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People sort through crabs by the waterside in the coastal town of Kep earlier this year. Charlotte Pert

Sustainable fishing tops ocean survey concerns

An international study of the health of the world’s oceans compiled by more than 65 experts this week ranked Cambodia 179 of 221 countries surveyed, confirming the fragility of the Kingdom’s marine environment.

The fourth annual Ocean Health Index (OHI), published on Monday, combines biological, physical, economic and social indicators to assess how sustainably ocean ecosystems are being used, with a score of 0-100. The 2015 findings gave Cambodia a score of 60 for the second year running – compared with a global average of 70 – revealing room for improvement in several categories.

The index examines ocean health according to 10 criteria, including biodiversity, carbon storage and tourism, with Cambodia’s 2015 outcomes echoing many international trends.

Most noticeably dragging down Cambodia’s overall grade was a disastrous score of seven on sustainable food provision, indicating a serious threat to a dietary staple that makes up three-quarters of the nation’s protein intake.

“Cambodians love to eat fish, because it is much cheaper than meat, with many health benefits,” Department of Fisheries Conservation director Ouk Vibol said yesterday, pointing to the harmful impact of illegal fishing and unsustainable tourism on Cambodia’s ocean fisheries.

Vibol also noted that recent government conservation initiatives to sponsor fishing communities and the country’s first Marine Protected Area around Koh Kong are proving effective, with illegal fishing reportedly down 80 per cent this year.

However, researchers say that protecting Cambodia’s unique ocean biodiversity, reflected in an impressive OHI score of 85, from hazardous illegal fishing from Thailand and exploitative diving enterprises remains urgent to food security and well as sustainable economic development.

“We see some of the world’s most incredible marine biodiversity, both on land and on sea, in Cambodia,” says Neil Garrick-Maidment, executive director of UK-based NGO The Seahorse Trust, who has conducted research and conservation projects in partnership with Marine Conservation Cambodia.

“These resources cannot be viewed solely as short-term economic gains. Cambodia needs to make a choice about the longer-term benefits of eco-tourism and preserving its natural heritage.”

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