The Push to Save Tonle Sap Lake

The constant traffic that passes through Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake and the activity that happens around it are harming one of the planet’s most fruitful freshwater ecosystems. Fishermen are able to generate approximately 300,000 fish every year from this lake alone, but due to an increasingly intense dry season, overfishing and the destruction of mangrove forests surrounding the lake, Tonle Sap Lake’s future does not look promising.

Efforts to improve the Lake’s condition began in 2012 when researchers teamed up with local fishermen in an attempt to address the problem by creating a model that would examine the impact of past interactions between the Tonle Sap Lake and human traffic. The model also aimed to predict how different choices would positively impact the lake. Fishermen are vital to this project and have been responsible for recording the weights and species, and obtaining some of each fish’s DNA to give to the researchers.

However, one glaring flaw in the model is that it does not account for the rapidly increasing population growth in Cambodia. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of lakeside farmers swelled to 520,800 and the number of fishermen to 38,200, respectively a 33 percent increase and a 38 percent increase.  Researchers have also found that bigger fish populations such as catfish and Siamese carps are declining, because they are caught so often, while smaller fish populations are on the rise.

One of the main sources of controversy surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake concerns the large dams that are fixed upstream, as they epitomize the struggle between valuing electricity over food.  In a region where malnourishment afflicts around 40 percent of children, and the lake provides approximately 60 percent of Cambodia’s inland fish, it seems the choice of preserving the lake would be a priority.  Seriously considering removing the dams, however, is not feasible.

While the fishermen themselves cannot prevent global warming or remove the dams, their individual decisions can have a positive impact.  Whether that means trying to fish in different areas of the lake or trying to catch different kinds of fish in order to help the existing biodiversity, in the wake of inevitable change, adapting new lifestyle and food-catching methods is vital to the survival of the lake that has provided Cambodia with food for centuries.

Jordyn Horowitz

Sources: New York Times, WCS, One Earth, National Geographic