A brave fisherman stares into the wall of water at Khone Phapheng falls before casting his net into the ferocious current. During the rainy season the Mekong river swells rapidly causing millions of litres of water to crash over the falls each second. The highest flow ever recorded at Khone Phapheng falls was 49,000,000 litres a second. A select few fishermen risk their lives daily to carve out a living fishing these waters.
A large fish caught in a bamboo trap at Khon Phasoy Falls. The fisherman use a combination of throw nets and bamboo fishing traps to catch a variety of fish. The bamboo traps are precariously placed in the flow of the falls to catch the larger fish which use the current water to navigate. As the water rises the smaller bamboo traps are destroyed until only the largest traps remain. The fishermen believe that leaving the caught fish in the traps entices other fish to follow the same route.
The sheer power of the river is clear as a fisherman struggles to reach the bamboo bridge. Due to the nature of the traps’ location, the fishermen have to risk their lives navigating the falls across a series of bamboo bridges and rope lines, one small slip on the bamboo could result in death for the fisherman.
The fisherman holds on for his life knowing that one mistake here would result in certain death. The ranging Mekong pulls at his body as his weary arms cling desperately to hold him on the rope. Times like these rely on full concentration and both hands on the rope at a time, any extra luggage has to go in the mouth, knives included.
An elderly fisherman recalls his life fishing on the falls, risking his life each day for less than $6/£4. The toil of the job is clear on his aged and weathered skin. He speaks of plans by the WWF to ban trap fishing in an attempt to protect the rarer breeds of fish who use the falls to reach breeding grounds. Despite the challenges ahead he believes the fishermen will not give up their livelihoods easily.
A catfish bleeds as it awaits certain death. Some of the rarer breeds of Catfish can fetch up to 40,000kip/kg ($5/kg) and are therefore highly sought after by the fishermen. The problems for the fishermen is that the rarer the fish, the more money it can command at the market and therefore endangered species are prized.
A measly catch in a fisherman’s trap. One large fish can make a huge difference to the fishermen as fish stocks dwindle in the falls. Some fishermen can go for a day or more without catching any fish. During the monsoon season it becomes even more difficult for fisherman as their traps are damaged and fish stocks are reduced more so as the fish follow the current downstream at the start of the rains.
A fisherman clears potentially dangerous debris from his trap. A side effect of placing the trap in the current water is that it also traps debris, sometimes as big as tree trunks. Large debris can potentially damage a trap or even destroy it, eliminating the fisherman’s only source of income and his only means of providing for his family.
A fishermen perilously pulls himself across the raging water as his colleagues look on. Years of experience means that accidents and the death of fishermen as a result are extremely rare in Si Phan Don. The fisherman casually shrug when asked how they cope facing danger like this on a daily basis.
A young fisherman appears to practice his trade on the rope walk, however practicing this is not. The 10-year-old boy is responsible for a small bamboo trap at Khone Phapheng falls which is only accessible by rope over the deadly rapids. It is this exposure from a young age to the perils of the Mekong that gives the fisherman of Si Phan Don the ability to fish in the some of the most treacherous places in the world.
The experienced fisherman casually walks along the bamboo with his latest catch. Through years of hard work, acts that to any other human being would seem incredible become a daily ritual. One day the young fishermen hope to emulate their elders and continue the tradition of fishing the falls around Si Phan Don. However with recent changes looking set to ban fishing in certain areas of the falls and with dwindling fish stocks across the falls, the fishermen’s tradition may be lost forever .
Waterfall Fishermen of Si Phan Don ©Jacob James Photgraphy 2012