The Koh Rong Archipelago is the first protected marine area in Cambodian waters. If all goes well, it won’t be the last.
For years, the waters off the Cambodian coast have suffered from neglect; illegal fishing vessels have moved with virtual impunity and mangrove and coral habitats have been partly destroyed, all to the detriment of the fishing communities scattered along the coastline and islands. But after nearly five years of planning and consultations, a more-than-400 square kilometer area of the Koh Rong archipelago off Sihanoukville is officially a Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA).
When Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Veng Sakhon signed off on the plan on June 16, the area, which encompasses the waters around seven islands, including Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloeum, became the country’s first ever protected marine zone.
That means the waters of the Koh Rong archipelago are designated in four ways: as a mixed-use zone, conservation zone, recreation zone and a community fishery. If it goes as planned, the MFMA will protect the archipelago’s vital mangroves, seagrass and corals and protect the incomes of the nearly 3,000 people who live on the islands and the many more who venture out from the mainland.
According to Kate West, the project manager for Fauna & Flora International’s Coastal and Marine Conservation Project, the country’s coastal waters have until recently been largely ignored by conservation organizations and the government. FFI is the only international organization working on marine protection, while on land a host of big conservation groups have projects in Cambodia. “Although there’s a big freshwater fishery in Cambodia, still 15 percent of protein comes from the sea,” West says. “The effects of climate change are going to get worse and people are going to have to turn to other sources of protein. Increasingly the ocean has been seen as this limitless supply of food, and it’s not going to be unless we look after it.”
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Ben Thorne, the Project Director at Song Saa Foundation, is quick to point out that many of the measures proposed within the MFMA had already been put into place in recent years. The plan’s zoning includes three community fisheries, which were established seven years ago. Residents within each community fishery determine the regulations and conservation plans for their area. They organize patrol teams and police the waters, chastising vessels fishing in areas that are off-limits, or that are using methods that violate the law.
A member of the Prek Svay community fishery patrol team. Paul Colley
Representatives from these community fisheries, Thorne says, have been a vital part of setting up the MFMA. “We’re in this as an advisory group, to support capacity, and the community fisheries are actively engaging in their management plans to support their own environment,” he says. “That’s what the whole thing is about. It’s about the communities taking ownership of their own environment and managing it themselves through the support of the external community.”
Van Sokhorn, the chief of patrol of a community fishery off Koh Rong Samloeum, says that initially the restrictions were met with concern by some. “The initial steps were difficult because before people were fishing freely,” he says. “But when they learned more about this they turned their thinking and saw the community played a role in protecting the resources for them, not for other people. Local people saw that the ocean is their life and that if they protect the ocean, it protects their lives.”
Sokhorn says that boats patrol the fishery 12 times per month. Because they don’t have the right to make arrests or to fine illegal vessels, their role is largely educational, informing violators of the restrictions and if need be threatening to call the authorities. Sometimes, rangers from the Preah Sihanouk Fisheries Administration will join patrols, as will members of the military, according to Ouk Vibol, the director of the Fisheries Administration’s Conservation Department. Sokhorn says that he has seen fishing conditions improve since the community fisheries were set up, but he speculated that may also be because more members of his village are now working in tourism, rather than commercial fishing. “There may be fewer people fishing,” he says. “But we know that it’s increasing the yield.”
One aspect of the MFMA that is completely new is the creation of recreation areas, which will be off-limits to fishing but open for scuba diving. This is good news for Pheareak Kann, the founder of Save Cambodian Marine Life, a local conservation group focusing on coral reef protection, who also runs a diving company off Koh Rong Samloeum. Along with other representatives of the tourism industry, Kann has participated in the working group negotiating the MFMA plan.
A shot taken by drone of Koh Rong Samloeum. FFI
“At the moment coral is in a very dangerous situation,” he says. “Because very few people understand the importance of coral reefs. And very few understand what kind of fish population they shouldn’t catch.” For the last few years, Kann and his team have been growing coral, which they attach to frames made out of PVC pipes, and place in shallow water. When the coral reaches maturity, it is then moved to the natural reefs in the Gulf of Thailand. Regardless of his organization’s individual efforts, Kann sees government protection as the only way to save and regrow the marine habitat. And he says the approval of the management area is coming at a crucial time.
Whereas five years ago, he saw about 80 tourists visit the islands per day, in high season the Koh Rong archipelago now averages about 10 times that. Inevitably, that’s coincided with increased interest in diving. But Kann is aware of the limits the marine habitat offers to tourists. “Diving is increasing because people know that it’s a new destination so they want to explore and see what’s there,” he says. “After they dive and they want to make a choice they would probably choose somewhere else that’s a bit better. After two years, with protection, I’d say we’d be equal with Thailand. We have so many islands, so many reefs, we just need protections.”
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The big challenge now in implementing the MFMA is in enforcement and funding. The community fishery patrols will continue, but there is a hope among stakeholders that the Fisheries Administration will have more of a presence. “So far enforcement isn’t very strong,” Vibol says. “Since there aren’t clear boundaries and the areas haven’t had the signature of the MFMA yet. Now I think the patrolling will be stronger.” Still, it is unclear how the patrols will be funded. “You can do a little bit with donor money for a while but in the long term it’s going to need significant continuous sustainable funding,” says FFI’s West.
A fish hides itself in a bed of sea anemone. Paul Colley
One proposal that the working group is leaning towards is implementing a fee of a few dollars for visitors to the islands that would go towards conservation activities. That way, tourists would be buying into the idea of entering a protected area, and could contribute directly to preserving it. “We’re trying to integrate more sustainable tourism because the site is incredibly beautiful and one of the reasons people go there is because it is incredibly beautiful,” she says.
“So the way to maintain it is by working with business owners and people involved in the tourism sector to maintain it. There are lots of examples in Thailand where tourism has exploded and kind of ruined things. We don’t want that to happen here.”
Song Saa Foundation, which serves as the scientific data arm of the project, will be monitoring the impacts of the MFMA. If in a few years there are indications that the protections are working, Thorne hopes that other parts of the Cambodian Exclusive Economic Zone will have a similar designation.
“It’s very easy to write a piece of legislation, stamp it, tick a box and say we have a marine protected area, but to make it effective at the community level it’s needed the five years to have the community system in place,” he says. “The great thing is that we have the framework so now we know how it operates and how we do it, so it’ll be a much quicker process to get the next one established.”