Course:CONS200/2023WT2/Do fish conservation zones work in the Mekong River?

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Mekong River Basin
Mekong River Basin

The Mekong River, a trans-border river located in East Asia and Southeast Asia, is one of the world's most biodiverse freshwater ecosystems and sustains millions of people across six countries in Southeast Asia. Amidst increasing pressures from overfishing, habitat degradation, and hydropower development, the establishment of fish conservation zones has emerged as one strategy for safeguarding fish populations and supporting the socio-economic well-being of local communities.

Fish Conservation Zones (FCZs)

Fish Conservation Zones (FCZs) are a type of water-protected area that typically prohibits fisheries and other activities. In the context of the mainstream of the Mekong River, FCZs are defined as "fish sanctuaries" or "no-fishing zones" that operate year-round or part of the year[1].

History of FCZs

The history of Fish Conservation Zones (FCZs) traces back to the growing recognition of the need to protect fish populations and aquatic ecosystems from overexploitation and habitat degradation. Indigenous communities have historically practiced forms of resource management, including establishing areas where fishing is restricted or prohibited during certain times of the year to allow fish stocks to replenish[2]. However, the specific focus on fish conservation emerged more prominently in recent decades, particularly in response to escalating threats facing freshwater ecosystems[3]. With the rise of environmental awareness globally in the latter half of the 20th century, concerns over habitat destruction, pollution, and overfishing prompted governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and scientists to advocate for the establishment of protected areas specifically aimed at conserving fish and aquatic biodiversity[4].

The development of fisheries management became increasingly evident as industrial fishing and aquaculture practices grew[5]. Governments began adopting policies and regulations to control fishing activities and mitigate the impacts of overfishing on fish populations and their habitats[6]. In response to the decline of fish stocks, FCZs emerged as a specific strategy within fisheries management to protect critical habitats and allow fish populations to recover[7]. Scientific research provided evidence of the effectiveness of protected areas in conserving fish populations and promoting ecosystem resilience[8]. Studies on marine reserves and freshwater sanctuaries demonstrated their ability to increase fish biomass, enhance biodiversity, and support the recovery of threatened species[9].

Recognizing the importance of local knowledge and community engagement, many FCZ initiatives involve collaboration between governments, NGOs, scientists, and local communities[10]. Co-management approaches empower communities to participate in decision-making and take responsibility for managing and protecting fish resources in their areas[11]. The concept of FCZs has gained global recognition as an essential tool for fisheries management and biodiversity conservation[12]. International agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight the importance of protected areas in achieving conservation targets and promoting sustainable development[13].

Despite their benefits, FCZs face challenges such as enforcement issues, inadequate funding, and conflicts with other resource uses[14]. Expanding and strengthening FCZ networks will require enhanced collaboration, capacity-building, and innovative approaches to address emerging threats such as climate change and habitat degradation[15]. The history of Fish Conservation Zones reflects a growing awareness of the need to protect fish populations and aquatic ecosystems through collaborative conservation efforts.


FCZs in Laos are subjected to co-management. The fisheries management is decentralized, and authority is given to local communities to manage their own FCZs through a co-management structure[16]. Most of them are under and established by the guidelines produced by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Lao PDR Government Department of Livestock & fisheries[17].

Setting up FCZs takes approximately 6 months to 1 year per village in Laos[17]. The setup cost is around $800 to $1200 USD per FCZ unit[17]. The setup time and cost vary depending on the weather, location and the skills level of the local communities.

There are 1313 FCZs of 3958.23 ha in total that were officially recognized in Laos in 2019[16]. There are also some unofficial FCZs that exist. They are managed by local communities solely and not tallied.


FCZs in Thailand are co-managed by the local communities and the government Department of Fisheries. They establish management regulations together and also collaborate on patrolling and policing[17]. The village leaders are responsible for monitoring the FCZs in their own village.

The Fish Conservation Zones in Thailand are collecting baseline data of “livelihood” and “socio-economic” to promote conservation of the fresh water biodiversity[17]. The information collected was used in order to develop the management and monitoring of the critical fish habitats in the rivernand bring benefits to surrounding communities and the environment[17]. The whole process to establish an FCZ takes 6–10 months[17].

Thailand currently has 7.3% of its marine water that is FCZs or protected areas. It is 25593 km^2 in total[18]. The Thailand government was planning to increase it to 10% by 2022[18].


Cambodians form Community Fisheries in their own local area on a voluntary basis to take part in the sustainable management, conservation, development, and use of fisheries resources[19]. This right has a legal basis provided by the Community Fishery Guidelines of the Cambodian Fisheries Administration. The Community Fisheries in Cambodia are overlooked by government fisheries that provide communities with “rights” and “responsibilities” to manage the resources and areas[17]. The whole process of establishment has to follow the official guidelines, and it could take up to 18 months and about US $30,000 per one to set up, while annual operating costs are about US $15,000 per one[17]. Moreover, they had the ability to manage the resources and patrol the river for harm and illegal fishing. They use not only FCZs and other sustainable management mechanisms. Over 500 Community Fisheries have been established[17]. Thus, the number of caught dolphins has been reduced by removing gill-nets in the community in these patrolled areas in order to protect the wildlife[17].


Mekong River has the third most diverse fish population after the Amazon and Congo basins. It was estimated with 1148 fish species in the river in 2019[20]. Mekong River account for up to 25% of the global freshwater fish catch[17]. The inland fisheries of the Lower Mekong Basin is one of the largest in the world with the estimated total fish catch at 2.3 million tonnes and 11 billion USD per year[21]. Fisheries capturing is an important source of protein and income for over 60 million of people living around. Thus, there are mainly two types of fisheries wild capture fisheries production and aquaculture production.

The total captured fisheries had significantly increased over the years. It went up from only an estimate of 357000 tonnes in 1992 to an estimate of 2.3 million in 2015[22]. The composition of the catches is 34% of white fishes, 50% of black fishes, and 16% of grey fishes[22]. However, the fish size is getting smaller. The total lengths of some fish have been declining. The factors of the declining catch trend of large and medium fishes could be increased fishing effort, hydrological and hydraulic changes, habitat degradation, loss of habitat connectivity and climate change[22].

The aquaculture has been rapidly growing in the Lower Mekong River Basin as well. Aquaculture production has skyrocketed from less than 0.7 million tonnes in 2002 to 2.1 million tonnes in 2012. The annual growth rate is around 17% a year which is three times faster than the world average of 5.6%[22].

Results and Impacts


FCZs help address the threat of overharvest by removing the fishing pressure on the fish populations[23]. Fish can reproduce in the FCZs. An increase in fish population, size, and abundance is observed after implementing FCZs. Also, FCZs help effectively establish key fish habitats like spawning grounds and refuges areas[23]. Large-bodied fish are often targeted by fishing but they usually produce the most offspring. FCZs provide them a refuge area to reproduce which increases the fish population. Moreover, endangered species are protected in the FCZs. FCZs keep them away from fishermen and other human activities. It plays an essential role in preventing species depletion. Thus, FCZs enhances the biodiversity. The whole area is protected and conserved from human disturbance.

Mekong river fisheries being a prevalent industry in Laos have caused depletion in the species inhabiting the river due to excess exploitation on the river. Thus came the FCZs[1]. FCZs in Khong District operate year-round and are usually worked on by local communities that operate differently. According to the LEK(local ecological knowledge), the locals insist that the Mekong River should be the main focus of conservation. Not only does the Mekong River provide a big body of water, due to its deep water pools, but it is also very important to the survival of fish especially during the dry season[1]. The Mekong River is also responsible for the main refuge for fish to lay eggs. By creating “no-fishing zones” that is Mekong River(not exclusive), the communities make sure that there is no excess fishing that would impact the fish quantity, but also prevent species depletion[1].


It is difficult to approach the subject of fish conservation without hurting the quality of life of the people that depend on them. In Laos, where rural people heavily depend on the Mekong River and tributary fish stocks for their livelihoods[1],  fish conservation may not be widely accepted as other areas where fish is not the main source of income. Thus, it may create a divergence of people who encourage or discourage fish conservation[1]. According to the Mekong River Commission, there are two indicators to measure social conditions being, Living conditions and wellbeing, and employment in MRC water-related sectors[21]. In the last 15 years, the living condition has been improving; with better food security, decline in malnutrition, better water supply , better health, and the list goes on. Instead of heavily relying on fisheries as the main source of income, in recent years there has been a shift in jobs employment where fisheries is now considered as a secondary source of income. Whether it is directly impacted by the conservation zone in Mekong River or not, the people have been adapting quite comfortably as the poverty rate fell drastically[21].


In order to conserve and protect the ecosystems in the Mekong River community there must be a united force in order to “save” and protect these endangered fish species and keep the river healthy[24]. Without aid from the community the river is in harms way. With continual “economic development, population growth and increased consumption” there is pressure on the environment[22]. The Mekong river provides communities with fishing opportunities and practices that can used to control and reduce negative impacts. This provides direct economics benefits to “local communities through increased fish catches” which improves lives of the surrounding people and food security[17]. These Fisheries along the river are experiencing more pressure from “basin development” and climate change[21]. These negative impacts are due to the construction of infrastructure, dams, and flood protection control[21]. Through the development of the community is improving the living conditions of surrounding citizens it is creating devastation for the Mekong River. A report in 2018 showed that 14 species listed as critically endangered, 21 species are endangered and 29 species are considered vulnerable[22]. The reports of endangered fish show the state of the river affecting both wildlife and humanity.

Climate Change

Climate change is not only a threat to the Mekong River but also a threat to the world. The catastrophic impact of climate change has affected the present and future lives of millions who rely on the rivers natural resources[25]. With the rapid increase of climate change affecting agriculture, animal population, and other crucial natural resources. Plant and animal species who rely on this river have become increasingly vulnerable and with major “hydrological” shifts fish are particularly at risk[25]. Agriculture changes will continue to change and modify bringing a requirement of irrigation and technological improvements to conserve the river. Major effects like “navigation” being affected due to dry season flows making the Mekong river impossible to cross during different times of the year[25]. Without the ability to cross the river at multiple times of the year this will lead to major affects of animals and humans in the surrounding area as well as major floods and droughts negatively affecting communities.


Although FCZs are successful in many places, we are still facing many challenges like illegal fishing and lacking of resources.

Illegal fishing is one of the major challenges. Illegal fishing includes fishing in the FCZs and using illegal fishing gear. Illegal Fishermen use gear like electric fishing devices, large mesh-size fishing nets and fishing leader lines that are banned in the FCZs[26]. They fish in the FCZs. This brings damage to the fish species that live in the FCZs, which decreases the population size. Also, they hurt endangered species like dolphins during illegal fishing. Although the government has strengthened law enforcement against illegal fishing including increasing the frequency of patrolling and hiring more people, illegal fishing cannot be eradicated. A rise in the size of illegal fishing boats and crews are reported[27]. Some of them are even armed. They have bigger and faster boats and more advanced equipment. Therefore making law enforcement practices and management difficult.

Some FCZs are in unsuitable locations. They are not in fish-rich areas or species-diverse areas leading to low efficiency. They were put there for many reasons including miscommunication between local communities and the government, lack of research and opposition from the locals. For example, some FCZs are deliberately located in unsuitable places in Laos because local communities were reluctant to restrict fishing in genuinely fish-rich areas as they had no proof this new concept would actually work in practice[17].

Lacking of resources is another major challenge. Running FCZs requires lots of resources. Setting up and maintaining a fish conservation zone could be expensive. It could take up to $30000 USD to set up Community Fisheries and run a conservation zone in Cambodia[17]. Government and local community have to find a way to sustainably fund the FCZs. In many poor areas, the FCZs were abandoned because of lacking of resource. Providing and allocating resources is the major challenge.


Mekong River protected areas and boundaries

Laws and Regulations

With environmental, social, economic, and climate continuously changing there must be laws and regulations in place in order to protect and conserve the river. Through multiple systems of co-management, government and local authorities in order to implemented several area-based resource management measures. There has been an increase of area based resource conservation approaches in Cambodia with different governance regimes and degrees to protect fish conservation, using protection like, "protected areas fish sanctuaries, refuges, or critical habitats"[28]. With the ability to have laws and policies in order to maintain structure and management for the river. These policies have created a better process for hydropower decision making and gather different views and perspectives in order to make educated decisions. These laws and regulations also protect and manage the environment of the river and the surrounding area[29]. They have environmental assessment processes like Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment in order to properly conserve and protect the river[29].

Seventy million people rely and depend on the Mekong River Basin. For communities along the river basin the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin (Mekong Agreement) was adopted in 1995[30]. This provided communities an "effective and collective" way of decision making involving major infrastructure[30]. This includes developments and changes throughout the river like hydropower and fishing laws. Environmental impacts and changes are continuously effecting the Mekong River, making laws and regulations crucial to protecting and conserving the river for years.

Protection Acts

The Mekong River, which is well-known for its biodiversity and for supporting millions of people in Southeast Asia, is under increasing strain due to habitat loss, overfishing, and the development of hydroelectric projects. In response, protection acts such as FCZs have emerged as pivotal solutions to safeguard the river's ecosystems and support local communities[18].

The conservation of biodiversity is one of the main advantages of protection laws like FCZs. Through the implementation of no-fishing zones and the preservation of important ecosystems, these programs provide secure environments where fish populations may flourish and procreate without interference from human activity. This keeps the Mekong River's tremendous biodiversity intact and guarantees the survival of many different species[18].

Encouraging sustainable resource management techniques is critical to the ecosystem's long-term health. These programs, which help the millions of people who depend on the river for food and livelihoods as well as the environment, guarantee that fish populations are maintained sustainably through the restriction of fishing operations and other interventions[18].

Empowering local communities serves as an important goal for protection acts. Co-management strategies encourage a sense of ownership and responsibility towards their natural environment by giving populations in nations such as Laos a say in conservation initiatives[31]. These programs improve conservation efforts' efficacy and sustainability by incorporating communities in the decision-making and management processes[32]. They also ensure food security and livelihoods for millions of people who depend on the river by protecting fish populations and sustaining healthy ecosystems. The general objective of sustainable development in the area is in line with this[21].

Furthermore, protective measures are essential for reducing the effects of climate change on the environment of the Mekong River. These programs serve as a buffer for the river against the negative effects of shifting environmental circumstances, increasing its resilience in the face of climate-related difficulties by preserving healthy habitats and robust fish populations[25].

Protection laws like FCZs provide all-encompassing answers to the intricate problems the Mekong River faces. These programs, which integrate conservation efforts with policies for climate resilience, community empowerment, and sustainable resource management, open the door to a future where people and wildlife may coexist peacefully along the banks of this essential river.


For millions of people in Southeast Asia, the Mekong River provides a vital lifeline that sustains both their way of life and the region's abundant biodiversity. The river is threatened by a number of factors, such as habitat loss, overfishing, and the effects of climate change. Initiatives like Fish Conservation Zones (FCZs) have become essential instruments for protecting fish populations and assisting local communities to nurture for their essential resource. Fish conservation zones (FCZs) offer secure locations for fish populations, which is crucial to preserving the Mekong's biodiversity, along with ensuring a shared good remains available to the river ecosystem. Millions of people who depend on the river for their livelihood and food security are protected by these measures, which also assure sustainable resource management and the preservation of significant ecosystems and endangered species. By including local populations in conservation initiatives and decision-making procedures, FCZs strengthen local communities and promote a sense of accountability and ownership towards their natural surroundings. FCZs provide complete answers to the complex problems facing the Mekong River by combining conservation with policies for climate resiliency and sustainable development. To maintain the long-term health and resilience of this priceless ecosystem, it is imperative to continue strengthening and implementing protective measures like FCZs, alongside draconian laws and regulations, to ensure the long-term health and resilience of this invaluable ecosystem. Humans can only preserve the Mekong River for future generations by working together and implementing sustainable practices.


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