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Young guardians of the SEA

Eileen McCormick and Say Tola / Khmer Times Share:
A group of students help preserve Cambodia’s endangered marine life Supplied

Aside from rich agriculture, Cambodia also boasts myriads of marine creatures in its rivers and seas. The giant catfish, for one, is a famous fish species in the Mekong basin. However, the rising water temperatures, garbage and illegal fishing methods are threatening the marine ecosystem. A group of high school students are currently conducting a marine biology research in one of the islands of Cambodia to help preserve the country’s endangered aquatic resources. Eileen McCormick and Say Tola talked with the members of the Liger Marine Research Team – Soliday Yon, Chan Rika, Tep Thathiny, Kimseng Suon and Venghour Than.

The team aims to bring life back in the waters of Kep province. Photo: Supplied

GoodTimes2: Can you tell us about your group?

Ms Thathiny: We are a bunch of 13 to 16-year-old students – the first group to study at Liger Leadership Academy. We are also the first and only high school students in Cambodia to work on a marine biology project, which started last year. We call our group Liger Research Team. There were actually many groups who expressed interest in marine biology, but our group of eight was luckily selected. The main purpose of the research is to study the marine ecosystems in Cambodia. We aim to bring back endangered fish, coral reefs and other marine life back to the Cambodian sea. We do our research on a Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC) –monitored island of Koh Ses. Koh Ses is located in the Gulf of Thailand.

GoodTimes2: What kind of skills and trainings did you need to undergo?

Ms Rika: We first had to learn how to swim, increase our strength and endurance. Then we became certified scuba divers. We held lessons in the classroom before going to the island, then another four days for open water training. We also had to undergo trainings on identifying species of fish and corals and other marine life. The group has a background in science but not on marine biology research, so we had to be trained on how to develop specific research questionnaires and surveys that correlated with our work. It really was a lot of work for us, but we love doing this.

GoodTimes2: What does your mentor organisation, MCC, do?

Ms Soliday: MCC started out in Koh Rong Sonlem but has since been transferred by request of the government to expand the programme to Koh Ses island off Kep. The main purpose of the organisation is to help preserve Cambodian ocean and marine life. MCC has established the Marine Fisheries Management Area, which identifies zones within the ocean to help protect them from overfishing. Specific areas are being monitored for research and conservation, fishing, scuba diving and for other purposes. This is the second time ever that this has been done in Cambodia. It’s really a big deal.

GoodTimes2: Where do you get funding for your project?

The team goes to Koh Ses at least once a month and monitors the aquatic creatures in their assigned zone.

Ms Thathiny: The work we do is not at all cheap. We need funding and equipment to make our research possible. We need to go to the island every month for two years to conduct the study. We’re lucky that the Lazarus Foundation granted us $15,000. Aside from the financial help, we were also given good equipment by other companies that we can use for the underwater study. MCC is constantly assisting us in budgeting and making financial reports so we don’t lose track of our expenses.

GoodTimes2: How do you conduct your research?

Mr Venghour: We go underwater with clipboards on our hands. We have to check off and complete several tasks. We also have specific markers to identify the area we are exploring. It’s a complicated work. We need to count the number of fish for every 20 meters. We also put a cluster – similar to a buoy –to mark our research area. These clusters also serves as an attraction to fish.

GoodTimes2: What challenges did the group face in your research?

Mr Kimseng: When we first studied about the fish and other aquatic creatures, we just saw them on paper, unmoving. So when we went underwater and saw what’s in the sea, we were distracted. We have to pay more attention to the moving fish and identify them correctly.

The eight-member team is on a mission to conduct research on marine life at Koh Ses. Photo: Supplied

It’s also crucial for our team members, for all to be free. We need to consider school works and other errands. Plus, we have to think of the weather and the visibility.

GoodTimes2: What are the preliminary results of your research?

Ms Rika: That last time we completed the base survey, we found that were only very few fish and organisms in our zone. It was because of the illegal fishing and trawling in the area. But as time went by, after we put our artificial reef, we noticed an increase in the number of fish in the site. Our project is actually just one of the 50 blocks created by several groups that are working towards the same goal.

GoodTimes2: How did you get approval for your research project?

Ms Thathiny: Our group went to MCC, where we were given exams. After we passed, we started working with them on the development of our marine biology research. We are currently using the standard method that all MCC projects follow.

GoodTimes2: Do you all plan to pursue a degree in marine biology?

Ms Rika: Yes, some of us would love to. Others even want to just go into general environmental protection programmes. Our time protecting Cambodian natural resources and wild life has really opened our eyes to all that needs to be done in country so we look forward to help in any way we can. It’s also a good thing that the Pannasastra University of Cambodia has opened a marine biology degree that allows more students to participate in marine biology research.

All of the team members are trained in scuba diving. Photos: Supplied

GoodTimes2: Will you continue your research after you graduate?

Ms Thathiny: We think that it would be great if we could, but most likely we are going in different directions after graduation. Our hope is that the junior students might want to follow up on our research. We recently gave a presentation on our work and a few of them seem interested, so we remain hopeful.

GoodTimes2: Do you want to pursue marine biology outside of Cambodia?

All: Yes, but first we want to work inside Cambodia. There are so many things we need to do here. And there’s also a lot of opportunities since marine biology is still new here. We also like to go beyond research. As you may know, Cambodia has some of the worst practices when it comes to garbage disposals. When we’re on the island to conduct the research, we make sure that we pick up trashes and other things. We take plastic caps and put them into cement to make a colorful pathway to our bungalow.

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