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Building the first nutritional database for fish in Cambodia

Researchers are aiming to make more information available to scientists, policymakers and farmers about fish nutrition and preservation techniques.

Chakriya in Boat

Front row, from left to right, is Phannara and Phun; back row, from left to right, is Champapao, Chakriya Chum and Sreyden, visiting fish farmers traveling along the Sre Ambel River to collect fish for nutrition analysis. Photo credit: Sitha Som / Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Chakriya Chum, a local researcher from Cambodia, has made more than 10 trips across local bodies of water to collect fish samples in the past year. Her goal – to create the first database in the country about fish nutrition and preservation. Through the support of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish, her work is filling a knowledge gap in Cambodia and unlocking data-driven decision making across the local fishing economy.

Fish is a staple food in Cambodia, serving as a nourishing source of protein and fatty acids crucial to young children’s development and is a vital source of income for fish farmers. Yet, shifting fish populations across local bodies of water still lead to food insecurity in communities. Through the database, Chum aims to help researchers understand how Cambodians consume fish, give policymakers insights to develop nutrition-sensitive programming and empower fish farmers to increase their efficiency and profitability. The database will be built from survey data collected from local fish farmers and the nutrient composition of fish samples currently analyzed at Mississippi State University.

“Knowledge and research [generated with and] transferred to the community will improve health, fish processing and their livelihood,” says Chum.

Chum and her team are paving the way for local actors to create a more sustainable and resilient fishing economy. Policymakers can use the data to identify fish species to promote locally led programs that will strengthen nutrition best practices, like food labeling and nutrition education. By understanding fishing trends, researchers can develop farming methods that will boost production of fish with the greatest nutritional benefits. Fish farmers can also now identify which fishing areas are in need of recovery to maintain a sustainable fish population. Thanks to the current sample, nine fish species will be featured in the nutritional database. 

Preservation, from the moment fish are caught, is an important part of the local food security equation. By preventing fish loss or waste, fish farmers can not only boost food supply but also reduce harmful emissions like methane. Chum conducted a survey of fish farmers in various regions to understand how fish is being preserved. She found that fish farmers use ice, fermentation, drying or smoking, with 75 percent using ice as the most common method. However, almost 15 percent of fish farmers did not preserve at all, and the fish farmers who used ice often found their fish spoiled by day’s end. 

“Finding new and innovative ways to preserve fish is critical for both nutrition and economic development,” says Chum.

Chakriya measuring fish

Chakrya Chum (right) and researchers collecting fish data. Photo credit: Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish

Chum and her research colleagues are now testing antimicrobial and antioxidant alternatives for fish preservation. Rosemary extract, when added to fish, prevents fatty acids from oxidizing. Applying dried vinegar to freshly caught fish acts as an antimicrobial agent and prevents bacteria from growing, a widespread technique used for poultry. 

Chum’s research was also inspired by Brazilian style smokers for preserving fish—this type of smoker can be built with local materials like bricks and customized with more burners or smoking surfaces to meet community needs.

Amplifying the nutrition database, preservation techniques and study findings are just as important as collecting the data. Chum is working with policymakers to kickstart trainings for farmers on using the database. In the future, the team hopes to expand the online database to include more products and nutrient information including the best preservation techniques.

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