Finding the Fish Conservation Zone

Finally visiting a Fish Conservation Zone!

Finally visiting a Fish Conservation Zone in Laos!

As our boat rounded a bend in the river among the hills, I asked my colleague Sinsamout, “Are we near the halfway point?” We were touring a 5-km-long Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, on the Mekong River in an area in Laos called Kengmai Rapids. My company has helped four villages designate this FCZ as a no-fishing area to protect an endangered fish species. Sinsamout said, “Yes, it’s just past the curve.” My heart leapt – yes, I realized, I knew that curve in the river. Over the past year, I had seen a map of the FCZ on the regulation signs we designed – I saw how it partially wrapped around two bends in the river. Now, after more than two years of supporting this project from the office – helping to write the grants, manage the budget, and report to the donor – I was finally seeing a Fish Conservation Zone in Laos for the first time.

After overcoming our transportation challenges, we had visited the village of Ban Palat, where we had a meeting with members of the Fish Conservation Zone committee. We met in their village temple, under the gaze of a shiny golden Buddha. Each of the four villages around the FCZ has an enforcement team, and they rotate patrolling duties of the FCZ to make sure no one is fishing in the closed area. We talked about their experiences of patrolling and enforcing the regulations. After the meeting, our team traveled to the river, where we met the enforcement team from Houayla, the village across the river in Xayabouri Province. We ate lunch and I tossed bits of meat and rice to a pair of desperately skinny dogs that scrounged in the trash nearby.

Fish Conservation Zone on the Mekong River

Fish Conservation Zone on the Mekong River

Then we piled into a long boat for our tour of the river. Despite rain that morning, the sun was out and the sky was blue. The rapids, for which the Kengmai Rapids region gets its name, were mostly submerged, but I could see how the water rushed and swirled a bit faster in the middle of the river. Being on the river felt so good, to finally connect with the work I’ve been doing from afar. Leafy trees grew in the water, all but submerged along the banks of the river, which are steep and hilly. Near the center of the FCZ, we climbed out and scrambled up the hillside to visit a farmhouse near the edge of the river. I at last got to see the signs of the Fish Conservation Zones that I had helped design.

An old woman sat chewing betel as she harvested white roots, which I was offered to sample. It tasted a bit like a watery radish, but slightly sweet instead of spicy. As we walked to the farmhouse, little chicks and ducklings skittered across the dirt. I saw seedpods from a nearby tree that were cracked open to reveal insides that looked like cotton or dandelion down. Sinsamout it can be used to stuff pillows or mats. A young man sat cutting bamboo pieces to make a roof for a chicken house. Both he and the old woman told us that since the Fish Conservation Zone was put into effect, they don’t hear people using dynamite to fish in the river at night anymore – it’s very quiet. The woman said she used to fish right near their farm, but now she has to travel outside the boundaries of the FCZ, which is hard at old age. But she said she still thought the FCZ was a good idea to protect fish for future generations.

In the side channel beside a sandbar

In the side channel beside a sandbar

We traveled back down the river, and explored a side channel that becomes an isolated pool cut off from the main river during the dry season. The villagers have discussed wanting to open this pool up for a community fishing day to raise money for their FCZ enforcement activities. Small birds with swallow wings skimmed across the water, and a white egret flew past. Two small boys played with sticks along the sandbar, the only other people we could see for miles. As we motored away, the boys began to run along the sand, and cinematic movie music swelled in my head.

Further downstream, past the boundary of the FCZ, we came across a fishing camp. The fishers hadn’t caught much that day – one showed us a fish trap with a few flopping silvery fishes in it. We looked at their nets, and Sinsamout said he had photographed one of the fishers a few years ago on a previous trip to the area. I distinctly remember those photos, and it felt like pieces coming together to finally see this familiar fishing camp for myself. We ended our trip by handing over some binoculars to the enforcement team that I had brought from the U.S. Several of the enforcement team members are village soldiers or police officers, and they looked very official testing out the binoculars with their camouflage uniforms and rifles.

At last I got to see a Fish Conservation Zone sign I helped design!

At last I got to see a Fish Conservation Zone sign I helped design!

The specter hanging over this idyllic river scene is that the site of a proposed dam on the Mekong River is just downstream of our project site. If constructed, it would likely turn our project area into a reservoir, flooding the shallow spawning habitat that many native fish need. Sometime it’s hard to work in the midst of such uncertainty. At least now I can carry with me the memory of those two boys running along the sand.




The net came up filled with more trash than fish. Plastic bags, string. Lots of twigs too. The researchers plucked out a handful of silver fish to sort through. The rest went back over the side.

I hadn’t been in Vietnam a week, but clearly there was a serious problem here. So many times I watched people fling a plastic bag into the river, onto the road. Houses flanked either side of the tributary where the fish researchers from Can Tho University conducted their trawl survey—houses that opened right onto the water. Trash disposal is just one toss away.  People squatted in their doorways and stared as we floated by.

The researchers were hardly better. Piece of labeling tape too long? Rip off the end and toss it over the side. Plastic bag snagged on the net? That goes back over too. I didn’t say anything at the time, since I was their guest. And of course it was awkward trying to translate through my cousin. Frankly, I was kind of at a loss for words.

"Scenic" riverfront in Saigon.

“Scenic” riverfront in Saigon.

Later, I did ask the English-speaking head scientist about it and he mused about his experience travelling to Belgium for school in the 1990s. He realized he couldn’t just throw trash on the ground anymore. It’s about changing habits, he said. With my cousin’s help, I also asked the grad student who ran the survey—why did they throw the trash back?  He sounded somewhat embarrassed and explained they didn’t want to offend the fisherman they hired by keeping piles of trash on his boat. He didn’t say this explicitly, but the feeling I got when we were on the river was, they can’t possibly clean it all (or even make a dent), so what’s the point?

Saigon is no better. The “scenic riverfront” where you can pull up a deck chair, sip drinks and admire the view harbors a thick bobbing raft of Styrofoam and plastic. At a local beach, piles of trash mix with the sand where the waves pushed it ashore. Bottle caps, lighters, shoes. And no one complains?


I remembered participating in beach cleanups in the Monterey Bay Area where hoards of volunteers scrounged for a few cigarette butts to put in their mostly empty trash bags. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful that we have clean beaches. But trying to clean a beach that’s already clean, I couldn’t help but wish that I could spend my energy somewhere that really needed it. (According to this video, seems like the real trash problem in my old back yard hides in the creeks and rivers!).

Well. Vietnam certainly has trash issues worthy of my energy.  And it seems like a tantalizingly quick fix —it’s just lying there begging to be scooped up. I was itching for a plastic bag and some gloves. Trouble is, even if I blasted through like a cleaning Tasmanian devil, the trash would probably reappear in a matter of days. Without getting the problem at its source, just treating the symptom could easily sap anyone’s energy, however noble the intentions.


To me, the deeper problems are how to stop generating so much trash in the first place, and the fact that people view the environment as a garbage can. Plastic bags abound— if you get a cold drink to go, the plastic cup comes in a little plastic bag. And if the whole river or ocean is a dump, and it doesn’t matter if the trash shows up in your backyard, how will people ever care about the invisible things, like the health of the benthos or ocean acidification?  Trash is supposed to be the low-hanging fruit.

Of course, once you’ve hauled the trash out of the river or beach, the question remains of what to do with it. It has to go somewhere. In fact, many people get rid of their trash by burning it. When it comes to chemical-laden plastic, that doesn’t seem like the best solution either.

Trash burning

Trash burning.

I did play my own part in the whole mess, I’m sorry to say. During my time out with the fish researchers, the noonday sun beat down on us and our exposed boat. I drained my refillable water bottle and worked my way through a disposable one too. Not long after we raked up that net full of trash, the boat picked up speed as we traveled to our next site.  I turned and the empty plastic bottle went sailing out of my bag and over the side. As we motored away, I watched it bobbing behind us with a sinking feeling of dismay. And my cynical side thought, “Congratulations. Now you’re a true Vietnamese.”

But thankfully, thankfully, not everyone feels that way. Any cultural attitude shift has to be self-motivated to last, so thank goodness some people are making an effort. Looks like Vietnam participated in International Coastal Cleanup Day this year. Although it’s somewhat ironic to see them unloading boxes and boxes of plastic water bottles in their video. But water quality is another serious issue here. Things have gotten better from five years ago for travelers. I was able to mostly stay away from single-use plastic bottles and fill up my reusable one — from larger plastic bottles, but that’s still progress, I guess.

I hope that one of these years, coastal (and riverbank) cleanups will happen all up and down the length of Vietnam. And maybe one year I will be there to participate.

My blog post for FISHBIO on our trawl full of trash.

I love this photo of me, but you can see that damn plastic bottle in my bag... (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

I love this photo of me, but you can see that damn plastic bottle in my bag… (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)