Something’s fishy with prahok
This year’s prahok season has left a bad taste in the mouths of those involved in making the pungent dish that is a staple in Cambodian cuisine.
There are concerns that the vagaries in the mudfish catch, due to climate change and illegal exports to Vietnam, could seriously affect the small-scale home-based production of the fermented fish paste.
The fishing season for prahok that started in December just ended yesterday and there has been no shortage of the small mudfish used to make prahok paste – the most distinctive ingredient in Khmer cooking.
However this year, fish prices have been unusually high despite Kandal province recording above average catches compared with previous years.
It is during this season that the local mudfish species, called trey riel, finds its way in large numbers into the Tonle Sap river and many fish buyers travel to the riverbank at Kompong Loung commune, in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district, to buy the vital commodity.
Sitting on the banks of the Tonle Sap in Sangvar village cleaning her recently purchased mudfish, Sum Soeun complained about the high prices.
“Last year, I paid 1,400 riel [$0.35] for a kilogram of trey riel. This year, its 2,300 riel [$0.57] per kilogram,” Ms. Soeun, who traveled to Sangvar village from Kampong Speu province, told Khmer Times.
“Last year, I made 70 kilograms of prahok paste. This year, however, it seems I can only make 50 kilograms because I cannot afford to buy more prahok fish,” she added.
Like Ms. Soeun, Roeung Lanch, too, expressed his disappointment over the high prices.
“At first, I was happy to know that the catch of prahok fish had increased this fishing season,” he said.
“But when I traveled here from Kampong Chhnang to buy trey riel to make prahok fish paste, I was shocked. There are more fish, but the price is so high.”
Mr. Lanch said the high prices could be due to increased demand this year after the low prahok fish catch last year, due to the prolonged drought that caused the level of the Tonle Sap to drop to one of its lowest on record.
The 2015-16 El Niño weather phenomenon resulted in significantly less rainfall, warmer weather and delayed monsoon rains in Cambodia.
In early 2016, the government declared that 18 of Cambodia’s 25 provinces had been severely affected by drought, impacting 2.5 million people.
Om Savath, the executive director of the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), echoed Mr. Lanch’s comments.
“The bad drought early last year caused fish yields to decline drastically. It affected those making fermented fish paste,” he said.
“Now with the increased catch, those who missed out last year have quickly snapped up stocks and this has caused prices to increase fast.”
Nao Thouk, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), said the higher levels of the Tonle Sap in December contributed to the high yields of mudfish. But he also stressed that the ministry’s crackdown on illegal fishing had played a role in improving the catch of trey riel.
“The period for catching prahok fish is short and even if there is a large catch, they are bought up fast. This causes prices to rise,” said Mr. Thouk.
FACT’s Mr. Savath, however, disagreed.
“Logically, if there is a high catch, prices should come down. But this season, it’s ridiculously high.
“Traders of prahok fish are illegally exporting them to Vietnam for the manufacture of Vietnamese fish sauce, and this causes prices to skyrocket back home,” he told Khmer Times.
Mao Savuth, who runs a prahok fish wholesale business in Sangvar village, echoed Mr. Savath’s observations.
“Let me be frank about this,” he said. “If we just concentrate our prahok fish sales on the locals, we will not get much. I admit that wholesale sellers and fishermen are selling trey riel directly to the Vietnamese because they offer higher prices.”
MAFF’s Mr. Thouk said, however, that he was unaware of such a practice.
“I have no knowledge of Vietnamese traders offering higher prices for our prahok fish. We don’t allow exports to Vietnam. Before we export, we have to make sure our people have enough trey riel to make fermented fish paste.”
While home producers of prahok paste could see falling production this year, wholesalers like Mr. Savuth take joy in their windfall.
“This year my sales of fermented fish paste is good. I can sell out at about 7,000 riel [$1.75] per kilogram. It is good for business. Last year, the price was about 4,000 riel [$1] per kilogram.”
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