“Turn the lights off soon, or people will see us,” the young fisherman said in a muted voice that was barely audible, even in the predawn quiet. The sky was moonless, and it was pitch-black at 3:30am on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. “We are in the conservation zone. If they catch us, we will be in trouble,” explained the fisherman.
To protect his identity, as fishing in restricted areas is punishable by a two-year jail sentence, he asked that Al Jazeera not reveal his name. The Tonle Sap is one of the world’s most productive freshwater fisheries and the main source of protein and fatty acids for Cambodia’s roughly 15 million inhabitants. The fact that fishermen are resorting to sneaking into the lake’s protected areas speaks of an alarming truth: the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s “beating heart”, is struggling to meet the demands of the country’s growing population. “Outside the conservation area there are no fish, so what should I do?” the fisherman asked rhetorically. The 28-year-old has been fishing in the Tonle Sap for more than a decade, and is well-aware of the lake’s ailing health.