Kep’s crabbers are feeling the pinch as the number and size of the area’s blue swimmer crabs continues to decrease. And no one is in any doubt about who to blame
In the air around Tan Suon’s beachfront hut in Ampeng village just northeast of Kep town, the smell of fish lingered. Arrayed on a small tray on the roof a few tiny fillets, the entirety of the day’s catch, dried in the hot afternoon sun.
“We used to go out every day to catch crabs but it is changing in these last few years. There is less crab and fish,” said the 55-year-old mother-of-nine, who after 25 years of crabbing Kep’s waters with her sons, has all but abandoned the trade.
Suon, whose husband died several years ago from lung disease, said that her family was barely scraping by without the crabs.
“It is a big problem for me. I’ve lived on [that] income since I got married. Now we just catch small fish to sell to fishermen [as bait] because we can’t find big fish or crab in the sea,” she said.
According to local fishermen, restaurateurs and scientists, destructive and illegal fishing methods, which they say continue with impunity in the shallow waters off the coast, are ravaging blue swimmer crab populations – the seafood that’s synonymous with Kep and one of the tourist town’s major draw-cards.
“I can only say [the] short answer,” said Chhouk Borin, dean of the Faculty of Fisheries at the Royal University of Cambodia, “the crab stock [in Kep] is declining”.
At the popular Sunset Restaurant at Kep’s Psar Kdam (Crab Market), owner Seang Im, 37, said that not only were there less crabs in Kep’s waters, but the ones that were being caught were smaller than they used to be.
“Before, they never allowed catching the small or pregnant crabs, only big crabs were allowed. But today I don’t ever see any authorities stopping it. [The crabbers] should choose only the big crabs to sell and leave the small and pregnant crabs in the sea,” he said, adding that if illegal fishing continued “the crabs might go extinct”.
Kam Noeun, owner of the nearby Kimly Restaurant, the longest-running of Kep’s crab eateries, has also noticed a decline in crab quantity and size.
“Compared to the years before, the number of crabs keeps decreasing ... Before when they caught only big crabs it was around two or three crabs a kilogram, but now they catch the small crabs and it is about seven or eight crabs a kilogram,” he said.
As crab sizes and numbers shrink, crab prices grow. According to sellers at Psar Kdam, bigger crabs are normally sold for around $20 a kilogram while the smaller ones go for half that price. A 2007 report on Cambodia’s crab fisheries from the World Fish Center and the Learning Institute recorded the price of large crabs in the markets around Kep at $5 to $7 per kilogram.
For many of Kep’s crabbers, the reason for the disappearance of their livelihood is clear: illegal fishing.
“There are many people catching crab by using illegal equipment, such as electric nets and small mesh-size nets,” said Pen Hak, 48, a crabber for over 25 years and father of eight children in Angkoal village, near Ampeng village.
“They catch all kinds of crab: big, small, babies. I don’t use that kind of equipment because it is expensive and we’re not allowed to. We are just normal people. We are not rich enough ... and we are afraid of going to prison.”
Fishermen caught using illegal methods could continue fishing if they paid off patrols, Hak added.
Sinat Auot, 35, a coastal project officer at FACT, a coalition of NGOs that track illegal fishing in Cambodia, said that illegal fishing was a nightly activity at Kep.
“By my team’s observation we have concluded that illegal fishing by Cambodian people and some Vietnamese have extremely affected the natural resources in Kep and also in Kampot. Every night they are doing illegal fishing,” he said over the phone.
Auot added that he had seen marine police take bribes from illegal fishermen “many times”.
“Some government officials are corrupt,” he said. “They do corruption with some fishery administration officials.”
In the process of reporting this story, several conservationists and marine biologists, stressing the sensitivity of the issue, refused to be quoted. Part of the issue, they said, was that the marine police, whose cooperation conservationists needed, were complicit in the illegal fishing.
One marine biologist with local knowledge of the area confirmed the cause of crab stock decline was not that there were too many crabbers, but that the crab’s habitats were being wrecked by illegal fishing methods.
He said one of the most ruinous forms of illegal fishing was inshore weighted trawling, which involves the use of a weighted net to scour coastal seabeds, because it ripped out seagrass, the primary habitat of blue swimmer crabs.
“The destruction of Kep’s seagrass from inshore weighted trawling is likely the main cause of the purported decline in crab populations in Kep,” said the marine biologist.
The illegal use of tiny mesh-size electrified nets, which send an electrical pulse into the seafloor causing anything zapped to shoot up out of the seabed into the nets, was exacerbating the population decline by picking up any crabs that may have managed to survive predation by hiding under the sand, the marine biologist added.
However, not all agree that crab populations are in danger.
Voen Seila, vice chief of the Fishery Administration in Kampot, said crab numbers were low this year due to a lack of rainfall and an increased number of fishermen.
“According to what I’ve observed and worked on, crab numbers have not been decreasing year by year,” he said.
He acknowledged illegal fishing was a problem, but said that authorities were doing a good job in combating it due to a renewed focus on working with communities in the monitoring and reporting of illegal vessels.
While it is unclear exactly how severely crab populations have declined in Kep – no formal population survey has been conducted – scientists agree Kep’s marine environment is being seriously degraded.
In a 2015 survey of Kep waters, the Kep-based environmental organisation Marine Cambodia Conservation found, “[h]igh trawling activity [as] evidenced by broken coral, uprooted seagrasses and scoured seafloors”.
“The health and productivity of the region’s marine environment is declining, largely due to unsustainable fishing activities resulting in habitat loss,” the report said.
Kep’s provincial government, which installed the iconic monster-sized crab statue off Kep’s main beach, has taken some steps to ensure the future welfare of their prized crustaceans, such as working with environmental NGOs like MCC and FACT to collect data on the marine environment and fishing activities.
The local government is also participating in a countrywide stock strengthening “crab bank” program in which gravid crabs are kept in cages until they’ve released their eggs.
Kep provincial Governor Ken Setha blamed diminishing crab fisheries on “more and more fishermen and illegal fishing [activities]”.
In response to claims that marine police had been taking bribes from illegal fishermen the governor said: “I use to hear about bribes but I don’t think they can do it anymore because we have many networks to report about it.”
It is unclear what a crabless Kep would look like. Som Chenda, director of the Kep Tourism Department, said even without crabs, the town would be okay.
“Crab is not the only reason people come to Kep,” he said over the phone. “There are many other attractions like our beaches and resorts. Kep is getting better year by year.”
However, for those that depend on the crabs for their livelihoods, their decline is a disaster.
Pen Hak, from Angkoal village, said that several men had left the village since the crabs started becoming scarcer to find work elsewhere, including his three sons, who went to Sihanoukville to work on a fishing boat.
“It is hard to live without crab fishing because I depend on that job to earn money,” he said, surrounded by a crowd of nodding men and women.
“The people in my village nowadays are getting poorer and poorer because they have no income from the crab fishing business.”