Tag Archives: fishing

The Fruits of the Falls

A young boy runs along the bank of the Mekong river near the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A young boy runs along the bank of the Mekong river near the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

It was around 4.30 a.m. and still pitch black when Batman came for us. We had had given the motorcycle taxi driver his nickname after spotting the small superhero insignia that was welded to the front of his vehicle. Short and solidly built with a prominent belly that poked through the front of the loosely buttoned military jacket that he wore in lieu of a shirt, he hawked noisily in the gloom as he waited for us to pile into the rickety sidecar welded to the chassis of his Chinese motorbike.

We had hired him on the spot the previous day because of his unusual voice, which never spoke normally but rather shouted in a deep throaty rasp. Every query was met with an intense barrage of hoarse yelling, and we had immediately loved him for it.

Speeding through Nakasang in the early morning with Batman - the self assigned nickname of a local moot-rickshaw driver.

Speeding through Nakasang in the early morning with Batman – the self assigned nickname of a local moot-rickshaw driver.

We were heading to the early morning fish market on the banks of the town of Nakasang, and after a few failed attempts Batman was able to kickstart the bike into action. As it was the low-season for fishing, we’d had limited success in finding fishermen to talk with around the Khone falls, and so had decided that the market was the one place where they would all congregate,  regardless of the season.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang.

Children swim in the Mekong river upstream from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Children swim in the Mekong river upstream from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

The Judas Duck

Even though the sun was barely above the horizon, the market was already starting to hum with activity. Families gathered on the river banks to sell everything from charcoal briquettes to deep fried bananas, and fishmongers prepared their stalls for the arrival of the fishermen coming with their morning’s catch from the Mekong.

Because the Si Phan Don (4000 islands) region where we were was a popular destination for tourists and well established as a stop on the “banana pancake” backpacker trail, we were not an especially rare or exciting sight for the locals as we had been in the far north of Cambodia, and so for the most part they ignored us. In fact the majority of marketeers seemed so reluctant to talk to us that we initially thought they didn’t like tourists, but we quickly realized that their suspicions were caused by the dubious legality of some of their wares rather than because of any negative attitudes towards foreigners.

Boats line the shores of the Mekong near the Nakasang morning market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Boats line the shores of the Mekong near the Nakasang morning market.

Fish vendors sort a newly arrived catch at their stall in the Nakasang market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Fish vendors sort a newly arrived catch at their stall in the Nakasang market.

At many of the stalls, between the piles of fish bedded in crushed ice, were barely moving mounds of huge monitor lizards, bound at the legs and mouths. Some looked so near death that the only signs of life they exhibited were their blinking eyes that fought against the encircling flies. In lesser numbers were turtles of varying sizes, stacked on top of each other inside styrofoam boxes. As the day progressed and more fishermen arrived to sell their catches, the piles grew steadily until the animals at the bottom were struggling to breathe under the weight.

A turtle is bound an awaiting sale in the Nakasang market. Though the trading of river turtles is illegal, police do not actively enforce the laws. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A turtle is bound an awaiting sale in the Nakasang market. Though the trading of river turtles is illegal, police do not actively enforce the laws.

Hundreds of kilograms of fish are caught from the Mekong river and sold in the Nakasang market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Hundreds of kilograms of fish are caught from the Mekong river and sold in the Nakasang market.

This was a major legal grey area in Laos, our translator explained to us. On paper, trading these animals was explicitly illegal and carried harsh penalties, but in reality police turned a blind eye in exchange for small cash payoffs. This was hardly a surprising fact for either Gareth or I, as we well knew that animal welfare always came second to feeding one’s family in poverty stricken areas, but it was nevertheless difficult to witness animals being crushed to death by members of their own species as they all waited for an end that I’m certain they could all sense was coming.

Though it was not particularly objective from a journalistic standpoint, we even went so far as to enquire about buying the turtles so we could throw them back into the river downriver from the market, but they were surprisingly expensive at $30 each and somehow choosing one to free while leaving the rest to their fates seemed morbid. It’s not fair to fault people living so near to, or often below the poverty line for doing whatever they can to earn the money they need to send their children to school or buy medicine for their elderly parents (particularly when carrying thousands of dollars worth of camera gear) but watching such overt suffering for hours on end was nevertheless difficult.

A live duck is inspected by a potential buyer in the riverside market of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market, as well as birds, turtles, and lizzards.

A live duck is inspected by a potential buyer in the riverside market of Nakasang.

Navigating through the throng of the market, without apparent concern for its own safety, was a lone white duck. For some inexplicable reason the market had reached an unspoken and unanimous decision that this particular duck would be allowed freedom of movement, and it’s more or less constant attempts to steal small fish would be tolerated. Considering that there were hundreds of live ducks hanging by their feet, too delirious to move from the blood rushing to their heads, one would think the duck would have gotten as far from this place of death as possible, but it seemed quite unconcerned with the danger of its surroundings.

Though it was possible that they all just had a soft spot for this particular duck, a more rational conclusion might have been that it served as a Judas, creating an artificial sense of calm among the other animals which should have been collectively in a state of panic.

A single duck is permitted to scavenge among the stalls of the Nakasang market. Locals say the duck comes to the market everyday and it has become a mascott of sorts. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A single duck is permitted to scavenge among the stalls of the Nakasang market. Locals say the duck comes to the market everyday and it has become a mascott of sorts.

As midday approached and the market activity slowed and vendors prepared to pack up for the day, we managed to get a few words out of some of them before we too left. Compared to ten years ago, they estimated that they are getting up to 50% less fish out of the Mekong – a familiar story for us since starting this journey. One fisherman told us that his boat would have once been heaping with fish, where now there was only a small pile flopping around in the gunnels.

Starting in the South China Sea, and continuing through Vietnam, Cambodia and now into Laos, we had heard the same thing in different ways. Perhaps this was responsible for the increasing reliance on illegal wildlife trading, but it was impossible to know if this practice would have been stopped had the fish been more abundant.

A fisherman offloads his catch at the riverside market in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A fisherman offloads his catch at the riverside market in the town of Nakasang.

A fish vendor weighs a sale in the morning fish market in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A fish vendor weighs a sale in the morning fish market in the town of Nakasang.

Spiritual Connections

After waiting for the hottest part of the day to pass, we reconnected with Batman and drove into the countryside outside Nakasang to get a sense of rural life along this part of the river. As we passed through outlying villages we stopped to talk with several families, most of whom confirmed what we’d heard earlier that morning – there were not enough fish.

Each family had developed its own coping mechanisms; one man, 50-year-old Kham Bone, had turned to planting fruit trees which he could sell to Chinese biodiesel firms, and when not in school his three children worked together to pot and plant the seedlings. Other villagers had taken a different approach and had constructed giant bamboo fishing traps across the breadth of some of the Mekong’s tributaries. These were technically illegal, but as with the trading of turtles and lizards, seemed to be ignored by the authorities.

Children pot Tuamaan fruit tree seedlings to be planted on their family property in the village of Ban Thakao. The trees produce a nut which is used in the production of some biofuels, and the family sells them to a Chinese company to supplement their income which has dwindled due to reduced fish in the Mekong.

Children pot Tuamaan fruit tree seedlings to be planted on their family property in the village of Ban Thakao. The trees produce a nut which is used in the production of some biofuels, and the family sells them to a Chinese company to supplement their income which has dwindled due to reduced fish in the Mekong.

The most engaging and revealing conversation of the day came from Boun Yaang, a 67-year-old farmer and fisherman turned Buddhist monk who’d had 12 children and 2 wives before shaving his head and beginning his monastic life.

“The Mekong is very important for this community,” Yaang told us. “It is for fishing, for farming rice, for gardening, for washing, and in the past it was for drinking as well.” He confirmed that the biggest and most impactful change was in the demising fish population, something that as a former fisherman he was certainly qualified to speak about.

Boun Yaang, 67, is a Buddhist monk in a small pagoda in the village of Ban Thakao. Before he became a monk he was a fisherman and he still lives along the banks of the Mekong near the Khone Falls.

Boun Yaang, 67, is a Buddhist monk in a small pagoda in the village of Ban Thakao. Before he became a monk he was a fisherman and he still lives along the banks of the Mekong near the Khone Falls.

“Before I could put a pot of water on the fire, walk down to the river and get a fish, and walk back before it was boiling. Now you need to have a boat and to go further away,” Yaang reminisced. “As a Buddhist, I am also connected to the river because we worship the Nagas (river spirits), and the rivers, and the trees,” he continued.

For all of this however, Yaang was no eco warrior. He blamed Cambodians for the Mekong’s poor productivity though he had no facts to back up this position, and had little to no awareness of any of the proposed hydro power dams in his own nation. When asked what would happen in his community if there were no more fish in the river, he responded stoically: “we would build fish farms.”

As we left Nakasang the next morning, we had to wonder if Yaang’s attitude of ambivalence towards the Mekong would continue as we headed further North, towards the city of Pakse.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang.

Buddhist monks collect alms from the residents of Nakasang in the early morning. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Buddhist monks collect alms from the residents of Nakasang in the early morning.

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, Laos, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , |

The Mighty Falls of Laos

The Khone Phapheng waterfalls as seen from the air. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

The Khone Phapheng waterfalls as seen from the air. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

We could feel the water before we could see it. The deep bass rumbling of the expansive Khone falls was experienced not so much as a sound, but rather a pervasive sensation in the stomach that was both subtle and impossible to ignore at the same time.

We had crossed the border from Cambodia into Laos without incident. In fact, the customs checkpoint was so lightly used and understaffed that we probably could have walked into the country without showing our passports. Extravagant Khmer-style administrative buildings stood empty and unused, left to quietly rot in the humidity of the jungle. A pack of friendly stray dogs lazed in the no man’s land between the two nations, significantly outnumbering the immigration personnel.

Less than 20km away was Nakasang, a small riverside town that served as the main jumping off point for travellers visiting the Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) chain, as well as the main point of access to the Khone falls. We had come to explore the waterfalls and surrounding area partially because of their obvious visual appeal, but more importantly because of what they represented in terms of the Mekong’s past and future.

A young boy balances on a rock about the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A young boy balances on a rock about the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

When the team of French explorers led by Ernest Doudard de Lagrée left Cambodia in 1866 with the mission of surveying the length of the Mekong – which was at that point a mostly blank and unknown space on the map for Europeans – their primary aim was to establish whether or not the river could be used as a trade artery to connect the French colonies in Indochina to the silks and riches of China. The journey was fuelled purely by imperial economic ambitions, as evidenced (in comically stereotypical French style) by the fact that the small team carried just six boxes of scientific instruments with them compared to more than 700 litres of wine and several hundred litres of brandy.

Though the team would go on to be the first Europeans to navigate the entirety of the Mekong, their goal of establishing a trade route to China was thwarted early on by the Khone falls, a mighty chain of rapids that stretch along nearly 10km of the river. While even today, a century and a half later, the Khone falls hamper the Mekong’s utility as an international trade highway, the area is once again in the crosshairs of economic development.

Untamed, For Now

Though the Khone falls dominated the landscape immediately south of the 4000 Islands, actually getting to them was somewhat problematic. An official tourist observation platform provided a lovely panoramic view, but was far removed from the fisherman we could see casting his net into the churning water below.

A fisherman walks across the rocks above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A fisherman walks across the rocks above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

After slipping around a set of heavy wooden guardrails, we were able to scramble down a narrow dirt path and onto the wet rocks that defined the eastern periphery of the Khnone Falls. In the wet season, with river levels at their peak, it would not have been possible to stand where we were. I had seen photographs of the area taken by colleagues shortly after the monsoon rains that showed the area as an uninterrupted mass of churning water, but at the tail end of an unusually dry summer, the rapids – while still impressively wild – were more subdued.

Though it would have been ideal to see the cascading water in its most dramatic state, the reduced flow allowed us to pick our way along the stony lip of the falls towards the fishermen. Had the falls been moving at full force, the only means of navigating across would have been a pair of rusted steel cables suspended limply between wooden posts that had been driven into the rocky banks at some unknown point in the past. Considering Gareth was nursing severely bruised ribs and I was wearing a pair of extremely cheap rubber sports sandals, walking on solid stone was the far safer option.

The single fisherman working this section of the falls dipped in and out of sight as he descended and reemerged from craggy valleys carved by millennia of fast flowing water. Well built and sure footed on the slippery rocks, he looked like consummate professional river fisherman. For nearly an hour we followed him as he cast, checked, and recast his hand net into the deep pools that pockmarked the area. He seemed completely unconcerned with our presence, and other than a polite smile, barely acknowledged we were there. Once the soft dawn light began to transition into the harsher glare of mid morning we asked our translator, Noy, to join us and facilitate conversation.

A man casts his fishing net into a pool of water above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A man casts his fishing net into a pool of water above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

As Noy made his way towards I began to mentally formulate a list of questions I wanted to ask about the current state of fish stocks in the area, how concerned he was about the multitude of hydropower dams slated for construction along the Mekong in Laos, and what he thought about his children’s futures as Khone fishermen. But these ideas of a deep conversation on the ecological state of the river were brushed aside almost at once by the realities of the modern world.

“He isn’t actually a fisherman,” Noy translated for us, “he only does this to get some extra food when he has a break from work.”

When asked what his real job was, Noy and the bemused young man went back and forth for a few minutes before Noy turned to us with an embarrassed grin.

“He is a photographer. He takes pictures of the tourists who visit the waterfalls.”

Low Season, High Effort

After laughing off our own naivety, we left the tourist viewpoint and headed back towards Nakasang where we chartered a small boat to take us to the opposite bank of the Mekong, hoping to find a more authentic glimpse at life next to the Khone falls. Several locals warned us that it was low season for fishermen and it would be nearly impossible to reach the area where they worked at this time of the year laden with camera gear as we were, but we decided to try anyways.

A boat sits beached on tree roots in a a tributary of the Mekong river directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A boat sits beached on tree roots in a a tributary of the Mekong river directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

Predictably, the locals were right. It took several hours of fording chest-deep streams and bushwhacking along overgrown jungle paths before we found a single fisherman. Thin yet incredibly strong looking, Vong was in his 40’s and was followed by two young sons who watched him cast his net with keen interest.

Vong confirmed what we had been told earlier – this was low season, and his catches were small. For a few minutes we tried to press him on big-picture issues such as dam projects, but he seemed either unwilling or simply unable to comment, and so we let him be and joined his sons on a large boulder to watch their father expertly working in the churning water.

Vong pulls his net from the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls as his young sons look on. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Vong pulls his net from the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls as his young sons look on.

Vong casts his net into the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.]

Vong casts his net into the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

After coming up empty on a few casts of his hand net from the river bank, Vong lowered himself into the swift currents and began hauling himself hand over hand along a lone wire that stretched from the Mekong’s western bank to a rocky island that stood in the middle of the river. It would have been impossible for Gareth or I to follow him while keeping our cameras dry, and truth be told I’m not sure if we possessed the brute strength, despite each being at least 20kg heavier and a foot taller than the wiry fisherman.

Vong pulls himself through the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls along a thin cable in order to reach the best fishing spots. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Vong pulls himself through the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls along a thin cable in order to reach the best fishing spots.

Long, a Mekong river fisherman displays the only fish he was able to catch in two hours of fishing the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Long, a Mekong river fisherman displays the only fish he was able to catch in two hours of fishing the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

His sons quickly lost interest in us and so for most of the next hour our motley group sat in silence, watching Vong’s distant form cast and recast his net. When he returned with the last of the day’s light, he had a caught just three small fish, the biggest of which was smaller than the average sized computer mouse. Considering how much physical effort it had taken for him to get this tiny catch, it seemed impossible that they would provide a surplus of calories. But Vong seemed satisfied with the days work and led his sons away over the rocks before melting into the dense jungle beyond.

Though we had learned virtually nothing about the state of the Mekong in Laos in terms of literal facts or eyewitness accounts, we had nevertheless gained a fleeting impression of a country far less developed than what we had seen in Vietnam and even Cambodia – though as we would find out over the coming weeks, the health of the Mekong and the greater natural environment was far from perfect in this land locked nation.

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, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , |

Cambodia’s Beating Heart

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol.

“Turn your lights off soon or people will see us.” The fisherman spoke in a muted voice that barely carried over the few metres between our boats. The night was moonless and it was pitch black at 3:30 a.m. on the Tonle Sap lake. We needed to use our headlamps to check the focus of our cameras and were at first confused by the fisherman’s apprehension. When we asked if he was worried the LED beams would scare the fish away, he replied calmly: “No, it’s because we are in the conservation zone. If they catch us we will be in trouble.”

Two hours later, in the shallow water surrounding the floating village of Akol, the fishing boats gathered in the blue pre-dawn light to check their catch. Their mood was cheerful as they picked through the nets, pulling healthy (if smallish) looking fish from the nylon mesh and tossing them into large metal bowls. There was no sign of their former nervousness, the danger apparently passed.

Fishermen enter into a protected conservation area on Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake. Many fishermen say that fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they can only be found in the conservation zone. The fishermen risk the confiscation of their equipment and face imprisonment if found fishing in the area. The Tonle Sap provides the vast majority of Cambodia's protein and fatty acids, and is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

Fishermen enter into a protected conservation area on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake. Many fishermen say that fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they can only be found in the conservation zone. The fishermen risk the confiscation of their equipment and face imprisonment if found fishing in the area. 

Considering that the lake was known to be one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems, as well as one of the main sources of protein for the country’s 15 million people, the fact that fishermen were resorting to sneaking into protected areas spoke of an alarming truth: the Tonle Sap, often referred to as “Cambodia’s beating heart”, was struggling.

“Outside the conservation area there are no fish, so what should I do?” Chan Savoeun asked us rhetorically. A 28-year-old fisherman (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), Savoeun had been fishing in the Tonle Sap for more than a decade, and was well aware of the lake’s ailing health. “I am catching around 30-50% less fish than I did [10 years ago], so we have no choice but to fish in the protected zone. We know this is not good, and we are all worried about what will happen if there are no fish left [in the conservation area], but how else can we survive?”

The Great Lake

A floating community of roughly 30 families, we had come to Akol to try and learn how the Tonle Sap (commonly translated as “The Great Lake”) influenced those who lived from its floods. Though it was the peak of the dry season and the village’s pontooned houses were tethered to an exposed sandbar, their temporary attachment to land did not lessen their dependence on the water. “There is not one family here who does not earn their income from the lake,” Savoeun told us.

Fishermen gather in the early morning to check their nets for fish caught the night before. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Fishermen gather in the early morning to check their nets for fish caught the night before. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Fishermen gather in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol, Cambodia to check their nets. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks.

Fishermen pull fish from their nets at sunrise near the village of Akol. 

Fishermen gather in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol to check their nets. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Virtually every family in Akol is engaged in fishing in one way or the other. Often the men will set the nets at night, and the women and children will assist them in checking the nets the next morning. 

Looking around, it was easy to see the truth of what Savoeun said. Apart from a makeshift volleyball court erected on the coarse red sand and a few wells (which, full of lake water as they were, were meant for convenient showering and dishwashing rather than as a source of clean potable water), it was apparent that very few, if any, aspects of life in Akol were dictated by access to dry land. There was only one permanent structure, still under construction, and it was destined to serve as an office for an international conservation organization. When the monsoon rains returned later in the year and the lake’s level rose by up to 8 additional metres, the village could lift anchor and drift away, leaving the office to stand alone.

Residents of Akol play volleyball in the afternoon. A new concrete office for an international conservation organization will be the only permanent structure in the community. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families. During the dry season, the receding Tonle Sap  lake reveals a small sandbar, turning the floating community into an island village.

Residents of Akol play volleyball in the afternoon. A new concrete office for an international conservation organization will be the only permanent structure in the community.

But the Tonle Sap, whose once bountiful waters support dozens of communities like Akol, was not well. Generations of overfishing, combined with a rapidly growing population had stretched the lake’s already diminishing fish population to its breaking point, as evidenced by the morning’s trip into the protected zone. The widespread use of illegal fishing equipment – from nets so fine that even the smallest and youngest fish were trapped to battery powered electric nets that killed every living creature in its shock radius – had further decimated stocks and deforestation and human-induced bush fires had ravaged the aquatic trees amongst whose submerged root systems young fish were hatched before migrating into deeper waters.

“I noticed that animals were being reduced by hunting and fishing, and that the forests were burning – so I asked for this job,” Horm Sok, a field researcher employed by Conservation International told us.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, drags a boat over a shallow sandbar on his way to an area of forest he is responsible for monitoring. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, drags a boat over a shallow sandbar on his way to an area of forest he is responsible for monitoring. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Though he had only held the job for 6 years, Horm Sok had been living in Akol since 1979 and has borne witness to the dramatic changes afflicting the Tonle Sap. “The population has grown so much and the fish are disappearing,” he told us as we followed him through the sweltering jungle to see some of the conservation initiatives he oversaw. “There didn’t used to be so many fishermen or illegal fishing.”

Horm’s responsibilities ranged from monitoring forest fires to photographing otter dung as a means of monitoring species numbers, but two projects in particular he hoped would be effective in slowing the loss of marine life.

Destruction of the coastal forests that acted as nurseries for infant fish was caused by multiple factors, he told us, almost all of which involved human activity or negligence. Carelessly tended cooking fires had sparked blazes that ravaged 30 hectares of land in the last year alone. “The loss of 30 hectares represents up to 3% of the future fish population,” Horm said, adding perspective. And while the loss of 20 football fields worth of forest might not seem like a dramatic number on a global scale, in a country with the third highest rate of deforestation in the world, Cambodia was a place with few trees to spare.

Additionally, Horm supervised the protection of several fish nurseries that played an even larger role in repopulating the Tonle Sap’s fish. “There are thousands of fish in each pond,” he told us, gesturing to a muddy pool 4 km inland from the lake, protected from exploitation only by the permanent presence of a paid security guard. So far from the water it was difficult to see a connection between the stagnant ponds and the Great Lake, but when the water level rose in several months the entire area would be inundated, absorbing the young fish into its vastness. “Ponds like these can contribute up to 20% of all fish [in the lake],” Horm told us, contextualizing what we were looking at.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, records otter dung data which he will use to check the overall health and growth of the species population. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, records otter dung data which he will use to check the overall health and growth of the species population.

“It’s not about the money,” Horm said when we asked about his motivations for undertaking such a monumentally difficult task as keeping the Tonle Sap healthy. “I asked for this job because I want to conserve the animals and the forest. When I see the fish [vanishing] and the forests burning I feel a lot of regret.”

A Lake Like No Other

“There is nothing else like the Tonle Sap. It’s like an inland ocean, a fish soup,” Taber Hand, founder of the water-focused social enterprise group Wetlands Work! told us in his Phnom Penh apartment. Though we were physically distant from the lake, his passion for its health was plain, and his knowledge vast.

“There are more fish by tonnage in the Tonle Sap than in both the commercial and recreational freshwater sectors of the United States and Canada combined,” he continued, surprising us with the staggering statistic. “But the lake is a poster child for tragedy.”

During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, turning Akol into an island community. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families.

Boys walk across the stilted path that connects their home to the small sandbar the village of Akol is anchored to for the dry season.

Thol Thoeurn, 28, splashes water on his pigs to keep them cool in their floating pens. Fishermen report up to a 50% decrease in fish catches, and many are rearing pigs to supplement their income. Unfortunately the pigs deficate directly into the water surrounding villager's houses, many of whom use the lake water for cooking and cleaning. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families.

Thol Thoeurn, 28, splashes water on his pigs to keep them cool in their floating pens. Fishermen report up to a 50% decrease in fish catches, and many are rearing pigs to supplement their income. Unfortunately the pigs deficate directly into the water surrounding villager’s houses, many of whom use the lake water for cooking and cleaning. 

Paradoxically, one of the most devastating environmental blows to Cambodia’s waterways was the government mandated closing of industrial fishing corporations in the early 2000’s. In an attempt to garner political support, the incumbent government ordered that all large scale commercial operations be disbanded and the fishing grounds returned to the people. While the idea might seem harmless on paper, the real world results were devastating. Despite the huge numbers of fish caught by industrial fishing, the international corporations involved understood that they needed to protect the ecosystem in order to secure a financial future for their companies. When these companies withdrew, taking with them the armed guards who protected their fisheries, a resource free-for-all ensued. In the mad dash to claim land for rice farming, harvest valuable tree species, and fish the abundant waters, the populist policy brought about widespread destruction.

“The industrial fisheries protected the lots by force, which angered the population. But by playing to the people, [Prime Minister Hun Sen] doomed the waterscape. The former lots have become habitat wastelands, totally destroyed by deforestation. They’re probably getting 0.5% of what those areas produced before,” Hand explained.

A young girl mends a fishing net near the floating village of Akol.

A young girl mends a fishing net near the floating village of Akol.

A boy collects fish from nets attached to his floating home in the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A boy collects fish from nets attached to his floating home.

Additional factors such as government corruption (bribed fisheries officials selectively ignoring illegal fishing practices), agricultural pollution, and population growth, have further exacerbated the problem.

Though he emphatically told us that there a variety of actions that could be undertaken to restore the Tonle Sap, Hand was pragmatic when we spoke about the likelihood of these steps being taken in time.

“The biodiversity is there to provide more than enough,” Hand told us, “but its the human side of the equation, the human priorities, that don’t fit. We could have our cake and eat it too, [the solution] is right there for us to act on, but people want to work for themselves instead of together.”

In an impoverished country like Cambodia where millions battle on a daily basis to feed their families, it is perhaps not surprising that environmental cooperation is not a top priority. But without such a mass movement, Cambodia’s most important waterway was headed for disaster.

Children play at sunset in the village of Akol.

Children play at sunset in the village of Akol.

A boy runs along the gunnels of a fibre glass fishing boat in the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A boy runs along the gunnels of a fibre glass fishing boat in the village of Akol.

As our meeting with drew to a close, Hand reflected on a telling fact: “‘The Tonle Sap is the heart and soul of Cambodia’ used to be an extremely popular saying. Everyone said it, including the Prime Minister. But you know, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that in at least 10 years.”

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

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.

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A River’s Tail: The Dominance of the Sea | Vietnam

A shrimp fisherman stands on the gunnels of his vessel as it heads out to fish for shrimp in the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A shrimp fisherman stands on the gunnels of his vessel as it heads out to fish for shrimp in the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

“If I had to give this boat a name, I would call it Happiness,” Nguyen Than told us at four o’clock in the morning as he prepared his shrimp boat for sea. But the family owned boat, staffed entirely by an extensive network of brothers and brothers in law, had no formal name and instead went by the less evocative handle of TG1920.

We met his brother in law and co-captain, with the confusingly similar name of Thane, the previous afternoon in the town of Den Do, a small community of around 600 families that sits on the banks of the Mekong with a clear line of sight to the sea beyond. A short, swarthy man with a voice like a sand blaster, he seemed amused by our request to join his crew for a morning’s work, but granted permission nevertheless.

As we watched the members of the Nguyen family stumble bleary-eyed across the ship’s worn wooden deck to set about their morning tasks – coiling ropes, preparing tea, chain smoking Hero cigarettes – it became clear that TG1920 was one of the only boats still tied up to the shore. “I really didn’t expect you to be on time,” Than revealed, “so I told everyone to sleep in.” Barking instructions to his crew, he settled onto his haunches to watch us eat our breakfast of bland store-bought cakes.

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years.

Twenty minutes later, the sun still well below the horizon, the ship’s engine rumbled to life and we began reversing away from the dock into the darkness of the river. “This exit of the Mekong is the best in the area,” Thane, the driver of the day, told us with an air of pride as he swung the bow around to point towards the sea. “There are many exits like this, but they are dangerous and full of criminals.” With no frame of reference, we had to take this statement at face value, though we suspected that hometown pride – he and his brother had been shrimping out of Den Do for 40 years – may have biased his pronouncement, and that the rest of coastal Vietnam might not be, in fact, a haven for pirates and thieves.

Motoring out of the river mouth and onto the South China Sea (or the Eastern Sea as the Vietnamese call it, disliking the implication of Chinese ownership for obvious reasons), a pot of hot tea was passed through a hatch in the cockpit roof where we sat with Than and Thane. “Fishermen drink their tea from bowls, not cups,” Thane stated, an ever-present Hero dangling from the corner of his mouth. When we asked why this was so, he shrugged impassively in the dark. “Tradition.”

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat.

We were headed to the Nguyen’s shrimp nets 30 km offshore, and with nothing to do but wait we tried to steer the dialogue to questions of the Mekong’s importance in their daily life. But our idealized notions of a people deeply connected to the river were quickly put down: “The river doesn’t matter to people here. It is only the sea,” repeated Thane in various ways each time I tried to rephrase the question in the hopes of drawing him out. Eventually he admitted that the river allowed them to transport their catch to the inland processing facilities in Den Do, but he was clearly determined to downplay the Mekong in favour of the ocean.

“I love the sea,” Than said between sips of tea, in support of his brother in law’s statements. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

At Home on the Water

After an hour of motoring, the rows of shrimp nets appeared on the horizon and the hitherto lethargic crew scrambled into action. Parallel rows of evenly spaced coconut logs had been somehow hammered into the seafloor and secured with guy-wires, jutting into the sky to resemble a series of telephone poles in the middle of the ocean. Intermittently punctuating the repetition were a few small thatched shacks, perched precariously above the gently rolling waves.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets.

Since none of our team had much in the way of shrimping experience, we were somewhat surprised to see shadowy heads popping out of the structures, silhouetted against the dawn sky. As Thane drew the ship closer, more men emerged to watch us approach. Whoops of humoured curiosity sounded out as they realized their resupply included a visit from three foreigners.

While Gareth, Pablo, and I moved into more advantageous shooting positions, Thane elaborated from his pilot’s seat. There were about twenty male members of the Nguyen family, with half allotted to boat duties and the remaining stationed in the remote fishing shacks for 8 or 9 days at time. Every morning the boats delivered fresh water and food to the isolated men, whose responsibility it was to maintain and bait the nets submerged in the sea below. At the end of their shift, the boat and net crews would switch duties and the men could return to shore to rest and visit with their families. Thane had pointed out earlier that this was one of the calmest days on the water in the last month; I couldn’t imagine the terror of weathering a storm in a two meter square wooden box in what might have well as been the middle of the ocean.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land.

For the next two hours the boat crew threw grappling hooks into the grey-brown water, snagging  the lines of sunken nets and dragging them out of the depths, hand over hand. Once out of the water, the nets were emptied into plastic baskets that lined the ship’s hold and given a cursory inspection; any particularly large or valuable fish were dropped in buckets filled with salt water to keep them alive, and plastic bags were separated from the tiny shrimp and thrown back overboard, likely to be hauled in again the next day.

When all the nets had been checked we turned back towards the coast, the men who would stay behind disappearing back into the safety of their stilted sanctuaries. And though the hold seemed reasonably full (again, none of us having any past experiences to draw on), Than revealed that all was not well on the sea. “Now there are less than half the shrimp we used to catch,” he said between puffs of his cigarette. “If the sea was good we could catch up to one tonne, but now it is much less.” When asked about the abundance of plastic, Than seemed as indifferent as he was towards the Mekong. “We don’t know exactly where it comes from, but all the fishermen and communities throw it into the river, so it probably comes from there.”

Shrimp fishermen haul in a net to check for shrimp, 30km off the coast of Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp fishermen haul in a net to check for shrimp, 30km off the coast of Vietnam.

As we left the sea and churned against the Mekong’s current towards Den Do, I tried a final time to turn the conversation to the Mekong. Sighing, Than elaborated on his previous answers: “There aren’t many shrimp or fish in the river. The people who live there need to farm their fish, there are not enough wild fish left to live on. The river is not important here, we go to the sea.”

Whether because of overfishing, the presence of agricultural chemicals, or increased salinity, the Mekong, at it’s end, was no longer fishable.

Nguyen Than prepares a meal of "fisherman's soup" - a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions.

Nguyen Than prepares a meal of “fisherman’s soup” – a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions.

Shore Party

Many of Den Do’s shrimp boats seemed to return to land at roughly the same time, and we entered into a queue of vessels, each waiting to offload their catch. Groups of women wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical hats stood along the seawall, on the lookout for whichever boat they were employed by. When it was eventually TG1920’s turn to tie up, the transfer of seafood was swift. In less than 5 minutes around 400kg of shrimp was loaded onto waiting flatbed motorcycle-drawn carts and driven off to a family owned processing facility where the shrimp would be sorted, dried in the sun and sold, or made into Ruoc – a salty paste and national delicacy.

Nguyen Than waits in a queue of vessels to dock in the town of Den Do.

Nguyen Than waits in a queue of vessels to dock in the town of Den Do.

Though we were exhausted, unaccustomed as yet to waking up at 3:30 a.m., Than was adamant that we follow him to his home for a meal. Over a suppressed hotpot of boiled squid (I was called out as “weak” for only eating 10 full squid), he explained that despite the challenges of living from an increasingly unproductive waterscape his family has no plans to change. “When I am an old man, my sons will take over this boat. There is nothing about this work that we don’t like, other than the storms. But we are used to them.”

After a round of boisterous handshakes we left the Nguyen’s, the first of encounter in what we hoped would form the basis of many fast friendships. To the southwest lay our next destination – the island of Phu Tanh, a 30km long mass of land pointed, dagger-like, into the Mekong delta.

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