The Kingdom's first marine conservation NGO plans to help local community members protect Cambodia's diverse ocean life against the threat of illegal fishing and new development
Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY
Krysten Leroux, a volunteer for Marine Conservation Cambodia, puts the finishing touches on a new bathroom on the island of Koh Rong Samleom, a two-hour boatride from Sihanoukville.
WHAT was once a colourful sea floor teeming with ocean life had been completely wiped out.
"There was nothing left - just bare sand," Paul Ferber, a co-founder of Marine Conservation Cambodia, said.
A fishing trawler had dragged a weighted net along the bottom of the sea floor, scraping the oceans bare and taking all the marine life with it. Bottom trawling - the marine equivalent to clear-cutting forests - catches everything in its path, rips out coral reefs and stirs up sediments that can suffocate life on the sea floor.
As much as 90 percent of what ends up in the net is by-catch, unwanted marine sea life that is useless to fishermen but integral to the ocean ecology, according to Greenpeace.
"It can take many years for an ecosystem to recover from something like that," Ferber said.
Bart Kluskens, a researcher at Marine Conservation Cambodia, called weighted trawling "a waste of nature".
It was that dive nine months ago that inspired Ferber to increase his conservation efforts. Ferber, along with Bora Raan and Bart Kluskens, founded Marine Conservation Cambodia, the Kingdom's only NGO dedicated to conserving Cambodia's oceans.
Bottom trawling is not the only threat to Cambodia's sea life. Other types of illegal, damaging fishing techniques that involve cyanide or dynamite are common farther off the coast. Kluskens has come across a sunken boat with cyanide containers, and Ferber said he occasionally hears explosions underwater.
As the islands off of Sihanoukville become popular tourist destinations, a development boom promises to release sediment into the water, potentially smothering the coral reefs, Kluskens said.
Increased scuba diving also poses a danger. Currently, there are no mooring buoys at the most popular dive spots, meaning many boats accidentally drop their anchors on the reefs.
Abundant marine life
But despite the threats, Cambodia still has abundant marine life. Gianluca Lamberti, a trainer for Reefcheck, the largest coral reef monitoring program in the world, who is working with Marine Conservation Cambodia, said: "On any dive, you'll see 10 to 20 seahorses. This is incredible. There's not a place in the world where a person can see that".
Seahorses are an important indicator species, because they are particularly sensitive to pollution, Lamberti said. The government has recently classified seahorses as endangered, making them illegal to fish, according to Ferber ,who has seahorse tattoo on his chest.
In order to combat the problems of illegal bottom trawling, Marine Conservation Cambodia has dropped concrete blocks around an area of diverse sea life with the help of the Fisheries Administration. If a trawler tries to drag a weighted net in the area, it will get caught in the blocks.
Marine conservation in Cambodia is still in its infancy; no one even knows what is in the oceans yet. No comprehensive survey of Cambodian sea life has been done, but Marine Conservation Cambodia and Reefcheck hope to change that.
With the help of the Koh Rong Samleom community, the organisation is constructing an island office, replete with bathroom, restaurant and bungalows, where it hopes to house scuba divers interested in learning ocean-conservation techniques. During the divers' conservation training, they will be monitoring the reefs by counting indicator species, Lamberti said.
The biggest focus of Marine Conservation Cambodia, however, is on land. The group has targeted people on Koh Rong Samleom, an island near ecologically diverse sea grass areas and coral reefs, to educate about marine conservation.
With the help of the Fisheries Administration, the Koh Rong Samleom community declared 8,000 hectares of water a community fishing area in September, meaning people outside of the community are not allowed to fish there without permission. Village members patrol the ocean and regularly expel illegal fishing boats.
Lay Thai, the chief of Koh Rong Samleom village, said, "When the community fishing area started, we were really happy. Before, we were not allowed to send boats away. With more fish, we'll have more happy tourists".
Starting next week, Marine Conservation Cambodia will train community members to scuba dive so they can see for themselves what they are trying to save.
"The best way to explain why marine conservation is important is to say, ‘Come down with us'. They can see things they had no idea was there," said Caroline St-Denis, who heads an education project at Marine Conservation Cambodia. "They will understand that learning to protect the coral will keep people coming."
Marine Conservation Cambodia sees children's education as key to their mission.
"The children do most of the fishing. If we teach them now to fish [sustainably], they'll pass it on to the next generation," Ferber said.
"Even though our name is Marine Conservation Cambodia, it's about the village. If they're not struggling, they'll be able to help."
Through its involvement in the community, the group has helped build a path to the local school, taught classes and donated books.
To increase fish stocks, Marine Conservation Cambodia and the island community will also stick long bamboo poles with leaves coming out of them into the seafloor, effectively creating a fish farm that allows fish to lay their eggs and take refuge in the foliage.
"If we can make it work ... here, then we can take it to other places in Cambodia," Ferber said.
From left: A haul of seahorses that were illegally caught near Koh Rong Samleom; a bornella in healthy waters; a fishing boat heads into the sunset near Koh Rong Samleom. paul Ferber, christopher shay