Fishing, fisheries and aquaculture

The Mekong River system maintains the world’s largest inland fishery with an annual fish catch estimated at 2.3 million tonnes.1 Adding capture fisheries and aquaculture together, in 2015 the Mekong River Commission estimated total production of 4.4 million tonnes with a value of around US$17 billion.2 

The value of the Mekong’s fish harvest is not simply economic, however, as it makes up an estimated 75% of the dietary protein intake for the surrounding population.3

The top ten countries for fish capture4 globally produced 53.6 million metric tons in 2012, of which Myanmar produced 3.6 million tons and Vietnam 2.6 million tons. Myanmar and Vietnam were the eighth and ninth largest producers in that year, respectively. By comparison, China, the leading country that year, caught 16.2 million tons of fish.5

Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar also have access to ocean capture fishing with their larger coastlines, compared to Cambodia or land-locked Laos. Thailand and Vietnam were the number three and four top global exporters of fish and fishery products respectively in 2012, based on value.6

The above chart shows the breakdown of wild capture and other (including aquaculture) fish production in metric tons for all five Lower Mekong countries for 2013.

Being the only land-locked country in the Lower Mekong, Laos does not have an officially registered fishing fleet. The combined total of the fishing fleet from the four other countries is more than 278,000 motorized and non-motorized vessels.7

None of the LMB countries have ratified the 2001 “Convention relating to the conservation and management of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks”, only the broader “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982”, and all but Cambodia have signed Part XI of that convention,8 which relates to claims to the resources in the seabed and areas beyond national boundaries being treated as a “common heritage of mankind”.9

Both Vietnam and Thailand have invested in aquaculture and fish farming to meet the growing demand in the area and for export markets. Vietnam’s aquaculture industry produces more than its wild catch industry; its shrimp farms alone cover 600,000 hectares of land.10 Both countries’ shrimp farms were affected by outbreaks of the early mortality syndrome (EMS) disease from 2009 to 2011, reducing their production and exports.11 While Vietnam has been able to recover and become the number one shrimp exporter globally, Thailand slipped from the number one exporter in 2012 to just 10 per cent of global exports in 2013. This has continued into early 2015 for Thailand,12 though there are some signs of recovery.13

Vietnam’s shrimp exports were also affected from 2012 when Japan instituted stricter regulations and requirements on the levels of the antioxidant Ethoxyquin in raw and frozen shrimp products. In following years the industry has been able to institute changes in farm practices along with lobbying to raise the accepted levels, and export to Japan has again increased.

While illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing from LMB countries has been highlighted and penalised by some international import markets in the past, the practices of Thailand’s fishing fleets received international attention in 2014 when suspected people trafficking and slavery practices were confirmed by several NGOs and an investigative report by The Guardian.14

In the first half of 2015, the European Union Commission (EUC) sent a warning to Thailand’s government over its lack of response to IUU fishing. Without an acceptable response from Thailand’s government, the EUC could decide to ban fish imports to the EU, which they estimated to be valued at around US$689 million in 2014. Cambodia is currently banned from EU imports for the same reason. The EU is the largest fish importer in world.15 The US State Department also downgraded Thailand to a Tier 3 country in its Trafficking in Persons Report of 2014.16

Within the region, Vietnamese coast guard stations have unofficially reported that they call in 300-500 incidents of foreign boats illegally fishing in Vietnamese waters every year. These foreign fishing boats are estimated to take about 100,000 tonnes of marine fish each year.17

While traditional production and exports have been for raw fish products, Thailand and Vietnam have been leading the move into the value-added fish production sector in the region. Products such as fish pate and cooked packaged seafood are examples of some of the outputs of these moves within the industry. These not only add products to the countries’ exports, but also provide new industries and employment markets.

Potential impacts of hydropower dams

Concern has been growing among the downstream countries in the LMB over the number of hydropower dams planned for the Mekong River. While these dams will bring more and cheaper power to the region, they may also endanger fish breeding grounds and access to fish stock. 

A five-year study by the Mekong River Commission (‘the Council Study’) has looked into the sustainable management of the Mekong River system, including impacts from hydropower development.18 Scenarios that modelled all the proposed hydropower developments going ahead reportedly predict lake and floodplain fisheries production falling by up to 70 percent across the Mekong basin.19 Economic losses could be substantial. Just in Cambodia, for example, US$3–5 billion losses in annual GDP are projected in the study’s 2020 and 2040 development scenarios. Reduced sediment and nutrient flows reduce fish production, which then affects food prices.


Related to fishing, fisheries and aquaculture


  • 1. Mekong River Commission, June 2015. Fisheries habitat and yield in the Lower Mekong Basin. MRC Technical paper No. 47, June 2015. Accessed 29 December 2017. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes, however, that the freshwater capture production numbers are probably higher in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam than those reported by these countries, and the reliability of Myanmar’s figures is questionable. FAO. 2014. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: Opportunities and Challenges. Rome: FAO, 17. Accessed 24 July 2015.
  • 2. Mekong River Commission December 2015. “Lower Mekong fisheries estimated to be worth around $17 billion a year”, Catch and culture December 2015, Volume 21, No. 3. Accessed 29 December 2017.
  • 3. Hortle, K.G. 2007. Consumption and the yield of fish and other aquatic animals from the Lower Mekong Basin. MRC Technical Paper No. 16. Vientiane: Mekong River Commission. Accessed 24 July 2015.
  • 4. Capture production excludes aquaculture products.
  • 5. FAO. 2014. “Yearbooks of Fishery Statistics, Summary Tables.” Table A-1. Accessed 24 July 2015.
  • 6. FAO. 2014. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: Opportunities and Challenges. Rome, FAO. Accessed 24 July 2015.
  • 7. FAO. “Fishery and Aquaculture Country Profiles.” Accessed 15 April 2015.
  • 8. United Nations. “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Agreement Relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the Convention.” Accessed 24 July 2015. Part XI: “States Parties are liable in accordance with international law for damage or loss attributable to them in regard to this Agreement.”
  • 9. United Nations. “Table Recapitulating the Status of the Convention and of the Related Agreements, as at 10 October 2014.” Accessed 24 July 2015.; United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea. 2013. “The United Nations Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (in force as from 11 December 2001), Overview.” Accessed 31 May 2015.
  • 10. Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers. “Sector Profile: Shrimp.” Accessed 3 June 2015.
  • 11. FAO. 2014. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: Opportunities and Challenges. Rome, FAO, 21. Accessed 24 July 2015.
  • 12. Stewart, Jeanine. 2015. “Asian Shrimp Suppliers: Price Crash Makes for Tough 2015.” Undercurrent, 22 April. Accessed 24 July 2015.
  • 13. Jittapong, Khettiya and Manunphattr Dhanananphorn. 2014. “Thailand’s shrimp output seen recovering from disease woes in 2015.” Reuters, 18 December. Accessed 3 June 2015.
  • 14. Hodal, Kate and Kelly, Chris. 2014. “Trafficked into Slavery on Thai Trawlers to Catch Food for Prawns.” The Guardian, 10 June. Accessed 3 July 2015.
  • 15. Fioretti, Julia. 2015. “EU Warns Thailand on Illegal Fishing, Clears South Korea, Philippines.” The Irrawaddy, 22 April. Accessed 24 July 2015.
  • 16. US Department of State. 2014. Trafficking in Persons Report 2014. United States: US Department of State. Accessed 3 June 2015.
  • 17. FAO. 2005. “Fishery Country Profile. The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.” Accessed 16 April 2015.; European Commission. 2015. “EU Acts on Illegal Fishing: Yellow Card Issued to Thailand While South Korea and Philippines are Cleared.” Accessed 23 April 2015.; FAO. 2011. “Fishery and Aquaculture Country Profiles. Cambodia.” Accessed 16 April 2015.
  • 18. Mekong River Commission 2017. Accessed 22 December 2017.
  • 19. Alessandro Marazzo Sassoon, December 2017. Cambodia’s fisheries at risk due to hydropower development on Mekong, MRC warns. The Phnom Penh Post, 20 December 2017. Accessed 22 December 2017.
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