Community fishing patrols in the waters around Koh Rung Sangleum island have taken a bite out of a once-rampant trade in coral and other resources
PREAH SIHANOUK PROVINCE
THE shallow aquamarine waters around Koh Rung Sangleum island, lined with coral reefs and rich with marine life, have long provided the island’s few residents with resources and livelihoods.
At the small wooden dock at the island’s Village 23, fishermen bring in fresh catches of squid, the surface of the creatures still alive with electric pulses of colour. Outside beachside homes in the village, a small cove ringed with coconut palms, residents set racks of squid out to dry, where they wither in the sun like rows of miniature deployed parachutes.
Despite the appearance of abundance, fishermen on this horseshoe-shaped island, 25 kilometres off the country’s south coast, are only just recovering from a wave of illegal poaching that, with the blessing of unknown local authorities, wreaked havoc on marine ecosystems and the age-old rhythm of life on the island.
But community fishing patrols – established last year by the provincial government – have allowed locals to fight back against illegal poachers and reclaim some of the marine area.
Residents of Koh Rung Sangleum say laws have always been weakly enforced. Following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the island existed in near complete isolation from the mainland, with only sporadic contacts with authorities.
In around 2002, locals say, fishermen from Vietnam and Thailand arrived in the area and quickly came to dominate the local fishing trade with their use of more modern – and often illegal – fishing methods.
“Before we had the fishing community [area], the illegal fishermen came to fish here anarchically,” said Lay Thai, the chief of Village 23. “They also used modern materials, destroying fish, seahorses, coral reefs and squid.”
The renegade operators plied the loosely policed waters around Koh Rung Sangleum and nearby Koh Rong at will, plundering the local reefs. At one point, fishing boats from neighbouring Vietnam became so commonplace that villagers began to refer to a small cove near the island as chhak yuon (Vietnamese Bay). The effect on local livelihoods, villagers say, was devastating.
“Before, in one day we could catch about 30 to 50 kilogrammes [of fish], but now we can only catch around one, so this has caused a lot of fishermen, around 80 percent, to start working as construction labourers to support their living,” said Van Da, a 49-year-old fisherman from Village 23.
Paul Ferber, the founder of Marine Conservation Cambodia, which operates conservation projects on Koh Rung Sangleum, said the poachers – photographed and monitored by the patrols – displayed recklessness and daring in their search for underwater riches.
They dived from small boats with the aid of home-made weight belts and a simple hose to supply air, he said, capturing sea horses, abalone and other marine resources from the seabed.
A highly prized item was whip coral – a thin coral species worth hundreds of dollars per bundle – which fishermen removed with hacksaws.
They also used cyanide capsules to stun and capture fish alive, and netted a premium price when the animals were sold to restaurants in Vietnam and farther afield.
Diving to depths of up to 25 metres to reach the coral bed, he said, the men would walk across the reefs, cracking the hard coral and threatening long-term damage to the architecture of the marine ecosystem.
“Coral tends to be a place where all the coral fish congregate and lay their eggs – it’s a breeding ground, it’s a place where fish go to sleep at night, where there is protection for smaller animals. If you break or damage one thing, everything else suffers,” Ferber said.
He pointed out that under Article 55 of the Kingdom’s 2001 Fisheries Law, the “possession, buying, selling, transporting and stocking” of coral is banned, as is any action – such as anchoring ships – that damages or destroys coral reefs.
Protection against plunderers
Early last year, Preah Sihanouk provincial officials allowed Village 23 to form a community fishing zone, and empowered fishermen to enforce environmental laws. One year on, rogue operators are much more scarce.
“Since we established the fishing community, the number of fish and squid has increased,” said Lay Thai, who is also chief of the fishing community. He added that fishermen from the village can now protect between 70 and 80 percent of the community fishing zone through regular patrols and the “re-education” – and sometimes arrest – of the culprits.
The patrols, operating far from the mainland and the reach of the local naval authorities, take the form of what could be described as officially sanctioned vigilantism.
Kong Rithy, the chief of police in Koh Rong commune, said that when fishermen are spotted operating illegally in the area, they are intercepted by a local patrol boat.
First-time offenders are given a warning and educated about the law. If caught a second time, he said, they can be detained and handed over to local authorities for arrest.
“We want to protect fish, reefs and squid in this area because it can help increase the number of fish and make it easier for my villagers to fish, and also maybe attract tourists to come visit,” he said.
Prior to the establishment of the patrols, the trade in marine contraband was fuelled by the apparent impunity enjoyed by those responsible for carrying it out.
Kong Rithy said fishermen captured by community patrols produced hand-written “licences” issued illegally by Cambodian officials.
Ferber cited one case in which fishermen detained by a community patrol in 2009 and handed over to local authorities were back on the water within months.
Ferber added that the community patrols, which on paper extend along the entire length of Koh Rung Sangleum, could only reach so far.
“It’s a huge area, but at the moment they’re only patrolling a couple of kilometres and around Koh Kun,” he said, referring to the small islet lying off the north coast of the island.
And participating in the patrols can be dangerous. Illegal fishermen have started operating at night, and there are limits to how far the part-time patrols will go – and how much risk they will take – to stop them, he said.
But although there are still obstacles to be overcome, locals say the patrols have given them a chance to stay on their feet.
“Everyone here depends on fishing,” said Suy Koy, 28, a fisherman from Village 23. “If we can’t fish we won’t know how to support our living and we will die.”