Fish are a vital resource for nutrition and commerce in Cambodia. In rural communities, access to fish has been a way of life for generations, but in many communities, access is changing. The Sre Ambel River system in southern Cambodia is an example of the challenges caused by changes in many communities in Southeast Asia. The combination of increased population, habitat modification, increased pressure on natural fisheries stocks, and decreased access to natural water bodies result in food insecurity and decreased access to traditional nutritive fish resources. Governments are limited in their ability to adapt, largely because they are understaffed and under-budgeted to deal with rapidly changing rural regions. Population dynamics of freshwater fish species are often poorly understood, and as a result, changes in fisheries over time go undocumented, in turn meaning that the success of corrective actions to reduce fishing pressure cannot be determined. Further, this makes it difficult for rural communities to voice concern at the government level. Thus, improving resilience in wild-capture fisheries is a global challenge, especially in species-rich tropical rivers such as those in Southeast Asia.
Leveraging on ongoing efforts to improve fisheries governance in the Sre Ambel River, our multidisciplinary team seeks to bridge management of natural fisheries with food processing, to create an innovative model for community-based sustainable management of tropical riverine fisheries that can be scaled to other species-rich tropical rivers in Asia, Africa, and South America, where food security is a concern. To complement current efforts by the U. S. Forest Service and Wildlife Conservation Society to establish a Community Fisheries Council and subsistence aquaculture in the Sre Ambel River, our research will focus on two objectives:
- Improve sustainable fisheries management by assessing changes in the existing fishery through the development of a citizen science harvest assessment program. This tool will empower the Community Fisheries Council to assess future changes in the existing fishery.
- Educate and train villagers in standardized food processing and preservation techniques to reduce fish waste.
Access to fisheries harvest data from Objective 1 and nutrient profile data of wild-caught fish and composition and sensory quality of fish products from Objective 2, will enable future adaptive management of natural fisheries (e.g., shifts in target species to enhance human nutrition while at the same time allow for recovery of overharvested populations).
To accomplish these broad objectives, local villagers will be trained to manage and adapt to changing conditions. The first objective will be addressed through the development of portable visual fisheries identification keys of the primary species of concern to regional fishers and training of local fishers in the use of systematic harvest assessment techniques, collection of baseline fisheries data, and basic fisheries data analyses to identify present and future trends in the resource. The second objective will be met through assessment of food processing preferences and capabilities of local villagers, comparison of different food processing techniques, implementation of consumer panels using processed fish products, and completion of training workshops on methods. Principal outcomes will be the building of individual and institutional capacity for resilience through training of villagers and two Cambodian graduate students, and the development of the skills necessary to manage fisheries resources and process fish in order to provide a more sustainable supply of nutrition when harvest is low or out of season. Women and youth already play important roles in Cambodian fishing communities, and a broad cross-section of society will be sought in programs to foster gender equality by advancing women's technical skills and economic power of women. An integrated research-based model for rural communities to adapt to changing inland fisheries challenges will be developed through partnership between academic, nongovernment community organizing entities and government agencies.