Report of Experts Meeting on Mekong Cooperation on Fisheries, Aquatic Resources and Wetland: 20-Year Lessons Learnt
The Mekong River is one of the richest and most diverse rivers in terms of aquatic resources and bio-diversity, second only to Amazon River. However, to sustainably manage the utilization of the resources in the Mekong River is a major challenge as there are threats and opportunities as well. While providing livelihoods to people throughout the Mekong River Region and hosting the build-up of human societies, the Mekong River and its resources are also linked to the floodplains, wetlands and related habitats in the Lower Mekong Basin. For peoples in the Southeast Asian region, their basic diet and food security is “Rice and Fish, Fish and Rice”. Early cultures, such as the one developed with center in present day Cambodia during the Angkor Period (ca 800-mid 1300s), had been built around a sophisticated wetland management system that balanced the benefits of the wet season with floods and of the dry season with less water. Annual seasonal change with pronounced wet/rainy season and long dry season is a feature unique to the Mekong River Region. However, disruptions in the flood regime, which are man-made or natural, have affected the productivity of the Mekong River Region including the availability of fish and other aquatic resources. “Everybody” in rural areas of the Mekong River Basin is in one way or another, involved in activities related to catching fish and other aquatic animals although at different intensity depending on the location and time of the year, as well as in harvesting other wetland products, since a rice farming family could also be engaged in fishing depending on the season. A study in the mid 1990s in Lao PDR indicated that fish and frogs taken together was by far the country’s most important “non-timber forestry products”. Looking therefore at the consumption patterns of peoples in this Region, it could be gleaned that “all” people eat fish and other wetland products, as source of their much needed animal protein. Given the large numbers of people involved in catching fish and other aquatic products, catch or production estimates based on “catches” do not usually match the actual levels of fish being caught for consumption and processing. In an attempt to get a more accurate figure, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in cooperation with other organizations had been making estimates based on the consumption pattern and level of consumption. Recent estimates by the MRC indicated that more than 3,000,000 metric tons of fish and aquatic products are harvested annually with aquaculture production increasingly adding to this total production. In order to get a picture of the total value and importance of fisheries in the Mekong River Region, it is also necessary to add the production of aquatic plants (e.g. Chinese water spinach also known as kang kong in many Southeast Asian countries) which to a large extent are harvested and marketed outside of any statistically system. In addition, estimates should be made of the most important wetland plant, which is rice. Several attempts had therefore been made to estimate the “values” of the aquatic products provided by the Mekong River but all of them fell short of getting close to any accurate figure as there are just not enough information to be inputted into any valuation models. Shortage of information is especially evident when it comes to products of importance to poorer people such as smaller fish species, crabs, frogs, snails, aquatic plants, and other aquatic animals. Furthermore, information on the values added and supplementary incomes of rural people through sales of traditional (wetland) products (such as dried, fermented fish and other processed products) is very limited. Assessment of the importance and values should also include those aspects that make reference to the adaptive capacity to live with the large fluctuations of climate variability and seasonal variation (dry and wet season dynamics), a dominating feature of the Mekong River Region. In order to work towards long-term sustainability, it is therefore crucial to ensure the interconnectivity throughout the River system and to keep fish migration paths open. Moreover, it is also necessary to define and protect the conservation areas by securing deep pools and dry season refuges for fish and other aquatic animals. A major constraint in the management of fisheries and wetlands as well as in building upon the benefits of annual floods is centered on the fact that all maps for “development” planning had been based on dry season picture of the River’s water coverage. With extensive filling-up of rice fields and other wetlands in the floodplains for urban development, housing estates, industrial estates and other purposes, the normal although productive floods in the Mekong Region had also become a problem. Nonetheless, experiences on opportunities and challenges had been gained through a broad range of initiatives of regional, sub-regional or local nature, experiences that are both positive and negative, that in combination would provide a rich source of reference for the sustainability of the Mekong resources and supporting the importance of dynamic seasonal aquatic fluctuations in the River system. Important initiatives include those programs implemented by the Mekong River Commission (MRC Environment and Fisheries Programs), the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) Aqua Outreach Program, WWF (Living with the floods, community fisheries in Lao PDR), ICLARM/WorldFish Center (Mekong Wetlands Approach, Valuation of Wetlands and Aquatic Resources, Fish Migration Dynamics) as well as those by the IUCN/GEF Mekong Biodiversity, FAO, ADB, among others. Based on the experiences gained from these initiatives, indications and recommendations could be drawn in order to strengthen the sustainable utilization of the Mekong (living) aquatic resources for the benefit of peoples, especially the rural people who are more directly dependent on the fish and other aquatic resources in the Mekong River system. Nevertheless, the lack of “institutional memory” and limited references being made to earlier projects and programs misses the opportunity to advance efforts to sustain the use of aquatic resources and to improve the well-being of peoples dependent on fish and other aquatic products (including aquatic plants). Projects and activities are often developed that duplicate and repeat earlier actions – including those that have met with limited success (and failures). The continued and growing interest in the Mekong River Region, its resources and its people calls for a gathering of a group of resource persons involved in earlier initiatives related to resource utilization, the aquatic environment and in support of communities dependent on fisheries and aquatic resources of the Region. With selected resource persons and other technical persons with interest in fisheries in the Mekong River Region participating, the Experts Meeting on Mekong Cooperation on Fisheries, Aquatic Resources and Wetlands: 20-year Lessons Learnt was convened in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on 12-14 November 2014. Organized by SEAFDEC in cooperation with the Fisheries Administration of Cambodia and the MRC Fisheries Programme with funding support from the SEAFDEC-Sweden Project, the Experts Meeting was meant to recapture some of the lessons learnt and to provide indications for steps ahead on the Mekong River fisheries, aquatic resources and wetland management – with focus on strengthening the socio-economic conditions of people dependent on such resources. The past experiences and lessons learnt from previous activities in the Mekong River Region would also be relevant to the development of other similar areas in the Southeast Asian region, and comprise an important reference for the new SEAFDEC Department, the Inland Fishery Resources Development and Management Department (IFRDMD) based in Palembang, Indonesia. In order to generate information from the participants on the key aspects relevant to fisheries, aquatic resources, wetlands/aquatic environment and social well-being among rural communities in the Mekong River Region, the Experts Meeting was structured around six “thematic clusters”, namely: (1) Regional and Bi-lateral Agreements on the Sustainable Development and Use of Natural Resources in the Mekong River; (2) Assessment of Mekong Productivity and Production; (3) Valuation of Fisheries, Aquatic Resources and Wetlands in the Mekong River Basin; (4) Social/Gender Aspects: Rights and Responsibilities; (5) Environmental Focus: Mitigating Lost Inter-connectivity, Wetland Quality Deterioration, Water Quality, Over-coming Effects of Infrastructures – Plans for Integrated Water Resources Management; and (6) Climate Variability and Climate Change. After the discussions of the thematic clusters during the Experts Meeting, the sets of recommendations were adopted that could be used as reference in crafting the direction towards the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River Region. In addition, the Experts Meeting identified the areas where countries, concerned agencies and organizations could collaborate to ensure the sustainability of inland fisheries, and its contribution to livelihood, food security and economic development of the Lower Mekong Basin. Collaboration could also be extended as applicable, to other inland fishery habitats of the Southeast Asian region.
SEAFDEC. 2015. Report of the Experts Meeting on Mekong Cooperation on Fisheries, Aquatic Resources and Wetlands: 20-Year Lessons Learnt (Full Report with PowerPoint Presentations), 12-14 November 2014, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, Bangkok, Thailand. 155 pp.