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The mystery of the Kingdom’s dwindling catch

Crabbers haul in traps from the water near Kep.
Crabbers haul in traps from the water near Kep. Charlotte Pert

The mystery of the Kingdom’s dwindling catch

Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration this week revealed that coastal fish yields fell 5 per cent last year. The cause, according to Sihanoukville administration official Nen Chamroeun, was less fishing. However, according to fisherman and environmentalists, Chamroeun has the cause and effect around backwards. Fishermen are fishing less because there are less fish to catch. To hear more, Brent Crane spoke with Paul Ferber, the founder of Marine Conservation Cambodia, an environmental group that monitors illegal fishing and marine health around Kep

What do you think is the reason behind dwindling fish yields? 
It’s a mixture of habitat destruction, overfishing and illegal and destructive fishing. Different areas are affected by all three in differing amounts, but that mixture of issues put together is why it is happening rapidly and across the entire coastal area. Good management of marine resources and law enforcement following Cambodia’s national fisheries law in full would almost immediately change the situation and begin a reversal, increasing catches and coastal livelihoods.

What is causing habitat destruction? 
There’s been an awful lot of land reclamation that’s gone on, especially the big port development in Kampot which has destroyed huge areas of seagrass. But I think the habitat losses are mostly from illegal trawling. That’s a really big one. It scrapes the seabed. It rips seagrass up by the roots, a little bit like a bulldozer going through a forest.

How important is seagrass to a marine environment? 
It’s incredibly important. Seagrass doesn’t tend to grow in deeper waters because it needs sunlight. So you have a range of half a metre to around seven metres for your seagrass beds. Your three major habitats are mangroves, seagrass and coral reefs, and they’re all interconnected. They create a habitat for nurseries and breeding grounds. Seagrass itself is the major breeding ground for the blue swimmer crab, but it’s basically a big juvenile nursery. The shallow areas in Kampot and the ocean in Kep would be – if they were fully protected from trawling – a massive breeding ground allowing fish to flourish and go out to other areas.

How are fishermen responding to this habitat loss? 
The harder it is for them to catch fish with sustainable methods, the more likely they are to use illegal destructive methods because most of those methods are a very quick way of getting fish. You’ve got trawling boats that use electric nets. They’ve trawled and destroyed so much of the marine life that there’s not enough left for them to just trawl the way they used to, so they’ve connected electric cables to their nets which shocks the last remaining sea life to jump out of the seabed so they can catch it in the net. As marine life becomes less, the destructive and illegal fishing becomes greater because the need to use those techniques to catch the last remaining life is essential to be able to carry on fishing.

Where is illegal trawling most pervasive?
Kampot and Kep, I would say. It’s there daily. Sihanoukville and Koh Kong do have it but with the largest seagrass beds being in Kep and Kampot they’re the most susceptible because the water is so much shallower.

Are fishermen having to leave the profession altogether? 
Yes, a lot. We interviewed and surveyed three different communities in Kep. In each one of them – these are all legal fishermen – we saw around 90 to 95 per cent of people complain of a lack of fish and illegal activity being the major cause of that. Most of them had family members or had to themselves give up fishing because they could no longer catch enough to sustain their families using legal gear. 

How long would it take for damaged habitats to recover? 
The areas that haven’t been completely destroyed will actually recover quite quickly if trawling is stopped. The areas that have been completely destroyed might take 15 to 20 years. If you think of a hillside with lots of grass on it and you have heavy rains, the hillside stays intact. If you dig up that grass and it’s just soil and you have heavy rains, all that soil washes away. Nothing can grow in it. In the ocean it’s the same. Once the trawlers have been too many times in the same area you get a sloppy mud sediment. The seagrass can’t grow in there. Keep in mind that the Kep government has been making a fairly big effort to tackle this issue, illegal fishing. But it’s not an easy issue to tackle. There are just so many boats. 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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