Two associations have made a fresh call for a government clampdown on the smuggling of frozen fish overland from Thailand, especially of varieties that are produced domestically.
The Cambodia Safe Fish, Meat and Vegetables Association (CSFMVA) and the Cambodian Aquaculturist Association (CAA) have warned that many aquaculture farmers could quit the trade if the daily inflow of these fish remains unchecked.
A considerable portion of these are “pra” (shark catfish of genera such as Helicophagus, Pangasianodon and Pangasius, though most commonly Pangasius djambal), “kranh” (the climbing perch or Anabas testudineus), “chhpeun” (cyprinid fish of the Hypsibarbus genus, typically Hypsibarbus malcolmi) and “andeng” (non-shark catfish of genera such as Clarias, Plotosus and Heteropneustes).
Traders bring tonnes of these frozen fish into Cambodia from Thailand and Vietnam each day through the various border crossings, which are for the most part dried or fermented into pastes such as “pha’ak” or “mam”.
Sok Yorn, vice-president of the Siem Reap province-based CSFMVA, told The Post on November 11 that a substantial amount of the frozen fish enters Cambodia through “Long Koeu” – a local appellation for the Thai side of the Poipet-Aranyaprathet border area, based on the name of the famous Rong Kluea Market – especially “pra”, although a fair share is also brought in from Vietnam.
In Thailand, “pra” fish are bred exclusively to be processed into animal feed and are forbidden for consumption, according to Yorn.
No stranger to Cambodians’ penchant for jerky and fermented pastes made from “pra”, traders cash in on the rock-bottom prices and smuggle the shark catfish into Cambodia, he said.
He stressed that imports were driving down prices of local “pra” fish, which have dipped to around 4,400 riel ($1.10) per kilogramme. “But with imported fish selling for just 3,700 riel, people are buying those instead.”
A decent number of local aquaculture farmers have become discouraged as they fail to match up to Thai and Vietnamese frozen fish imports, he lamented.
CAA president Sok Raden told The Post that the association is waiting for the relevant authorities to take action on the import of unauthorised fish species.
"When it comes to ‘pra’ fish, traders can slip them in through the border and we wouldn’t be able to fend them off, as they could move them at night or the wee hours of the morning, but we expect that a probe could bring a swift end and avert harsher repercussions for domestic farmers,” he said.
Hang Heang, a “pra” fish farmer in Takeo province, shared that sentiment, underlining that cheap frozen imports gravely undermine the viability of local producers.
"Now and again I want to give up fish breeding. There’s times when I’ve raised a batch but there’s no buyers, and when it comes time to sell, I make but a meagre sum due to the floods of fish imports,” he said.
Ung Try, deputy director of the Fisheries Administration (FA) under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, noted that there are no fisheries officials on standby at any of the border checkpoints.
But for the time being, fisheries officials can step up checks on whether frozen fish imports have the permits and quality certifications required to circulate on the market, he said.
“The FA always keeps an eye out for aquaculture and urges increased farmed fish production for domestic supply as we try to seek more markets for them,” Try said, adding that the administration has helped push for quality imports.
Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon noted that any action on the matter would rest with customs offices along the border, citing a new sub-decree concerning the import of frozen items that the Ministry of Economy and Finance recently submitted to the government.
“Most importantly, it hinges on these associations having the courage to speak out,” he told The Post.
“If they stay silent, things will remain difficult – the associations have to make a splash and express concerns, fears and the like."
On March 18, the agriculture ministry asked the top political leaders to impose a rule that obliges fish traders to buy no less than 50 per cent of their products from local farmers.