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Koh Kong boatbuilders on the rocks


TIMES are hard at the boat yard in Koh Kong Province's Sre Ambel - the only yard

in Cambodia still building large, deep-water fishing boats. A combination of poor

fishing and expensive wood means orders for new boats are down dramatically.

The boatyard in Sre Ambel ... only one new boat is nearing completion, another is being rebuilt, and a third is just a mere skeleton of frames awaiting planking.

The yard is located near the confluence of Prek Kampong Som and Prek Kambot, where

logs from the upstream forests can easily be floated down for milling.

The one-hectare yard is carpeted by a thick bed of wood shavings. Though there is

enough space to build a dozen boats at the same time, the yard is all but empty.

Now only one new boat is nearing completion, another is being rebuilt, and a third

is just a mere skeleton of frames awaiting planking.

"We do have people wanting to buy new boats but we can't take their orders because

of a lack of wood," said the owner of the yard, who did not want to be named.

The yard only makes boats to order, he said. Most of their clients are Khmer fishermen

or cargo transporters, though occasionally he gets contracts from Thai clients wanting

new boats.

The government crackdown on illegal logging has seriously affected the supply of

timber for the boat construction business. Good timber is increasingly hard to find

in the forests, and expensive to buy from lumber dealers, he said.

The boats are constructed primarily with koki, a hardwood which is highly rot resistant

and survives a long time in a saltwater environment. A boat made with koki can have

a working life of more than 50 years, said the yard owner.

A typical boat built by the yard, called a kutkat (cut tail), can be outfitted for

use as either a fishing or cargo boat. Measuring about 20 meters long and built using

some 70 cubic meters of wood, these rugged boats take the construction crews about

five months to complete.

The owner said the kutkat is not a Cambodian-style boat ,but is based on a Thai fishing

boat design.

Though comprising thousands of separate parts which must all fit precisely together,

the kutkat are built without the aid of paper plans.

"The only plans are here," said the owner of the yard, tapping his head.

Once the frame of the boat has been erected, the yard crew ties a red cloth to the

forward-most piece of timber, the stem, to ward off danger and help assure good progress

during construction.

On launching day the boat owners pray for the safety of the boat and its crew, burn

incense and make offerings of chickens and bananas.

A grid of rail lines runs across the yard. The boats are built on concrete risers

enabling a trolley to be slid along the rails and beneath the boat's keel. The boat

is then jacked on to the trolley and, with the help of a tractor, maneuvered along

the rails and into the water.

From the launch site the boats have only a short run down the river to where it spills

into the ocean at Kampong Som Bay.

Boatyard staff at work ... the government crackdown on illegal logging has 'seriously affected' the supply of timber for the boat construction business; good timber is increasingly hard to find in the forests, and expensive to buy from lumber dealers.

Khem Non, 29, a carpenter, said he has been building boats for almost 14 years in

Sre Ambel. Although young, he is the most senior of the boatbuilders.

He learned the craft by apprenticing under older builders, but he said now they have

all retired.

Non said he has no particular love for boats, or his dying craft. "It's just

a job," he said.

"We used to build quite a lot of boats, but now we repair more than we build,"

Non said.

He is one of only 20 workers still employed by the yard. Some had to leave just recently

to search for work elsewhere.

Non said most fishermen are struggling just to make a living, so replacing their

boats with new ones is not an option.

Sreng, 53, a fisherman in Sihanoukville and a former boat builder, said it cost about

$25,000 to construct his boat's hull and deck alone.

Add a good-quality engine, navigation and communication equipment, as well as fishing

gear, and the price quickly spirals upwards.

Sreng used to build boats, but after the Government crackdown on logging which forced

timber prices up, he abandoned his building business in favor of fishing.

"Wood is expensive, while the fish are hard to catch, so how can fishermen afford

to buy a new boat?" asked Sreng.

He and a crew of seven typically will spend a month at sea and return with a catch

of only one or two tons. Sometimes he loses money, sometimes he makes a small profit.

He says that not too many years ago he could count on earning 200,000 to 300,000

baht ($5,000 to $7,500) per voyage.

Sreng said he goes after fish in the two to three kilogram range, "BK"

and Bloodfish, which he catches in Cambodian waters and then exports to Vietnam and

Thailand.

He attributes the big decline of fish stocks to Thai and Vietnamese fleets fishing

illegally in Cambodian waters with the protection of the Cambodian Navy.

These foreign boats, he said, use trawl and push nets which destroy coral and tear

up the sea bed. And foreign lightboats, which use floating lamps to draw the fish

to one area then net them all regardless of size, are devastating stocks.

"I am very worried that if these illegal practices continue, the fish in Cambodia

will disappear and the next generation will not have fish to eat. But if we start

to prevent this from happening now, our fish will come back to us," said Sreng.

He said in the Sihanoukville area there are now about 2,000 fishing boats, and most

are having a difficult time making a living.

Sreng said he can't imagine what he will do if he can no longer make his living from

the sea. "It's all I have done since I was a boy."

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