Kampot Overnight Fishing

4.50pm - I’m standing next to Sal alongside the Kampot river waiting for the fleet of boats
to come past and collect us. Tonight we’re going fishing in the gulf of Thailand on one of Sal’s friends boats. For the  month and a half I have been in Kampot there has only been one constant, at around 5pm every day the fishing boats leave from the village upstream to catch fish on the ocean overnight. Working on the water most days I’m aware these people exist but I had to know exactly what happened on these boats every
single night of the week. Were there endless supplies of fish in the small
section of sea between Kampot and the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc? Were the
fisherman hostile towards each other? Was it all just actually a ruse for a
rave in another town? The answer to all these questions is a no, but most
alarmingly is how overfished and undersupplied these waters appeared to be.

Before we board the boat Sal tells me about a time last year where Vietnamese fisherman blockaded
the mouth of the river and kept the Cambodians away from the ocean at gunpoint,
so obviously there is stiff competition over the use of these waters. Further
out to sea the bigger boats also have to contend with the Thai as well as
Vietnamese boats. Thankfully the boat we will be boarding is only small and we
won’t be further than a few kilometres offshore, well within Cambodian waters.

5.10pm - The boats arrive in a convoy, and one veers over to collect us, I am not introduced to
either of the two men on the boats and they seem to have no interest in saying
hello or talking to me at all.  At first sight
there seem to be around 15 boats visible, with most of the fisherman being from
the same village, but as we journey further it becomes clear that this is no
small operation. Sal tells me that the first fishing boat came to his village
around 10 years ago and before that most of these men would have been rice or
mango farmers. Obviously fishing overnight seems like a much more appealing
option than working the fields as every day as there seems to be in excess of
20 boats heading down the river.

5.20pm - Six boats have now tied themselves together and only one person is left to steer as the rest of us sit down to share dinner.

5.40pm - We’re still in the river, I can count at least 25 boats in convoy now and most of the men are staring at me. Their looks aren’t overly friendly until I catch their eye and give them a smile and their teeth light up in response. Still only Sal is talking to me, I’m not sure if it’s a language barrier thing or if they aren’t happy to have me on the boat but it’s not overly welcoming. 

6pm - We’re finally at the river mouth and there are massive storm clouds at two spots on the horizon,  it could be a rocky night. The six boats in tandem have now split and will be making the rest of the journey solo. I can now count around 80 boats around us and towards Vietnam, I’m not sure how many have originated from Cambodia but it’s a concerning sight nevertheless. Sal tells me that there aren’t enough fish in the water for all of the boats but there isn’t any regulation to keep the numbers down so it appears if you have a boat you can go out and fish as much as you like.

Sal used to do this fishing job for a year before landing a job in Kampot working as a tour guide on the river. In the month or so that I’ve known him there’s only been a handful of times where I’ve seen him off his phone, given it’s the wet season there aren’t many tours to keep us occupied. It’s already fair to say that his current job is much better than working overnight on a boat, your mind might become a bit numb but at least it’s dry and you’re awake during the day.

7.10pm - The first net is thrown in. We will be trawling for an hour or so before pulling it up. 

8pm - Waiting. Sal is playing Plants vs Zombies and the man affectionately nicknamed Blackie for his darker than average complexion is watching a Thai movie on YouTube with no sound or captions. It’s now completely dark beyond the boat and all you can see is the twinkling of lights from the other boats in the area. There are so many boats that I genuinely can’t tell which way is land.

8.20pm - The first net pulled up. The drop of fish, crabs, squid and seaweed onto the deck is quite a sight but there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of prized catches. Sal and Blackie get on their hands and knees to sort through the mess. It becomes very obvious very quickly that they aren’t going to be throwing the small catch back, the only things going back overboard are seaweed and the occasional jellyfish. I ask why they don’t throw back the small fish to allow them to grow and re-catch them when they are bigger but I’m told that they have already been killed in the net so they may as well be kept.

9.20pm - First sort has been completed. Sal tells me that the catch is ‘not great but not good’ so we try again.

9.40pm - The boats seem to be having a Karaoke competition over the radio system, I am yet to hear anything resembling a tune.

10.10pm - Too much waiting

10.30pm - Second net up and sort started. Large lightning strikes are hitting around Bokor mountain.

11.10pm - The sorting is rather hypnotic to watch, each of the men has his own style and rhythm but there is something soothing about the way they work. That being said there is no way I could sit as they do for hours sorting through still wriggling fish and snapping crabs.

11.30pm - Second sort is completed. No fish of notable size are visible. At this point I can start to see the pattern of the night: net in, trawl, net out, sort, net in etc. I doze off, rising for the next two net hauls but mainly keeping myself entertained with Curb Your Enthusiasm on my phone and eating the pasties I brought along.

The rest of the night is a blur, until around 3.30am when I’m woken because we’re heading back to Kampot.

3.40am - We join with another boat and continue the sort. We seem to be ahead of the other boats thanks to Sal’s extra help. The lights that have been dotting the horizon all night get closer and we follow them back to town. The men seem noticeably less jovial than at the start of the night and are well and truly in work mode.

4.30am - We -arrive back in Kampot, one of the last boats to make it to the fish market. The word had spread quickly, the riverside road is sprinkled with locals on mopeds come to grab a bargain or to sell the weary fisherman a horribly over sweetened coffee. Obviously not all the boats on the ocean come back to Kampot but it’s still so busy that we have to dock five deep and jump across other boats to make it to land.

4.45am - It’s still dark but the carpark turned fishmarket is full of fisherman’s wives flogging off undersized fish as prospective buyers browse under torchlight and tip their purchases into large plastic bags.

I can’t see a way that they would be able to sell the quantity of young undersized crab and fish they pluck out of the ocean each night without resorting to nearly giving it away. Some of the fish are so small that you can barely justify them as baitfish. If this is happening all over Cambodia and South East Asia then it truly is worrying what they will be attempting to catch in another 10 years’ time. I didn’t intend to try and make an environmental statement or try to think differently when I set out on the boat, I was genuinely just curious as to what happens out at sea. But after seeing the result of a nights fishing, I really think that something needs to be done before all that these men will be pulling up from their nights efforts will be seaweed and jellyfish.

5am - I’ve had enough now. I walk home stinking of fish and cradling my sickly sweet coffee.

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