In the waters around the Koh Rong archipelago, the first attempt at government-mandated marine conservation in the Kingdom is underway – it is designed to curb illegal fishing and bad tourism practices by engaging local commmunities. But questions remain as to whether the pressures of development might undercut the effort.
A throng of backpackers and holidaymakers crowds the pier to get onto the fast-ferry from Sihanoukville to the Koh Rong archipelago. Nearby, a delivery of Cambodia Beer kegs is unloaded from a truck to be shipped to the islands. A deliveryman says they ship about 30 kegs each day; during high season, it’s more than twice that.
Pavel Yudin, the manager at the Koh Rong Dive Center, remembers a time when there was no fast-ferry. Just three years ago, it took over two hours – not 45 minutes – to get to the island. Back then, there was only one bar that served beer on tap in Koh Touch, the main town on Koh Rong island.
“You cannot imagine what it was like [before],” he says, looking out onto the beach from the pier on the island. “It happened before my eyes.”
In 2010, the dive and tourism industries had just arrived on Koh Rong, says Yudin. There were only a handful of bungalows and the Dive Center. Now, Koh Touch Beach, which is the arrival point for multiple ferries from the mainland each day, boasts dozens of bars and guesthouses, with development extending far behind the beach.
“I can say the island has gotten worse from so many people,” he says. “It’s not as it was before.”
Drawn by pristine beaches, jungle hikes, the unique coral reefs or just the attraction of partying on the beach, the dramatic rise in visitors to the island in recent years has spurred a flurry of development with no end in sight. And, while many welcome the economic growth, the pressures of development pose a new threat to the marine ecosystem, adding to long-running concerns about illegal fishing practices.
In a bid to protect the waters around the archipelago, a 400-square-kilometre Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA) was proclaimed on June 9. Under the jurisdiction of the Fisheries Administration, the MFMA is not a typical marine-protected area: it relies on the individual fishing communities on the main islands of Koh Rong and nearby Koh Rong Sanloem to patrol the area themselves, with the ability to confiscate and destroy illegal fishing gear and report crimes to provincial authorities.
The past decades have seen widespread destruction of Cambodia’s forests, a situation that has been widely reported in the media. However, damage to marine habitats from overfishing, development and other causes has received less coverage. But experts say the risks are significant; and the MFMA – as the Kingdom’s first marine conservation area – is in part recognition of that.
However, for Yudin, the MFMA has achieved little in its first few months of operation. “Most of the dive centres do not contact the authorities much,” he says, adding that he views environmental protection as part of dive education. “We’re doing what we normally do.”
And while English-language information posters explaining the different zonings of the MFMA – such as where recreational activities like diving are allowed – were posted in businesses around the islands this past week, Yudin says there has been little official communication with foreign business operators like him.
“You need to have somebody who will check that people follow it . . . I’m not sure if they have any forces or resources for this,” he says.
Furthermore, the Fisheries Administration’s jurisdiction extends only as far as the high-tide mark, which precludes its staff from regulating threats stemming from land-based development. And of those, there are plenty.
In Koh Touch, the water is a murky green, not the clear emerald colour the islands are known for. If the pipes and runoff from the town leading into the water are any indication, the vigorous advice to Post Weekend reporters from employees at bars and guesthouses not to swim in the water for risk of sickness suggests development is already taking its toll – at least close to Koh Touch’s three piers.
One Koh Touch tour guide, 40-year-old Alejandro Binaldi, who has worked seasonally on Koh Rong for nearly three years, says he doesn’t walk barefoot on the beach in town anymore. “Five times already I got worms or foot infections from walking on the beach,” he says.
Hab Seak, Koh Touch’s village chief, is dismissive. He says 2 tonnes of trash are taken to Sihanoukville on the supply ferries each day. Human waste, he adds, is held in septic tanks and should not flow into the bay.
As for the dangers of swimming, he says there are none.
“No villagers got sick,” he says. “Only tourists, because they get drunk and play in the waves.”
Four years of consultation work went into creating the MFMA, with meetings regularly held between authorities, village officials, representatives of the fishing communities, NGOs, and tourism and diving businesses. Also invited were the major development interests on the islands: Kith Meng’s Royal Group on Koh Rong, and Lime Tree Capital on Koh Rong Sanloem.
However, Seak says, no representative from the Royal Group showed up to the meetings. Despite that, the company has begun developing at Long Beach. “[The Royal Group] has built roads, a port and constructed small houses 100 metres from one another,” Seak says.
The otherwise untouched beach, which is reached by a short boat-ride to the west of the island or a 45-minute hike from Koh Touch, now has rows of pre-fab houses and several villas under construction, while to the south, the breakwater of a port looks to be complete. Those waters, it should be noted, fall within zoning that allows only for small-scale recreational fishing and ecotourism that does not damage marine habitats.
The Royal Group could not be reached for comment. But according to its website, its plans for the development of the 78-square-kilometre island would leave 30 per cent of the land as virgin rainforest, while the rest would be comprised of luxury resorts and golf courses.
As for Lime Tree Capital – the key developer on Koh Rong Sanloem – sources said that company’s representatives did attend meetings. However, the company also did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
In addition, four senior Fisheries Administration officials declined to comment for this story.
On Koh Rong Sanloem
Leaving the shores of Koh Rong, Post Weekend took a boat to Koh Rong Sanloem village, commonly known as M’pai Bai. This village, the main one on Koh Rong Sanloem island, is only reachable by a twice-daily slow-boat. Development geared towards tourism is – for now – comparatively limited.
Tommy Kenna, who has run the Cambodian Diving Group’s dive shop in M’pai Bai for nearly a year, says the MFMA – if enforced – could do a lot to prevent damage to reefs. It would also help to ensure the safety of divers swimming in ostensibly protected areas.
“We were swimming over the reef and [a] boat dropped its anchor on the reef – which they’re not allowed to do,” he says. “It’s against the law.”
“They’re meant to drop the divers off, move away to the sand, and this particular boat dropped over the reef. I could hear this metallic clicking sound – I didn’t know where it was coming from – and then I saw the [anchor] rope fly past my head and I had to grab my customer and pull them out of the way,” he says, adding that the anchor then dragged through the reef and, “we could see the anchor ripping the coral out”.
Kenna says it was not an isolated incident.
“In the high season, we’re diving every day, and I would see it every second day, people dropping their anchors too close to the reef,” he says. “It’s a bit disappointing when you see other dive shops doing it, because they’re supposed to be protecting the reef as well.”
However, like Yudin and others on the islands that Post Weekend spoke with, Kenna says it’s a question of making sure everyone knows the rules. Kenna admits that even his boat captain would drop anchor on the reefs at first until told that it was forbidden except in emergency situations.
“We try to educate as much as we can, but it is perhaps something that needs to be done for all boat captains around the islands,” he says.
Asked whether M’pai Bai’s volunteer community fishing patrols mandated by the MFMA would do much to rectify the situation, Kenna says that – between the lack of policing, overfishing and bad tourism practices – it appears unlikely.
“It just seems like they’re fighting an endless battle at the moment,” he says. “They’ve got one boat against thousands of boats . . . the penalties need to be a lot higher and they need to have a bigger taskforce than the volunteer policing, because it happens too often.”
Kate West, a marine conservation project manager at Flora & Fauna International (FFI) – which partnered with the government in creating the MFMA – says that, for its part, “in the long term, there needs to be [more enforcement], and FFI would be supportive of the government, provided we can get funding”.
Stephanie Young, a marine ecologist at The Dive Shop Cambodia, whose office on Koh Rong Sanloem is at Saracen Bay, says the main problem she’s observed are trawlers fishing too close to the reefs: they often snag their nets on the corals. Recently, she and her colleagues removed a 30-metre-long gill net from a range of reef.
Like Kenna, she says it’s not just fishermen who are damaging the environment. “There’s a problem with long-tail boats that take [out] groups of snorkelers; they anchor on the reef [and] throw cans of rubbish overboard,” she says.
As a preventative measure, says Young, The Dive Shop Cambodia, along with MFMA partners FFI and the Song Saa Foundation, deployed mooring blocks around protected areas. Buoys were also deployed at one point, Kenna says, but they soon disappeared.
“The fishermen just cut them off and took them,” he says. Phou Nou, the deputy village chief of M’Pai Bai, is in charge of the community’s fish patrol group. It has 18 members and goes out seven times a month.
“Ideally, it should be 15 times a month,” he says, but the problem is that resources are limited. What’s more, he adds, “we cannot patrol during storms or high seas, and it’s then that fishermen [on larger boats] often take the opportunity to fish”.
Nou says fishermen come from Sihanoukville and even Kampot province to fish these waters.
“The provincial Fisheries Administration should help,” he says, adding that conserving the marine environment is in everyone’s interest. “When we can prevent fishing in protected areas, it will attract more tourists to visit the island, which helps villagers.”
Taking his cues from the unsustainable development that has afflicted Koh Touch, the village chief of M’Pai Bai, Lay Thai, reckons he can strike the necessary balance between increasing tourism revenue and preserving the environment.
“Before, we saw a huge number of tourists in Koh Rong and we wanted to have the same development like it, but now we have seen it become anarchy and there are a lot of tourists who complain,” he says. “Therefore, we need to do it a little differently from Koh Rong – it needs to be calm, not noisy, no drugs – we want to have a different style.”
Indeed, in the past year, homes built over the water in M’Pai Bai have been for the most part been torn down and moved behind the beach in an effort to improve the water quality. And, says Thai, he’s strictly regulated the management of human waste.
“In Koh Rong, it is a steep incline and we have seen the sewage flowing into the sea, but here we strongly forbid [villagers] to do like that,” he says.
All human waste must now go through a purification system, such as bio-digester tanks, before it can be discharged.
Researcher Benjamin Thorne is the project manager at the Song Saa Foundation, which provided technical support to the creation of the MFMA through scientific research. He says his foundation’s role will now shift to monitoring the success or failure of the conservation area.
Scientific surveys published by the foundation in recent years show that the current state of the coral reef ecosystems is healthy and the archipelago’s biodiversity remains among the richest in Southeast Asia.
And while slight bleaching has been observed in the past few months, the reefs around the islands fared much better than those worldwide in what has been one of the worst years for coral bleaching on record caused by the so-called Blob – a vast patch of hot water that spread around the Pacific Ocean, damaging reef ecosystems.
Thorne says surveys note the dangers posed by increased development. “The threats are future threats,” he says, adding that it doesn’t have to be that way. “If the development is done in the right way, it can benefit the community and the environment.”
And so, although it’s far too early to call success or failure on the MFMA, the progress of Cambodia’s first marine protected area will be closely watched.
And conservationists hope that the experiment being carried out around these small islands off Sihanoukville will one day help to halt the damage being inflicted through destructive fishing practices taking place from Koh Kong to Kep.
“Let’s not forget the rest of the coastline,” says FFI’s Kate West.