Pum Sitha, director of the Fisheries Administration (FiA) director, provided an in-depth explanation of fishing activities on the Tonle Sap Lake at a February 28 press conference.

The conference, held at the headquarters of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, was organised to allay the fears of some misinformed members of the public, who caused an outcry on social media by alleging that illegal fishing activities were widespread on the like.

Sitha explained the legality of the barricades and nets at the heart of the imagined controversy, which centred around the "Kanlok Bay Ka'aek" area of Kampong Thom province’s Phat Sanday commune, in Kampong Svay district.

The conference followed a ministry press release a day earlier, which failed to satisfy the curiosity of the public. 

Sitha said the arrow-shaped fish traps displayed on social media were not illegal and have been used by local fishing communities for many years.

He added that while they were originally made from bamboo or reeds, but as technology has advanced, lighter nets are now employed.

“They no longer use the bamboo barricades which people shared images of. As they are not maintained, fish can easily pass through them. The arrow shaped traps were originally in place to force fish into the traps, but that is all,” he added.

He noted that the barricades were in place in 2010, when the government allocated fisheries to local communities and designated others for conservation purposes. The photographs that were shared were of one community’s fishing equipment, all of it in one small corner of the Tonle Sap – the largest freshwater lake in Asia.

“Let me it absolutely clear, the bamboo barricades are not illegal,” he added.

Agriculture ministry spokesman Khim Finan said the arrow-shaped traps that were shared on social media were only found near Kanlok Bay Ka'aek, rather than throughout the lake.

“The images that were widely shared were taken from angles which didn’t show the true location. This is why some social media users misunderstood, and believed the whole Tonle Sap was full of fish traps and nets,” he added.

He explained that Kanlok Bay Ka'aek is a shallow bay, and technically part of the flooded forest, rather than the lake itself. During the dry season, the water is very shallow, which suits the fishing equipment depicted.

“This equipment would not be suitable for use in the deep parts of the lake, another reason to understand that the social media posts were incorrect,” he added.

He said the commune is home to 1,900 families, or about 6,000 people, 90 per cent of whom are fishermen. Each family is responsible for one net, and they generally earn from 70,000 to 80,000 riel per day ($17.50 to $20).

“This not illegal commercial equipment, but the legitimate nets of small-scale local fishermen,” he explained.

He added that the residents had no land to farm, and depended entirely on fishing for their livelihoods. 

Finan said the traditional fishing nets are subject to strict regulations, with regular inspections by local authorities ensuring that no excessive sizes are employed.

Ministry spokesman Im Rchna explained that the ministry has compiled a detailed digital map of each of the fixed pieces of fishing equipment on the lake.

“On our map, over 3,500 pieces of equipment and the names of their owners are listed. We can open the map and click on any piece of equipment and determine its owner, as well as how long it has been in use. This data makes it far easier to manage the lake’s fisheries,” she added.