch and sort the seafood before sending it to family owned processing facilites.

Twenty minutes later, a dilapidated wooden vessel pulled alongside and seemingly out of nowhere dozens of men, women, and children rushed out to meet it. In a frenzy of activity the cargo hold of the ship was emptied of it’s catch; shrimp did indeed seem to be the main business. Through Mi we learned that the community was entirely reliant on the ocean for their living and used the river solely as a means of transportation and distribution. Though it wasn’t exactly the Mekong-centric start to the trip that we might have imagined, we decided that if that was the reality, then that is what we would start with. With Mi’s help we secured the permission of a gravel-voiced boat captain to join his crew for the next morning’s fishing.

With a 3:30 a.m. wake up looming, we sought out an early dinner. Too tired to look for other options, we ordered from the first restaurant we could find. For a reason that never was made clear to us, the owner was strongly opposed to cooking by any other means than by boiling everything together in a single pot. Yet as we grumbled our acceptance, Stephen leapt into action, forcing his way into their kitchen and shouting for cooking utensils. Ordering three nonplussed cooks to prep specific vegetables and bring him pans, he deftly stir-fried three full courses of clams, shrimp, and squid. When he finally joined us at the table, he brushed off our bemused stares.

“I can drive like Vin Diesel. And I can cook.”

And cook he could. With seemingly half the ocean in our stomachs we found the closest guest house – a sparse and mildewy building shared by a family of dogs who barked furiously at our slightest move – and bedded down for a cruelly short sleep. The perfect start.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my half of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental Also tagged , , , , , , |