Transboundary fish trade in the Lower Mekong Basin: Impacts on fisheries and rural employment in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand

This research project will analyze changes in the transboundary trade in fish between Stung Treng, Champassak and Ubon Ratchathani. By following the fish market chain, this study will seek to understand changes in catch figures, fishing techniques, fish stocks, species composition, trading channels, consumer preferences, fisheries regulatory frameworks and enforcement over time. It will also seek to determine the number of people who are in some way employed in this transboundary trade. Studying these topics will enable researchers to make recommendations on how to protect fisheries, the fish trade and livelihoods.

Partnering institutions

Countries covered

Stung Treng Cambodia, Champasak Lao PDR and Ubonratchathani Thailand

Vision and mission

Over the last 15 years, the construction of roads and bridges between Stung Treng, Champassak and Ubon, have made travel between the three provinces very efficient. Ease of transport coupled with widespread mobile phone use means that fishers and traders can negotiate fish prices, place orders and then ship fish across borders with little difficulty. Often fish are caught in Stung Treng, shipped via Champassak (where additional fish enter the trade) to Ubon Ratchatani.

This transboundary trade is under-studied and under-regulated, in part, due to the difficulty of tracking a trade in a resource that follows transboundary flows in nature. If, for example, Cambodia bans exportation of fish from Stung Treng to Laos (as it did temporarily in 2006), this attempt to protect the Stung Treng fishery may be ineffective if fishers at Siphandone are overfishing.

Regulation of the complex and transboundary fish trade requires international cooperation and it is unlikely that effective regulations can be designed until there is a better understanding of the trade, market and fisheries.

There is increasing pressure on Mekong fisheries (from growing market demands, as well as hydropower and irrigation development) and anecdotal evidence indicates that the Siphandone and Stung Treng fisheries are suffering. The result is that the livelihoods of fishers and fish traders, as well as the food security of the many Cambodians, Thais and Lao who rely on fish for much of their protein intake is threatened. Research on fisheries and trade in fish is needed to assist policy makers in developing policies that sustain fisheries and thus livelihoods.

This transboundary trade has been studied before, however, the majority of these studies is nearly 10 years old and focus primarily on the Champassak portion of this trade. Because Champassak is the center point in this trade, studies that focus on it are likely quite revealing. However, to date, there have been no studies that look at the transboundary trade through field work in all three countries, and this is a major gap. Using data from previous studies as a baseline, this study will provide a market chain analysis as well as determining the number of people employed in this sector in the three countries.

While studies on this transboundary trade are limited, studies on employment in fishing and trading within this transboundary market are even more limited. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that once one accounts for fishers, fish processors, net makers, market sellers, traders, fish farmers etc., an enormous number of people in Stung Treng, Champassak and Ubon are in some way employed in this sector. When making an argument to policy makers at the end of this study for what governments must do to protect fisheries and this trade, it is powerful to say why this resource and trade must be protected and what local people can do support these conservation efforts. Being able to produce evidence of the number of rural people employed in this sector will provide a strong argument (especially when compared to the cost of developing rural jobs, a main component of each country’s development plans) to policy makers for protecting the fisheries and associated jobs.

The ultimate vision of this project is therefore for the livelihoods’ of people involved in fishing and the fish trade to be improved over time. The mission is to provide relevant policy makers with information that will help them recognize both the direct and indirect benefits of fishing and the transboundary fish trade in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand so that they will implement policies that protect fisheries, trade in fish and people who rely on the fish trade for their livelihood. Through partnering/working with government fisheries institutes in all three countries as well as MRC from the onset of the project, the research team is well positioned to reach policy makers in all three countries.

Boundary partners

The following national level policy makers will be targeted:

  1. In all 3 countries: National Mekong Committees
  2. In Cambodia: Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Fisheries: Fisheries Administration (FiA), Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute (IFReDI)
  3. In Lao PDR: Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry: Department of Livestock and Fisheries (DLF), National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI), Living Aquatic Resources Research Center (LARReC)
  4. In Thailand: Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Department of Fisheries, Freshwater Fishery Division

This project will also seek to influence policy implementers. These local and provincial level authorities implement and sometimes influence policies. They include:

  1. Local level: community fisheries organizations; kum ban councils (Lao PDR), village councils (Thailand) and commune councils (Cambodia)
  2. Provincial level: Stung Treng, Champassak and Ubon provincial offices of all national level departments listed above.

Finally, this project will target the following policy influencers

  1. International NGOs : IUCN, FAO, UNEP, WorldFish, WWF, WCS,(Oxfam)
  2. Local NGOs: NGO Forum (Cambodia); PADETC (Lao PDR); Raks Thai (Thailand)
  3. Mekong River Commission
  4. Academic Institutions: National University of Laos; Royal University of Phnom Penh; Ubon University and Mahasarakam University in Thailand.

Another important boundary partner is local people in all three countries. Researchers will work directly with local people during field work and they will be the source of most information collected during research. During the 18 month time frame of the project, work will focus on influencing policy makers. Local people will likely be impacted once the project has come to a close. Once the findings and policy recommendations that come out of the project reach policy makers, it will likely be at least a few more months before policy makers start taking steps to change fishing/fish trade policies or improve enforcement of old policies. New/newly enforced policies will likely impact the fishing and trading practices of local people. These new practices will support sustainable management of the fisheries and help ensure the smaller fishers/traders stay in business.


The purpose of this project is to use research to support policies that will result in sustainable management of Mekong River resources that local people rely on. The goal of this project is to assess the impact of the transboundary fish trade on livelihoods in the three countries – Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Thailand. It will do so primarily by investigating the various forms of employment in the fisheries sector. This project will seek to meet the following specific objectives:

  1. To understand all steps in the market chain of trans-boundary fish trade in Stung Treng, Champassak and Ubon;
  2. To identify major stakeholders, beneficiaries, employments and constraints of fish marketing and the transboundary fish trade.
  3. To determine the effect of fisheries and fish trade on employment; and
  4. To give recommendations to policy makers for improving fish marketing and transboundary trade, livelihood activities and income of local people.


Because this project will investigate a market chain, fish resources, livelihoods and the legal framework governing this transboundary trade, an interdisciplinary research approach is required.
The field work will include a market chain and trade analysis, a livelihood and employment analysis and an analysis of fisheries sustainability indicators. The methodology for each category of analysis is outlined below:

Market chain and trade analysis

A fish market chain and trade analysis is critical to investigating the fish supply chain and distribution channels in the course of which numerous transactions take place before fish and fish products reach the consumer or export market. Throughout fish distribution channels in the region, wholesalers and middlemen play a very important role in linking producers and consumers. Therefore, research methods in market chain and trade analysis will take an approach that will vertically integrate all the agents and stakeholders at each level of exchange. The research will specifically identify:

  • All actors and their function, input, output, controls, and mechanism
  • The effect of market chain and trans-boundary fish trade on employment benefits of market chain and trains-boundary fish trade to fishers and local people

A) Livelihood analysis

Livelihoods analyses will be carried out in parallel, focusing on the vulnerabilities of the various stakeholders who interact directly and indirectly in the market chain and the trans-boundary fish trade. Specific attention will then be given to understanding the key capabilities and assets of each actor and the strategies they use for diversifying their sources of household income and nutrition (Ellis, 2000). Research activities will include:

  • Direct individual interview with key stakeholders, and households (key informant interview--KII) by using structured questionnaire,
  • Focus group discussion (FGD) by using semi-structured questionnaire.
  • Meeting with local authority, officers and people by using semi-structured questionnaire

B) Fisheries sustainability indicators

A framework for developing key fisheries sustainability indicators will be adapted from Recklies, 2001, ensuring the maintenance of competitive advantage and viable fish stocks. Activities will include:

  • Policies/regulations and development strategies for market chain and trans-boundary fish trade and sustainable fisheries development.

SWOT analysis for market chain and trans-boundary fish trade and strategic sustainable development of fisheries. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This study will do a SWOT analysis of the market chain by looking at existing policy, evolution of the fish trade over time, and changes in catch, fish species and price over time.

Data collection

i) Study area

This study will be conducted in three provinces, namely, Stung Treng (Cambodia), Champasak (Lao PDR) and Ubonrachatani (Thailand). Stung Treng and Champassak contain some of the major fisheries of the Lower Mekong Region. Fish that pass through Stung Treng and Siphandone (Champasak) migrate all over the region and are traded between Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand.

ii) Sample selection

Field observation and discussions with the chief of provincial fisheries in Stung Treng province of Cambodia indicated that the sample selection can follow a similar model in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand.