Cambodian fishers work to protect their community from contaminated seafood in the Duwamish River
Fishing has always been a way of life for Soun-Hour Pov. And sometimes, it was a life-changer. As a young boy growing up in Cambodia, fishing provided a source of food and helped him survive the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Now a resident of Kent, Washington, Soun-Hour is working alongside other Cambodian fishers to help protect their communities from the contaminated seafood in the Duwamish River–a place his community has fished for decades.
“My vision for the Duwamish is a clean river, not just for my family but for all Cambodians, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and other communities that use the river,” says Soun-Hour. “We want people to feel safe swimming, fishing, and playing in nearby parks.”
Soun-Hour moved to Kent three years ago with his wife and kids. Once settling in Kent, his demanding schedule made it challenging to meet people and make friends. Soun-Hour works at a textile factory during the day and takes on parental duties at night while his wife works in the evening. He decided to take up fishing on the weekends with the hope of making new friends. Two summers ago, while fishing in the Duwamish River, he met Sean Phuong and quickly became part of a close-knit community of Cambodian fishers.
“It was my first time fishing in the Duwamish when I met Sean,” says Soun-Hour. “I thought he was Chinese or Japanese, but when I heard him speak, I figured out he was Cambodian.” Sean — who works as a granite, marble, and electrical contractor — lives a block away from the Duwamish River. He taught Soun-Hour new fishing techniques as well as the local rules regulating salmon fishing.
Both Soun-Hour and Sean were born in Cambodia, where fishing is an important cultural tradition as well as a source of food and means of survival. In 1975, when Soun-Hour and Sean were kids, the Khmer Rouge military forced millions of Cambodians out of the cities and into labor camps following its civil war victory against the ruling Cambodian government. The Khmer Rouge adopted repressive and extremist policies — in attempt to squash opposition — that resulted in food shortages, famine, malnutrition, disease, and death. Many Cambodians would fish along the local waterways or hunt in the fields to survive the totalitarian government’s grip on the short food supply.
“In 1977, the Khmer Rouge government separated me from my parents and placed me in a [child labor] center,” says Soun-Hour. “Life was very bad, there was a lot of poverty, and rice soup was the only thing available to eat. We would go out to the fields to collect small frogs. We would cook and eat them to survive.”
While millions of Cambodians were subjected to the harsh and dire conditions under the Khmer Rouge government, Sean and many others fled the country seeking refuge. In 1983, Sean and his family moved to Washington in search of a better life. In their new adopted home, Sean’s family along with other Cambodian fishers developed a sense of community by fishing and swimming in the Duwamish.
“Fishing was important for my family. Growing up, sometimes we didn’t have enough money to buy food. We fished and caught crabs, clams and other shellfish in the Duwamish to feed our family,” says Sean.
For over thirty years, Sean and his family fished and ate seafood caught in the Duwamish without any knowledge of the toxic water contamination. Today and for the past decades, all fish and shellfish that spend their entire lives in the Duwamish are unsafe to eat due to pollution resulting from decades of industrial activity, storm water runoff, and overdevelopment. Migratory salmon are the only fish safe to eat from the river. In 2001, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the lower Duwamish River as one of the country’s most toxic hazardous waste sites following efforts by advocates to alert the government about the need to clean up the river. The EPA is currently working to clean up the chemical pollution from the river, which will take a while to accomplish.
“We don’t eat the fish we catch anymore, only the salmon,” says Sean. “Instead, we educate people in the community about what fish are unsafe to eat.”
Sean and Soun-Hour learned about the pollution in the river after joining the seafood consumption outreach program, led by Public Health of Seattle & King County (PHSKC) for the EPA. PHSKC partnered with Sophorn Sim with the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) to train community members to become Community Health Advocates. As health advocates for the program, Sean and Soun-Hour lead culturally appropriate outreach in their communities about ways to protect themselves from the contaminated seafood in the Duwamish River. Additionally, they provide valuable language and cultural expertise during PHSKC’s design of health promotion tools as well as community recommendations to the EPA and other agencies about this health issue.
“I appreciate the support from the EPA, the county office of public health, and other affiliated organizations that are concerned about the contamination in the Duwamish River. It’s very important that lawmakers and organizations work in collaboration with other industries to make the clean up happen the right way.”
Soun-Hour has developed a strong sense of pride in his new community and is grateful for the collaborative efforts to improve public health. He is confident the clean-up efforts will enhance water quality in the Duwamish and hopes that the seafood consumption outreach program will one day serve as a model for other environmental hazard clean-ups.