Claude Du Dinh Tan.
As the dive boat approaches the island of Koh Rung off the coast of Sihanoukville,
a group of eager scuba divers prepares their gear. But this is no ordinary trip:
the divers are officials from the Department of Fisheries (DoF).
Ten of them, armed with new scuba certificates, are being trained in a program that
will determine the health of Sihanoukville's marine life. The initiative, which is
funded by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), aims to help the International Coral
Reef Action Network implement monitoring of Cambodia's coral reefs.
But as the DoF students look at charts and fine-tune their equipment, a low fishing
boat drops anchor 20 meters away. One of the fishermen grabs a long hose attached
to a low-pressure compressor, and jumps overboard to lay traps.
Local scuba operator Claude Du Dinh Tan is also on board the dive boat to instruct
the officials. As a dive operator and president of Sihanoukville's fledgling business
association, he is worried at the condition of the area's coral reefs.
Claude hurriedly puts on his gear to catch the fisherman walking on the coral. He
wants an underwater photo of one of the leading causes of its destruction.
But before he can leap into the sea, the fisherman is pulled back into his boat and
they move on.
"At the moment Cambodia is still an open sea fishing mess because everybody
can come," he says later that day. Fishermen from China, Vietnam and Thailand,
he adds, are taking advantage of what is a loosely-controlled fisheries industry.
"At the moment [the DoF staff] are doing studies, but I'm sorry its not time
for that," he says. "It would be much better if people took action."
Kim Sour, who is the DoF's focal point officer responsible for coral reefs and sea
grass, says the local fishermen don't care about the damage they do to the coral.
But there is growing awareness in the region of the overall economic and environmental
implications of ruining coral.
The coral reef fisheries of Southeast Asia are worth an estimated $2.4 billion per
year, and almost 90 percent of the region's reefs are threatened at "high or
very high levels".
That is according to Professor L M Chou of the National University of Singapore,
who told a press conference in November that the management of reefs is an urgent
But without a proper monitoring program, nobody can be sure of the condition of Cambodia's
coral. What is clear is that practices such as walking on coral, as well as cyanide
and dynamite fishing, have damaged this crucial habitat.
Cyanide fishing is still a major problem, says Kim Sour, but improved law enforcement
means the incidences of dynamiting have decreased. In the past many local people
did not know the practice was illegal.
But that does not mean dynamiting has disappeared. Claude says he hears one blast
a week while diving, and in certain places, especially further west at another diving
area near Koh Tan, "you will see nothing, only rubble".
"I cannot say it's in very good shape," he says.
"Now there's a bit less dynamiting in this area, [but] it's quite difficult
to say it's not at risk. It's in the middle. It's not that good, it could be much
The DoF officers are currently focused on monitoring the coral off the islands of
Koh Rung and Koh Rung Sonleum.
"It's in good condition," says Kim Sour. "However we saw some coral
just recently killed and an outbreak of sea urchins."
The urchin population explosion is worrying because they "eat everything",
says Kim Sour. It could be as a result of pollution, or a "top down effect"
from over-fishing, which leaves alive few predators.
A scuba diver examines coral damaged by fishing gear.
Kim Sour hopes the two islands will be designated a marine protected area (MPA) as
an insurance policy against the collapse of the fisheries. The DoF has drawn a boundary
around five islands, and is preparing a sub-decree for the Ministry of Agriculture,
Forestry and Fisheries.
"We want to establish a marine protected area in order to manage and conserve
the coral reef ecosystem and fisheries resources," says Kim Sour.
The protection of such areas is not assured though, given the pressures to develop
the country. Dr Touch Seang Tana, a member of the Council of Ministers' economic,
social, cultural and observation unit, says such pressures make him determined to
push for their protection.
But the problems for these two islands are formidable: Koh Rung has been slated for
development by a Las Vegas resort group, while the navy wants Koh Rung Sonleum as
an operations base.
"If we find that the coral is very important, we will push the Council of Ministers
to make it a protected area," says Dr Touch.
However, it is more likely that the coral reefs further west, in Koh Kong's Koh Stach
archipelago, will be the country's first MPA. Dr Touch says that a sub-decree is
currently being drafted to protect ten reefs in that island group.
The Koh Stach archipelago, he adds, has already been surveyed with help from the
Singapore International Foundation. It is likely a bigger fish habitat than that
off Sihanoukville, and therefore more important.
But the lack of data makes it impossible to know the condition of the Kingdom's coral,
or what can be done if it is being harmed. Kim Sour says the Reef Check program hopes
to change that by identifying the main threats.
The program began in the US in 1997 as a simple way to determine the health of the
world's reefs. Trainees stretch measuring tapes across the coral, count marine species,
and write down their findings on underwater pads.
Instructor Jeffrey Low came from Singapore to teach the Reef Check system. All the
DoF trainees were keen to learn, he says, and asked numerous questions. All will
receive their certification.
DoF intern Va Longdy recently graduated from the University of Fisheries Sciences
at the Royal University of Agriculture. He says the group encountered some difficulties
in carrying out the monitoring program.
"That is because we are new divers, and especially because we have no equipment
for buoyancy and equalizing," he says.
Fellow trainee Serey Wath says some of the newcomers at first accidentally breathed
in water through their noses, but are now feeling more confident.
"They're doing quite well given most of them are new divers and have no background
in marine biology," says co-instructor Karenne Tun, a marine biology researcher
at the Tropical Marine Sciences Institute at National University of Singapore.
They will need to be ready if the coral is to be preserved.
"There's a lot of stuff to do here because they're developing the coastline,"
says Low. "The DoF needs information before it starts any management planning."
Reef fish find shelter in living coral off the Cambodian coast - but for how much longer?
All in all, it seems the program has made a good start, but the obvious problem is
who will pay to continue checking the country's reefs.
The freshly-trained DoF staff shrug their shoulders when asked when the next round
of monitoring will take place. Among the problems they face is that the unit does
not actually own any dive equipment.
However Kim Sour is confident the program will continue, and says he will write a
proposal for diving equipment to UNEP's Global Environmental Facility.
"We will do it by ourselves in the future," he says. "It's a good
beginning for the government's monitoring and measuring of coral reefs."
Claude says he is pleased the DoF is tackling this issue, but expresses mixed feelings
about how much difference their efforts will make.
"Will they be able? Will they get the budget?" he asks. "I feel that
a few guys are really involved and would like to do something, but I don't think
they have the means to look after the fisheries."