The early season for catching fish to make prahok, Cambodia’s signature fermented fish paste that is a hallmark of the national cuisine, will end on December 29.

Anyone who missed out on making prahok and smoked fish in this first seasonal phase need not despair, as fisheries officials estimate that by mid-January, the fish suitable for making prahok will be available in larger numbers once again.

Ouch Vutha, the director of the Fisheries Department under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, told The Post on December 27 that in two days hence the Ronoch days would arrive.

Ronoch days mark the waning moon in the lunar cycle, lasting 15 days from the full moon (December 29 this cycle). The lunar calendar is an important part of traditional Cambodian culture, a trait shared with many other cultures found in Southeast and East Asia.

During the first 15 days of January, fish will not migrate from the Tonle Sap Lake into the Tonle Sap River and then downstream to the Mekong River in significant numbers.

“Normally, in the Ronoch half-month, there are very few fish available to catch, but on the fifth or sixth day of the cycle of the waxing moon next month there will be plenty of fish to catch to make prahok with once again.

“If you missed your chance in the early fishing season, don’t lose hope. You’ll get another chance to catch fish for prahok soon,” he said.

However, people from some remote areas in Kandal, Kampong Speu and Takeo provinces have complained that the price of fish to make prahok this year is too high.

At fish markets in Kandal and Phnom Penh, the price for the two to three species of fish that are traditionally used to make prahok has risen to a range of 3,500 riel to 5,500 riel per kg, which is twice as expensive as in 2019.

The high price of the fish made some people think twice about trying to buy fish to make prahok during the early season.

Some of them decided to just go back to their home empty-handed. And some held off from buying for now out of hope that the prices would lower again in the late season.

Others decided to return for the late season, but with more money saved up and in their pockets, relying more on their ability to plan ahead and focusing on the things they can control, like their budget and savings.

Ouch Channy, a 55-year-old woman from Kampong Speu province, told The Post that she and her husband decided not to buy fish to make prahok this time around due to the high prices.

“We’ve saved 500,000 riel to buy fish for making prahok this season, but with the fish’s price being so high we decided not to buy for now and to wait for the new cycle that will come in the middle of January 2021,” she said.

Kim Neang, 52, owner of a Tonle Sap dai fishing business in Chraing Chamreh I commune in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district, told The Post on December 27 that fish price depends on the amount of fish caught by local fishermen.

“On December 20-23, I could catch an average of 3.5 tonnes of fish per 24 hours,” he said.

He added that during that time, the price of the fish used for prahok was 3,000 riel to 3,500 riel per kg.

“But now, I can only catch 800kg in 24 hours. So as the rarity of the fish is increasing, you see their price is increasing accordingly,” he said.

He also complained that in recent years, his fishing business has not been profitable due to a large drop in the size of the fish population.

He recalled that during past seasons, he used to catch between five to eight tonnes of the fish used for prahok in just 24 hours.

However, he is trying to remain optimistic about the fishing business and sticking with it as it had been his parents’ business for more than 30 years.

According to Neang, the ongoing decline in natural freshwater fish production from year to year is partly due to climate change. It is causing rapid changes to the Mekong River ecosystem that the fish and other animals are unable to adapt to quickly enough to survive.

Another major problem directly causing the number of fish in the rivers to decline is illegal fishing and over-fishing, with large scale fishing operations that ignore quotas and rules about where and when they can catch fish.

Worse still, they use illegal tools and methods, such as huge nets that catch everything in the water indiscriminately or nets equipped with electric current running through them that stun or kill any fish that go near them.