What was once a colorful 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.
Every time Ferber, a diving instructor at the time, had gone diving at the site about two hours off the coast of Sihanoukville, he would see between 30 and 50 rare seahorses, but on this dive, Ferber counted just two.
“And they were the saddest seahorses I’d ever seen,” Ferber, who has a tattoo of a seahorse on his chest, said. “I just kept touching the sand. I didn’t know what to do.”
A fishing trawler had dragged a weighted net along the bottom of the seafloor, scraping the oceans bare and taking all the marine life with it. Bottom trawling – the marine equivalent to clear-cutting – catches everything in its path, rips out coral reefs and stirs up sediments that can suffocate life on the ocean floor.
Upwards of 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 take his conservation efforts to the next level and devote himself to saving Cambodia’s marine life. Paul Ferber along with Bora Raan and Bart Kluskens founded Marine Conservation Cambodia, the Kingdom’s only NGO dedicated to conserving Cambodia’s oceans.
And 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 further 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 more popular tourist destinations, a development boom promises to release sediment into the water, potentially suffocating 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 boats will often accidentally drop their anchors on the reefs taking a chunk out of the coral.
But despite these threats, Cambodia still has abundant marine life. Gianluca Lamberti, a trainer for Reefcheck, the largest coral reef monitoring program, 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 Cambodian government has recently classified seahorses as endangered, making them illegal to fish, according to Ferber.
In order to combat the problems of illegal bottom trawling, Marine Conservation Cambodia dropped concrete blocks around an area of diverse sea life with the help of the Fishery Administration. If a trawler tries to drag a weighted net in the area, it will get caught in the blocks.
“A ship won’t have to lose many nets to learn not to fish there anymore,” Ferber said.
Marine conservation in Cambodia is in its infancy; no one even really knows what is in oceans yet. No comprehensive survey of Cambodian ocean life has been done, but Marine Conservation Cambodia and Reefcheck hope to change that.
Kluskens agreed, saying “Without research, you don’t know what to conserve.”
With the help of the 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 coral reefs by counting indicator species, Lamberti said – finally tracking the status of Cambodia’s reefs in a more scientific manner.
The biggest focus of Marine Conservation Cambodia, however, is on land. The group has targeted a community on Koh Rong Samleom, an island right next to ecologically diverse sea grass areas and coral reefs, to educate about marine conservation and to train to protect the area’s oceans.
Again with the help of the Fishery Administration, the Koh Rong Samleom community declared 8,000 hectares of water a community fishing area in September, which means that people outside of the community are not allowed to fish within that designated area without permission. Village members patrol the ocean and regularly expel illegal fishing boats. They already intercepted a boat that had caught about 140 endangered seahorses.
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 hopes to train community members to be scuba divers so they can see for themselves what is bringing tourists to their island and what they are trying to conserve.
The village chief has been hoping to go diving for months and will finally get the opportunity next week when equipment arrives from Thailand. “I want to go diving and see the coral,” Lay Thai told Bora Raan for the umpteenth time.
Caroline St-Denis, who heads an education project at Marine Conservation Cambodia, said, “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 … They will understand that learning to protect the coral will keep people coming,”
Beyond showing government officials what is under the sea, Marine Conservation Cambodia sees children’s education as a key part of their mission.
“The children do most of the fishing. If we teach them now to fish, they’ll pass it on to the next generation,” Ferber said.
Bora Raan, who is the only Khmer diving instruction, said “I learned and got my [diving] certifications, and I want them to do the same. I want them to maybe have a career in the future … I really want all the kids to know how to take care of the ocean.”
Through its involvement in the community, the group has also helped build a path to school so the children do not have to wade through a swamp, taught classes and donated books.
“It’s not so much marine conservation. It’s just needed … Even though our name is Marine Conservation Cambodia, it’s about the village. If they’re not struggling, they’ll be able help,” Ferber said.
To help the village, Marine Conservation Cambodia and the island community will 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 leaves. It’s another technique that prevents bottom trawling, but Ferber and the Lay Thai hope it will also allow for sustainable fishing.
“If we can make it work the fish farm work here, then we can take it to other places in Cambodia,” Ferber said.