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Eco-tourism: rocky road ahead for reefs

Eco-tourism: rocky road ahead for reefs

It's still the high seas in the Gulf of Thailand. Foreign-flagged ships fish

illegally in Cambodian waters. Navy vessels stop tourist boats to commandeer

cold beers. Occasional plumes of seawater explode from the ocean marking the

site of dynamite fishing, a practice that demolishes reefs.

A dugong, endangered and hunted in Southeast Asia, grazes on seagrass.

But a

determined group of dive operators in Sihanoukville has begun campaigning for

the vigilant protection of marine resources and the livelihoods that depend on

them. Three dive outfits based in Sihanoukville port hope the islands will

become the next big dive destination in Southeast Asia.

"It could be the

next Ko Tao," says Fred Tittle of Eco Adventures, referring to the Thai island

resort that certifies hundreds of scuba divers each week. He envisions a tourism

industry based on Cambodia's marine resources that can preserve them for the


"I think within two years we'll have a very sustainable diving

industry here," he says. "Divers are always looking for a new and exotic

destination and you can't get much more exotic than Cambodia."


destructive fishing practices, and a host of other obstacles, threaten that


A look beneath the waves reveals the extent of the damage. Coral

heads are shattered by explosives. Scars from cyanide poisoning testify to other

destructive fishing methods. Drag nets, widespread use of fish traps, and litter

"ankle deep [that] goes for miles" also degrade the reefs leaving them barren of

ecologically important species.

Dive operators say it takes just a few

dollars for permission to destroy the reef beneath the averted eyes of


A hard coral shelters schooling fish off the island of Koh Tang near Sihanoukville.

But Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth says the government

is making every effort to guard the marine environment. It hopes to transform

Sihanoukville into the centerpiece of its nature tourism initiative opening up

the southern part of the country.

"We're focusing on natural attractions

such as scuba diving and trips to islands," Sereyvuth says.

He describes

"urgent" development projects such as an airport, tourist facilities and casino

resort on Koh Rung island as critical. Although no starting dates or investors

exist yet, he says the government will start the projects "as soon we


His ministry hopes to offer tourists a complete travel package from

Angkor Wat to Phnom Penh and the beaches of Sihanoukville. Today, only about

240,000 visitors a year - or a third of the 800,000 annual tourist arrivals -

visit the beach town.

Nevertheless, Cambodia's 440 kilometers of

coastline remain one of the country's least-heralded natural attractions. Its

small population and rugged inaccessibility are believed to have protected much

of the ecosystem from major damage, says Craig Leisher, program advisor with the

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In Southeast Asia, where a UN study estimates

that 90 percent of the reefs are threatened, this could be a major selling


"I wouldn't say [Cambodia's reefs] are pristine, but they are

intact," Leisher says.

That is key, because the reef system and the

species that depend on them could recover within three or four years if left

alone. But once the reef is reduced to rubble, those species and their

ecological value may never return.

Leisher says Cambodia's waters are a

"special place" for marine mammals such as dolphins, porpoises and the

regionally endangered dugong. A recent study undertaken by the Wildlife

Conservation Society (WCS) and the Department of Fisheries (DoF) found the only

evidence of dugongs here in local food markets.

WCS researcher Isabel

Beasley, who co-authored the study, says unconfirmed sightings suggest only a

few of the mammals remain. She says it is the most highly threatened mammal in

the country's waters.

Apart from the dugong, at least nine other species

of marine mammals live in local waters. Most cetaceans, she says, are revered in

Khmer culture and remain surprisingly abundant.

"In terms of numbers,

Cambodia waters hold significant numbers of coastal species compared to Vietnam

and Thailand," she says. "For eco-tourism and dolphin watching, there is huge


But developing that potential will not be easy. While

Thailand has already thoroughly exploited its tourism appeal, much of Cambodia's

submerged territory remains a mystery.

There are reports of shipwrecks

offshore, says Claude Du Dinh Tan, who runs a dive operation out of

Sihanoukville. He adds that hundreds of kilometers of coastline remain

unexplored by divers.

"Diving in Cambodia is a new destination," he says.

"We have some good places. It's just a matter of letting the people know that we

have something."

But before Cambodia can bill itself as the next

Thailand, many obstacles must be overcome. One is the health of the reef system.

Rob Shore, a WWF scientist working on the NGO's Living Mekong Initiative, doubts

that the poor health of many reefs that lie in easy reach of Sihanoukville can

support a viable diving industry.

Shore, along with a contingent from

WWF, recently dove at the offshore islands with Eco Adventures.

"The most

important group [of species] that were almost entirely absent [from the reef]

were butterfly fish," he says. Shore notes that soft corals, another class

highly sensitive to pollution and disturbance, were scarce compared to more

robust hard corals. Legions of black, spiny sea urchins also swarmed over the

coral indicating a loss of key predators in the ecosystem.

"In the

foreseeable future, [diving] would not be a main tourist attraction," he

predicts. "If they could find good locations closer to the coastline it would be

more viable."

But Shore holds out the hope that establishing Marine

Protected Areas (MPA) could save some of the reefs and replicate conservation

successes seen in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and the


Indeed, Seang Tana Touch, under secretary of state and an

official with the Council of Ministers, says the government is poised to declare

the country's first MPA.

"We think that within two or three months we

will be able to set up the Koh Stach Marine Protected Area," says Touch. The

zone will encompass between 60,000 and 100,000 hectares near Koh Kong. He says

that the area, once established, will be regulated to ease fishing pressures and

develop tourism.

"It's important to preserve these areas because it's

critical for organisms you can't find other places in the world, for promoting

tourism and [saving] critical habitat for fish," he says.

That's just

what dive operators want to hear. But they emphasize the need for more than just


"Right now, the MPA status is just a paper tiger because there's

nothing behind it," says Tittle. "The guys from the DoF don't have any

enforcement tools. They can't even go out and do patrolling or even


Several operators have begun assisting fisheries officials

to bolster their enforcement efforts. Ten DoF divers, funded through the UN

Environmental Programme, went diving off Sihanoukville with Claude late last

year for a monitoring project of coral reefs. Eco Adventures has also offered

DoF officials use of its boats and equipment for offshore operations.


for Claude, who has spent ten years watching his dive sites crumble under the

onslaught of nets, poisons and explosives, the time for monitoring has


"For me, the only way to stop this is to get a boat out there

with the Cambodian authorities," he says. "There can't be control any other



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