One year after lifting a decade-old ban on snakehead fish farming, the number of aquatic farms growing the fish remains surprisingly low, with the high cost of feeding them driving many away from what could otherwise be a very lucrative business.
Speaking as she feeds fresh fish to the fish swimming in her floating containers, Sok Kim, a catfish farmer in Prek Pnov district in northern Phnom Penh, said the snakehead fish is now in high demand across the city, but admits she cannot afford to farm them due to “how difficult it is to feed them”.
“I would love to join the business, but I can’t because it is just too expensive to buy commercial feed, and catching fish ourselves is illegal,” Mrs. Kim said.
Sok Tay, a fried fish vendor in Prek Pnov district, shared the same sentiment. The supply of snakehead fish for his business is low because farmers find it too difficult to obtain feed.
“Most of the fried fish I sell is catfish and tinfoil barb because they are easy to feed. Farmers can use cheaper processed foods to feed them,” said Mr Tay. “For snakehead fish, however, the price of feed is much higher.”
Last year the government allowed snakehead fish farming in the country, reversing a 10-year-old ban imposed to stop farmers from illegally fishing in lakes and ponds to obtain feed for their snakeheads. Such drastic measures were taken because illegal fishing was decimating fisheries across the country.
However, the prohibition made the country largely dependent on imports from neighbouring countries to satisfy rising demand for the snakehead fish.
While the ban was in place, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries sought to encourage farmers to register with their local fisheries administration, luring them with promises that they will receive technical training in aquaculture.
Thay Somony, the director of the Fisheries Administration’s Aquaculture Department, said some new snakehead fish farms have appeared since the ban was lifted.
“Officials are now working to register all the farms across the country,” he said.
Mr Somony said snakehead farmers can now use processed fish as feed, which, he said, should keep farmers away from engaging in illegal fishing.
“Now they can feed them with commercial fish feed which has high protein content, up to 40 percent higher,” Mr Somony said, acknowledging, however, that illegal fishing was still an issue.
“Although now we have commercial fish feed for the snakehead fish, we are still facing the problem of people illegally catching fish in areas of the Tonle Sap Lake and the Tonle Sap River,” Mr Somony said.
He said illegal fish imports from Vietnam continue because the country produces a surplus of the fish that cannot be absorbed by their own market. However, he lacked official figures on the subject.
Minh Bunly, a coordinator of the Tonle Sap programme at the Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), said farmers will continue to use illegally fished feed if they lack access to other alternatives.
“Commercial feed for snakehead fish should be made more affordable. If farmers cannot afford the cost of these products, they will turn to illegal fishing to obtain the fish they need,” Mr Bunly said.
“Buying processed feed can be very costly and can potentially ruin their humble businesses,” he added.
The ministry is working hard, however, to solve these issues as they seek to develop the local aquaculture sector, Mr Bunly said.
“Compared to neighbouring countries, we are behind, but we will focus our efforts on aiding the development of aquaculture in the country,” he said.
Demand for this kind of fish in the market remains high. But for some, this is not a concern.
Neang Rado, the owner of a wedding catering service in Takhmao city, said he does not care whether fish are imported or grown locally. His only concern is the price.
“Sellers always say they have imported fish to sell, but I don’t care about this. I choose the one with the lowest price,” Mr Rado said. “I just aim for the lowest price.”