In February, Cambodia announced the establishment of its very first marine national park, covering 524 square kilometers (202 square miles) in the Gulf of Thailand. But the declaration does nothing to protect the environment, at least in the short term, with no new patrols of the heavily fished waters until next year, and a $2 billion island development plan allowed to continue unhindered.
Declared in the name of protecting biodiversity and encouraging tourism, the Koh Rong Marine National Park takes in the seven islands of the Koh Rong archipelago, 10.5 kilometers (6.5 miles) offshore, and the web of coral, seagrass and mangrove ecosystems around them. It expands upon a conservation area set up in 2016 that already restricts certain kinds of fishing.
“The existing plan is not enough; the new area extends to protecting terrestrial, as well as marine [areas],” Thay Chantha, director of marine conservation at Cambodia’s Environment Ministry, which is charged with managing the new park, told Mongabay.
Wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia’s tiny territorial waters have long been plundered by illegal fishing gangs feeding an ever-rising demand for seafood. Under the 2016 conservation plan, island locals were put to work patrolling their waters. The scheme appears to have curtailed illegal activity, but in no way eradicated it.
“We cannot say they have been successful,” Chantha said of the patrols, which are managed by the Fisheries Administration, a government agency dogged by corruption and hamstrung by a severe lack of resources.
Little fish, big fish
With Cambodia’s tourism industry and economy booming, its tropical islands and coral reefs are becoming increasingly popular among domestic and foreign tourists. The Environment Ministry plans to assign at least 30 full-time rangers to patrol the new park’s waters. They will also begin policing environmental issues on the park’s islands, which are home to dozens of beach bars and guesthouses and a few thousand locals living in rudimentary villages. (The Fisheries Administration has no jurisdiction on land.)
However, the new rangers won’t arrive until 2019 at the earliest, Chantha said, citing a lengthy formal process for recruiting civil service staff. And when they do start, those patrolling for violations on land will be hitting small targets only.
“We are worried about households, about private restaurants and such that sometimes open in the community without conducting an EIA,” or environmental impact assessment, he said. “But the main developers, such as Royal Group, they already have their agreements with the government. For my department, that’s not our responsibility.”
The Royal Group is Cambodia’s largest conglomerate, headed by Kith Meng, an Australian-educated tycoon and adviser to the Cambodian prime minister. In 2008, Royal Group was granted a 99-year lease on the jewels in the archipelago, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. In December, the company’s flagship $30 million Royal Sands Koh Rong resort finally opened for business, more than two years behind schedule. Planned casinos, an airport, golf courses and a marina on the two islands have yet to break ground.
In 2016, local officials ordered Royal Group to tear down a mainland pier and cease construction of an island port, saying they lacked proper paperwork, which scuttled plans to transport building materials. The conglomerate has also battled island residents over land ownership. Vice chairman Kith Thieng, Kith Meng’s brother, told Mongabay that Royal Group was not building on the island at present and that its newly minted 67-villa resort had taken steps to control its environmental impact. “There are systems in place to dispose of all waste,” he said.
Slow recovery for corals and seagrass
Remote and largely lawless, the Koh Rong archipelago makes an ideal staging ground for outlaw fishing operations. Some of the most destructive techniques — such as blast fishing, which stuns schools of fish with explosives, and cyanide fishing, which mildly poisons fish — were once common in the area. Today’s criminal fishermen, though, are generally more discreet.
Some use the islands for cover between stints fishing further out to sea for high-value catches like sailfish and mackerel, or for large quantities of lesser-value species like squid. Others trawl weighted nets through the shallow waters around the islands, laying waste to seagrass meadows in the hunt for shrimp and crabs.
However, Cambodia’s 2006 fisheries law provided the impetus for authorities to begin reining in — ever so slowly — an anarchic fishing scene, giving ecosystems that host species such as seahorses, sea turtles and dugongs a chance to recover.
“The health of the coral reefs is always improving,” said Pierre Kann, a dive instructor at the Koh Rong Dive Center. Foreign fishing boats “used to be everywhere,” he said. “Now you barely see them.”
Kann has lived on and off the islands for much of his adult life. He said he is seeing thousands of recreational divers come through each week, up tenfold in three years. “A lot of high-ranking people are coming to dive, a lot of wealthy people coming to learn before they go on a holiday to the Maldives,” he said. “It is becoming very popular among Cambodians.”
Expanding on the pre-existing 405-square–kilometer (156-square-mile) protected area, the new park takes in five additional islets to the north: Koh Koun, Koh Tatiem, Koh Touch, Koh Manoa Krav and Koh Manoa Knong. Some of these areas are still being discovered — or rediscovered — as illegal fishing activity recedes.
“We spent days clearing away the ghost nets,” Kann said of old fishing nets entangled in coral at a new dive spot. “And underneath was the most beautiful thing. We called it ‘Secret Reef.’”
In spite of the archipelago’s visible recovery, a number of people interviewed by Mongabay said that illegal fishing by local and foreign vessels and the illegal trade of marine life have remained ubiquitous, even with fishing laws and a conservation area in place.
“Two or three Vietnamese boats land on Koh Rong every day, sell their catch and go back to work,” one boat captain, who asked to remain anonymous, said of crews that sweep the ocean floor for species such as clams and sea urchins.
“There is very little enforcement,” he said. “The marine police come to take payments and people are allowed to fish as they wish.”
Policing Cambodia’s waters is a complex task. While the Fisheries Administration is barely equipped to fill its mandate enforcing fisheries laws, its work is multiplied and complicated by the presence of illegal foreign vessels. At the same time, its mission can easily be undermined by corruption among low-level officials with little incentive to venture out to sea at night to confront fishing gangs.
Meanwhile, authorities charged with border enforcement are routinely accused of taking money in exchange for granting passage to foreign vessels — a type of arrangement that is pervasive in a nation of poorly paid civil servants. Foreign fishermen have told this reporter that they pay authorities for the privilege of fishing Cambodia’s waters, and produced receipts as evidence. Cambodia ranks 161st out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index, falling five places from the previous year’s index.
For decades, networks of crooked businesspeople and government officials have stripped Cambodia of its natural resources. But the country has recently reformed its Environment Ministry, and, it appears, sent it to begin sorting through a quagmire that stretches the length of the coast. Two years ago, the ministry was similarly handed control of the country’s forests, which, for decades, have been looted while ostensibly protected.
Since 2012, the U.K.-based NGO Fauna and Flora International has been doing conservation work in the Koh Rong archipelago, including establishing and managing the original protected area alongside the Fisheries Administration. Its project manager for coastal and marine conservation in Cambodia, Marianne Teoh, welcomed collaboration with the Environment Ministry. Teoh said it was vital, however, that the ministry took into account the non-profit’s six years of research, planning and on-the-ground work when setting up the new marine park. “There is the opportunity now for the new legislation to build on the work at the site, to reinforce existing management capacity and enhance ongoing efforts,” she said.
While the declaration of Cambodia’s first marine national park comes with no new patrols of its waters, discussions to redesign protection efforts in the archipelago are underway, according to Ouk Vibol, head of marine conservation at the Fisheries Administration. For now, the community patrols will continue. Vibol called them a success, saying they had reduced illegal fishing by 80 percent in less than two years. And Environment Ministry rangers will be welcomed to the fold, whenever their day comes, he added.
“We don’t know about the Ministry of Environment side, but we will continue to do our work,” he said. “We all want to see more coral, more seagrass, more mangroves, more tourism and more income for locals. I hope the two ministries can get along.”
Matt Blomberg is a freelance journalist based in Cambodia since 2012. He doesn’t tweet much, but you can follow him @BlombergMD.
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