Lower Mekong Fish Passage Conference
14-18 November, Vientiane
Opening Remarks by John Williams, Australian Ambassador to the Lao PDR
H.E. Dr Phouangparisak Phravongviengkham, Vice Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. Friends of the lower Mekong, one and all!
I am delighted to be able to join Dr Phouangparisak in welcoming you all to an event that will be important to the livelihoods and food security of tens of millions of people living in the lower Mekong Basin.
Thank you all for travelling to Vientiane for this week’s fish passage conference. I am looking forward to hearing your contributions, which will be important in our collective effort to share knowledge on fisheries sustainability in the region.
We can make a big difference this week to help the Lao PDR, and its neighbours on the lower Mekong, to progress their economic development, while also maintaining – and where necessary, restoring – healthy aquatic ecosystems.
The Australian Government is proud to support this conference. This is, I am certain, the first time this group of experts – from a range of relevant disciplines, and from a number of nationalities – has come together to collectively apply your skills and knowledge to protect one of the world’s great fisheries.
I think we all have a sense of the challenges, and the numbers, as freshwater fish in the lower Mekong come under increasing pressure from riverine development.
My experts tell me the Lower Mekong Basin has over 800 fish species, and that 2% of all fish caught globally each year come from the Mekong River.
I think we all understand too the importance of fish as a commodity and source of protein in this region. Fish, I am told, makes up nearly half of total protein consumption in Laos.
But the total fishery yield per family is declining. A result of enhanced fishing technology, growing food demand and infrastructure development - such as river regulation and extractive water use.
There are, however, practical solutions that can help address this decline.
I am proud, in particular, that Australian fish passage technology offers one potential solution, thanks to a successful collaboration over recent years between Lao and Australian researchers, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, ACIAR.
I know small weirs, irrigation dams and floodplain regulators are an important facet of the rural economy in Laos.
These structures provide irrigation water to boost rice production, and help prevent the inundation of rice fields during high river flows.
But, of course, they also represent an obstacle to the upstream and downstream migration of fish, and prevent fish from accessing important nursery and high growth habitats. In laymans terms, I think I’m correct in saying they prevent fish from breeding, feeding and resting.
In April this year, I travelled to Pak San, in Bolikhamsay province, 2 hours south of Vientiane, to open the next phase of this Australia-Lao research collaboration.
Over the next five years, our research teams will work to strengthen understanding of the impact of fishway construction on fish populations in wetlands.
And they will seek to evaluate different options for sustainable, low-cost fishways.
My 8-year-old daughter was confused when I told her I was going to Pak San to look at fish ladders. It’s probably not the correct scientific term, fish ladder, but nevertheless she delighted in conjuring images of a fish that could climb a ladder.
[Incidentally, experts tell me there is one species of fish in the Mekong River with little hands and feet. I hope someone can show me a photo.]
I was able to report back to my daughter that the fish passages, drawing on all Australia’s experience over recent decades in the Murray-Darling river basin, had been tested, and were working.
Over 170 fish species had been using the pilot fish passage built at the Pak Peung wetland at a cost of around USD 156,000. During peak migration periods, up to 100 kilograms of fish had been able to gain passage into the wetland each day. That strikes me as a fair bit of traffic.
Prior to construction, this was not possible.
The model, using fish ladders to help fish migrate, has great potential to increase fisheries production, improve biodiversity and raise local incomes.
Most importantly, this can all be achieved with no impact on rice production.
Supporting local communities
The interesting story in Pak Peung is, I think, as much about how the fish ladder has united a regional community, as it is about the fish ladder itself.
Local people have been engaged to assist our researchers, and to help construct the fish ladder, and remain a crucial source of advice on fisheries in the area.
Six villages in the Pak Peung area are now united in the development of fisheries management strategies, to ensure fish recover, and that the fish ladder remains operational.
All of this has generated local excitement, and a sense of pride and real hope.
Local fishermen are also reporting fish that have not been seen in the region for over 30 years.
We are obviously delighted with this community-level impact, in addition to the obvious scientific ones.
On behalf of the Australian Government, I am delighted to declare this workshop open
I wish you success in your discussions on how we can adapt and upscale these new technologies to best mitigate the impact on fish of an unprecedented boom in river development in the lower Mekong over recent years.
Thank you to Dr Phouangparisak and his Ministry colleagues for their leadership and support, to Dr Douangkham and his team at LARREC for hosting the conference. And to my colleagues from ACIAR, and our partners from USAID, for providing the funding to bring us all together in Vientiane to collectively workshop solutions.
Thank you all, and every success with this vital project for the Mekong.