As the lunch hour inches closer and the sun gets brighter, Kep’s small-yet-bustling Psar Kdam (crab market) is filling up fast. After all, this sleepy coastal town – once known as the playground of the creme de la creme of Cambodia’s society – is known for its blue swimmer crabs, to the extent where a statue of a blue swimmer crab exists to welcome visitors to Kep. Fishermen toil underneath the sun to haul in the famed catch as hungry hordes of tourists descend on the packed market.
“On an average day, usually I can manage around 80 kilograms,” said Boung Srey, a crab vendor who has worked on Kep’s crab flats for 25 years.
“But on a good day, I can sell over a hundred kilograms, easy.”
Another vendor, Meas Raksmey, stood by his stall and concurred with Srey. “There’s a lot of money to be made here,” said Raksmey, who had worked on a fishing boat prior to becoming a vendor’s assistant at the market.
“On a bad day I can probably shift around 20-30 kilograms of crabs a day,” said Raksmey. “But I can easily sell around 80 kilograms on a good day.”
The crowd continues to grow as lunch hour beckons, and the flurry of activity shifts from the crab stalls by the waterfront to the kitchens behind it. Judging by the healthy amount of interest from locals and tourists alike, as well as the amount of crabs being pushed by vendors and willingly taken by the hungry crowds, this is indeed Kep’s main draw.
However, a simple nudge to the right side just moments later reveals a gloomier portrait of this idyllic seaside retreat. When asked where crabs came from, Srey’s answer is short.
“Vietnam,” she explained. “You can’t get crabs this size in Kep’s waters anymore.”
It seems Kep’s main draw is actually hauled from the backyard of its historical nemesis. So what gives?
“If you take a closer look at the state of Kep’s coastline, you’ll be able to see immediately the true extent of the damage on its coastal habitats,” explained the director of Marine Conservation Cambodia, Paul Ferber.
“Conservative estimates place the extent of destruction at around 50 percent, but from what we have observed, the figure is probably closer to 80 percent.”
The main cause behind the destruction of Cambodia’s prime crustacean real estate, according to Ferber, is the continued intrusion of illegal fishing vessels into Kep’s coastal waters.
“These shallow, seaweed-covered waters are not only breeding grounds for these swimmer crabs, but also for numerous other species,” he continued.
“Indiscriminate, illegal fishing is causing widespread damage to these pristine marine habitats, and this could be seen in the size of the individual crabs that are caught within these waters – they are likely to be undersized crabs that under other jurisdictions, would have to be returned.”
And thus begins the vicious cycle that is so commonly seen in developing economies – the absence of consistent enforcement, compounded by the lack of willpower to address the issue as well as poverty, has ultimately resulted in the over-exploitation of a natural resource that will eventually run out.
“For example, we have been waiting for five months to get one signature from the provincial level to implement our programme to combat illegal fishing at the provincial level,” said Ferber.
“The funding is ready, the equipment is here, but we cannot go beyond the concessions that we have been given.
“It really is a shame because we can see in our small patch of seabed that within as little as six months, the seabed is ready to support its own ecosystem,” he continued. “Fish and other crustaceans have returned to spawn in the absence of illegal trawlers that hauls and destroys everything in its path.”
Ferber believes the key to solving Kep’s crab conundrum is closer cooperation between all stakeholders to enforce existing regulations to prevent further destruction to the ecosystem, especially considering that the ecosystem itself is the main driver behind the local economy.
“Many people get bogged down in the minor details – especially when the incident involves a border incursion by a vessel with a foreign flag of convenience,” he said. “What everyone must realise is that by enforcing fishery regulations within their own borders, they are doing their part for the environment.”
The government, continued Ferber, also needs to cooperate more closely – both within its ranks and with its people – to ensure a mutually symbiotic relationship between its citizens and the ecosystem. “Think of it this way… for every day that passes without any intervention, around five illegal fishing vessels can come through the Vietnamese border and wreak havoc on the ecosystem’s balance,” he explained. “This is the price of complacency in Cambodia’s contested waters.”