Cambodia is one of many countries that host freshwater fish species and the Mekong River is well known for its size and biodiversity. Stretching from China and flowing across 5 countries in Southeast Asia with a length of 5000 kilometers, the river is the main contributor of freshwater fish in Cambodia, providing an important food source that contributes to economic development.
Leaving the town of Senmonorom and driving across Ratanakiri province for nearly four hours, the Focus team arrived at Stung Treng where the evening atmosphere was quiet. For this project, I visited both Mondulkiri and Stung Treng for the very first time and while the former gave me indigenous culture vibes in a community homestay, the latter had a similar atmosphere to other towns. Except this is the land of river people.
In Stung Treng, the Mekong flows into two other important tributary rivers, the Sesan and Sekong, and with Stung Treng town located on the Sesan, it is the heart of the province. Having its border with Laos PDR, this province is also a diverse hub between the ethnic Khmer and Khmer-Lao populations and, just like other provinces with rivers, Stung Treng locals are deeply connected to fishing and the river itself.
Fish and people
In Cambodia, freshwater fishing has been connected to livelihoods, culture and diets for generations, and for both the people in cities and provinces, fish is used in a variety of dishes. Normally these fish are used in almost every season of the year, except for some rare species that are considered unique and praised by fishers and people.
Personally, I am not that interested in fish, but in Stung Treng there was a special species I wanted to see.
Mekongina erythrospila, or Mekongina for short, is a famous seasonal fish species popular among locals because of its scarcity, taste and high price. With a unique look, characterized by a round body, sharp head and red scales, in Cambodia, the famed Mekongina can only be found in Stung Treng and was made the symbol of the province itself.
According to local fishers, the Mekongina season starts during November or December and ends around February. This late-season makes fishing very difficult and the sought-after few that can be caught are usually kept in the fridge for quite some time, which can change the texture and quality. This scarcity means Mekongina prices range from 60,000 Riel (15 USD) per kilo to 200,000 Riel (50 USD) per kilo as the season comes to an end.
Mekongina are normally cooked in a simple way, either grilled, fermented, steamed or in a sour soup. These uncomplicated methods are used in order to keep the fish’s unique texture, the yellow, lobster-like fish oil and sweet taste.
Unfortunately, during our mission, we did not manage to get the fresh fish but the frozen Mekongina we used for sour soup still was high quality and its sweet taste made us understand why the fish is famous.
Cooking in his kitchen, our host Mr. Sithan, a Khmer-Lao fisherman at Plouk Commune in the Sesan District of Stung Treng , looked quite cheerful preparing the fish of his province.
“Mekongina has been famous for quite some time. It’s because of the different look this species has, the sweet taste and especially the yellow fish oil,” he explained.
Just like his words, the fish that I saw had an interesting appearance, colorful scales, unique oil and a sweet taste.
However, as a senior fisherman in the village, Mr. Sithan also witnesses many of the problems affecting the river he feels so connected to.
Facing environmental challenges
For local fishers, who depend on the rivers, Mekongina contributes a lot to their income as the fish fetches a high price in a demanding market. From our conversation with the local fisherman, however, the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam is often cited as one of the causes affecting local people’s lives and daily income.
Back from Stung Treng, I did some research on the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam, located in three communes of Sesan District, not very far from Plouk Commune where Mr. Sithan lives .
Finished in 2018, the Lower Sesan 2 dam construction was a major undertaking and cooperation between Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese owned firms. The project’s power stations were put into operation for power generation, with a total installed capacity of 400,000 kilowatts, and boosted Cambodia’s electricity production by 20 percent. Located in Sesan District, this hydropower dam extends its enormous services to Stung Treng , Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces.
But since the start of its construction, the Lower Sesan 2 dam has produced adverse consequences for local people as its presence became a roadblock for fish migration.
We traveled with Mr. Sithan and his son on their family fishing boats to Sesan river, where the wind freshened our faces and cooled us from the morning sun. Sitting on a large rock in the middle of the river, we could see other family boats drifting along the water practicing their daily hunting.
Mr. Sithan told us after the dam construction, Mekongina became even rarer as the fish migration is blocked by the dam.
“Mekongina fish right now is really difficult to hunt even in the middle of its season while other species can be found as usual,” he said.
Along with disrupting fish migrations, Mr. Sitha sees other problems with the hydropower dam. The unstable flow of water has become a major challenge for fishing communities downstream from the dam.
“[The] flow of the water became unstable and the level of water became unpredictable as well,” he explained.”
For fishers and local people, the river represents life and even slight changes in this precious resource will have major consequences on people’s livelihood and the balance of nature.
Solutions and community
Along with my conversations with local people, I had a discussion with Wonder Of the Mekong, a major project that aims to improve understanding, appreciation, and capacity to manage a functional and healthy Mekong River for fish, wildlife, and people. Wonder of the Mekong works with other NGOs and international institutes in many provinces in Cambodia that the river flows through.
Mr. Chhut Chheana, Wonders of the Mekong Communications Coordinator and author of many publications dedicated to fish life cycles, had a meaningful conversation with Focus regarding Mekongina’s issues and protection.
“Mekongina has many stories to tell and the issue within this species is difficult to solve in a short period of time,” Mr. Chheana said.
Working with Wonder of Mekong, Mr.Chheana has traveled to many places around the Mekong enough to understand these fish’s life cycle and other concerns that affect these species.
“The dam construction is just one of the main obstacles for the Mekongina cycle. Mekongina needs clear water, a lot of oxygen and food to live. It normally lives in the Mekong, Cambodia part, but travels to Laos during the spawning period,” Mr Chheana explained. “With such a migration road, the dam construction becomes a roadblock for their usual movement.”
But other major problems are facing Mekongina as well.
“Modern technology became fisher’s method of fishing, such as explosive or blast fishing, electro-fishing, and the most dangerous one currently is the use of noxious or poisonous substances.”
Mr, Chheana continued, “One more problem that also affects the fish route and their home is the trend among local people who grab flooded forests land and mark it as their farm.”
Because of these complex environmental and social issues, this species has become rare even in the middle of its season and, in just a few years, if the overfishing continues, the Mekongina will go extinct, Mr. Chheana said.
Mekongina overfishing is a major concern that requires time and effort to solve, but it can’t be done by a single person or even a small group of people.
“Stung Treng Fisheries Administration is working hard regarding Mekongina preservation, but the task is indeed difficult without citizens’ help,” Mr. Chheana said. “Currently we are working with other NGOs to promote and raise awareness regarding the issues. We also publish books and illustrations that allow children to learn about fish cycles. ”
Talking about how people can help, Mr. Chheana suggested a few solutions that we, as citizens, can do.
“What we need from people is that they should join in criticizing the illegal fisheries. This action is like emotional suppression on those who are committing illegal fishing. One more important thing for people living around flooded forests, please stop the land grabbing in those areas, otherwise, the loss of those flooding forests will affect every species in the river,” Mr. Chheana pleaded.
The river people have a strong connection with fishing and the river itself and the gifts that the precious Mekong brings are indescribable within a single picture. The story about the Mekong is deeply rooted in human beings.
The problems facing the Mekongina are just one of many other untold issues surrounding the Mekong river, all of which affect both people and the water. Stung Treng is among many provinces that the Mekong flows through but it is the one that allowed me to see fishers’ lives and the importance of freshwater fish. Mekongina may be an overpriced fish, but for the locals, this fish and all the other species that call the Mekong home, are vital to their income, their lives and the ecosystem that sustains them.
“For people who live close to the river, fish and the river are their life and without the river’s existence, we will be gone,” Mr. Sithan concluded.
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Focus Cambodia in English and Khmer on 3 May 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The Mekongina fish / Credit: Chhut Chheana, USAID.