For Lao fishermen, there is simply not enough fish to catch anymore

Bounthan Vonglachit tries to eke out a living catching fish, using simple methods. He switches between fishing and prawn-catching, depending on the season.
PHOTO: Vientiane Times/Asia News Network

In the early morning when the sun is still hiding behind the hills and clouds, the Mekong is shrouded in mist so it’s not easy to see things on the river. But a small boat can be seen moving slowly along the riverbank, although it’s not immediately clear what the boatman’s intentions are.

A small roof covers the stern of the narrow wooden craft, but it’s just big enough to sleep under and protect the boatman from the rain.

Conversation reveals that this is Bounthan Vonglachit, 60, who has spent most of his life fishing in the Mekong around Luang Prabang.

In his childhood, Luang Prabang was not the popular tourist destination that it is today; it was a sleepy town where life moved slowly.

Most people lived alongside the river, eking out a living from fishing and the vegetables they grew in the fertile soil.

Vonglachit’s family were fishermen but this work did not bring in any money for them at that time because everyone else was doing the same thing.

Fishing was a commonplace daily activity. The men would set their nets in the evening and check their catch in the morning.

As the years passed, things changed in Luang Prabang, especially for people living along the river. They started growing vegetables and fishing in order to make money rather than just for personal consumption, but this has become harder and harder, year by year.

Today, the riverbanks are still green but there are fewer vegetable plots because growers aren’t able to get the same yields as before.

The river level fluctuates more sharply than in the past due to the hydropower dam that has been built upstream.

The number of fish has also dwindled, for various reasons. Some fishermen have taken to using electrical devices to kill fish in large numbers, or poisoning them.

Life is not so easy for people living along the river and many fishermen have had to give up their old ways.

But Vonglachit has persisted, and his decades of experience have taught him how to survive.

He said fish catches are small at the end and beginning of the year, but it’s a good time to catch prawns.

Vonglachit learnt how to do this from a relative who had visited Champassak province and seen the method that was used there.

He brought back a modified drinking water bottle to demonstrate how the prawns were trapped. The bottle is cut at the neck and a collar of plastic is turned inwards. Prawns enter the bottle, attracted by the padaek (fermented fish) that has been placed inside as bait, and are then trapped because they cannot get out past the protruding ring of plastic.

Vonglachit ties about 20 specially prepared bottles onto a length of string.

Every day at 4pm, he sets off on his boat and must finish putting in the bait before it gets dark.

In the early morning, Vonglachit will probably be the first person out on the river checking his catch.

There aren’t many other people catching prawns so it’s not difficult to sell them and he can earn 45,000 kip (S$7) to 55,000 kip (S$8.70) per kilo.

On some days, he pulls out less than a kilo from the river when it’s cold, but if the weather is good he can get 4kg to 5kg.

The prawn season finishes at the end of January because it’s too cold then and it’s also the breeding season, so Vonglachit returns to fishing.

He can catch the biggest fish from July to November when the water is high and not so clear.

But catching big fish using a simple net is not as easy as it once was and he often returns home with an empty basket.

On other days, he gets lucky. Not long ago, he netted four big fish weighing about 6kg each, which he sold for 60,000 kip (RM29) per kilo.

We asked Vonglachit what he thought about some of the methods that other fishermen are using.

Looking sad, he told us firmly that fish stocks have become depleted compared to the past because people catch them to sell and want to make as much money as possible. In order to increase the size of their catch, they use simple devices that electrocute fish in large numbers. The law forbids this but the fishermen take no notice.

“I don’t want to resort to this method because fishing is just a daily activity as far as I’m concerned and it’s part of my lifestyle. I enjoy using simple equipment to catch fish even though some days I don’t get enough to sell.”

He said that a year ago a fisherman in a neighbouring village was killed while attempting to use a fish stunner.

Vonglachit doesn’t know to what extent dams are affecting fish stocks but he does know that since a large dam was built upstream there have been far fewer fish and other aquatic wildlife in the river and, when the water level is very high, he is unable to use his nets.