- On Cambodia’s coast, a local NGO is building concrete underwater structures in an effort to deter destructive illegal trawlers that kill most everything in the habitat.
- The structures also serve as artificial reefs that provide small nurseries for fish, sponges, grasses and other species.
- An ambitious government plan will erect the structures near 25 fishing communities along the country’s coastline in a bid to revive Cambodia’s nearshore marine fisheries, besieged by years of destructive illegal fishing and increasing development.
- If successful, the plan could bring an influx of funding to fishing communities hit hard by the destruction of marine habitats and loss of income that have forced many to leave in search of other work.
TRAPANG ROPOV, Cambodia — Trudging through a tangle of mangrove roots and muddy water, Taing Kry grimaced and howled as he and a partner shifted the weight of a 120-kilogram (265-pound) concrete pillar from their shoulders onto a plastic raft in the shallows of Trapang Ropov, a rundown fishing village on Cambodia’s southern coast.
“This is a tractor’s work,” Kry called, as two mates stood on a gangplank above him, smoking cigarettes and cracking jokes. “We know,” one of them spat back. “Give us $50 and we will go to the district office and change your name officially … to Mr. Tractor.”
A few miles out to sea, divers wearing weight belts over torn, ill-fitting wetsuits walked around on the seafloor stacking a previous load of pillars into a meter (3-foot) tall hexagonal structure. It’s the latest tactic to resuscitate a community fishery riled by illegal trawlers, whose weighted, often electrified, nets kill, catch or destroy everything in their path, including the very seabed habitat upon which marine life depends.
“You’re knee-deep in mud down there,” one of the divers said. “There’s nothing else; no life, just mud, muck and death.”
Originally developed as crude deterrents to trawling fleets, the concrete structures also provide rare and vital habitats for marine life, mini sanctuaries in a sea of destruction. But the ability to snag illegal fishing nets remains.
“The trawlers have destroyed everything — but now there’s a surprise waiting down there for them,” the diver said. “Let’s see how they like it.”
For four days, this ragtag team of conservationists, volunteers and local fishers cracked jokes and taunted each other as they marked out a new line of defense off Trapang Ropov, in an ongoing battle with trawlers echoed all along Cambodia’s coast.
But the jovial mood belied the job that lay ahead. Trapang Ropov is a practice run for a much bigger undertaking. The underwater concrete structures, devised by local NGO Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), are to form the foundation of an ambitious five-year, $100 million plan to turn struggling coastal fishing communities into thriving hubs for sustainable fisheries, commerce and tourism.
The plan was adopted by the Cambodian government in 2022, with MCC set to begin implementing the crucial first stage of erecting concrete structures near 25 communities sometime in the coming weeks. The goal is to transform the country’s nearshore marine fisheries, besieged by years of illegal fishing and increasing development, into open-water maricultures, where species are managed in their natural environment to achieve prime economic outcomes.
If successful, fishing communities that are on their knees could see an influx of tens of millions of dollars, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which devised and is funding the project via loans and grants, with support from the French Development Agency, following a yearlong study of Cambodia’s coastal fisheries.
“We need to change the way that people think about fishing,” Lindsay Saunders, a marine fisheries expert and project lead for the ADB, told Mongabay. “If we continue as is, everyone will either go hungry or be forced to leave.”
Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment for this story.
Villages in tatters
Once a thriving, close-knit seaside community, Trapang Ropov is a village in tatters. The majority of locals have sold their fishing boats and sent their children to Phnom Penh, fast-developing Preah Sihanouk province or Thailand to labor in construction, factories, fisheries and farms.
From 550 families making a decent living from the sea, the community has dwindled to just 200 over the past five or six years, said Chea Sen, a member of the community council.
“In the past, if you went fishing, you caught lots of fish — simple as that,” he said. “We had a surplus; we could sell to the outside.”
“Now we are just trying to survive,” he added.
Following years of unregulated bottom trawling, the waters off Trapang Ropov are mostly barren; the substrate a thick, lifeless goop with little chance for regeneration. A haul that could previously have been realized in a few hours now takes overnight, and might not be reached at all, fishermen said.
“It’s a risk to buy gasoline — you can’t be sure that you will even come back with enough food for your family to eat,” said Rim Khleang, a 34-year-old with three children at home.
MCC’s crude anti-trawling devices were about their last hope, locals said, following years of well-presented conservation projects that are now evidenced only by faded billboards erected by donors and nonprofits.
And the situation is mirrored along much of Cambodia’s coast, according to the ADB, which spent one year in fishing communities looking for the most sustainable and efficient ways to turn them around.
The bank’s findings were stark.
Cambodia’s seagrass beds, which stabilize the seafloor and provide vital breeding and feeding grounds for other organisms, not to mention store tons of carbon, shrunk by more than 70% between 2017 and 2022, according to the ADB research.
In the same period, about 40% of fishing boats stopped operating, and overall catch decreased by at least 60%. More than half of all catch is now sold as low-value “trash fish,” the hodgepodge of non-target species caught up in trawling nets that are either too young to be sold or not in demand but that when alive are important members of the marine ecosystem. Trash fish, sold by the kilogram, commonly ends up as food for pets, livestock or aquaculture fish.
“We have all the ingredients for a tragedy of the commons,” Saunders, the fisheries expert, said. “Biomass is down to 70% of what it once was; this is starting to reflect in genetic selection. There’s potential for minimized stock.”
The coastwide plan
The concrete blocks deter trawlers, which once came from Vietnam but as fish stocks bottomed out now come mainly from nearby villages. Their fishing nets are too expensive to risk damaging or losing altogether, so they steer clear of areas defended by the structures. And the structures also act as artificial reefs that provide small nurseries for marine life from fish to sponges to the corals, grasses and benthic species that are required to regenerate the destabilized ecosystem.
“The co-benefits are actually greater than the anti-trawling function,” Saunders said.
Under the rehabilitation plan, 25 of the 41 registered community fisheries along Cambodia’s 443-kilometer (275-mile) coast — all those that do not have development projects such as ports or resorts that could nullify conservation efforts — will reframe the way they approach their livelihoods.
Fish landing sites will be consolidated and upgraded, with infrastructure for tracking and quality control.
In communities such as Sre Ambel and Prek Smach, where trash fishing is rife, the concrete blocks will protect blood cockle spawning grounds. Rather than being scooped up by indiscriminate trawlers and sold among low-value trash fish, they can grow larger and be sold at market price for significantly larger profits.
“These are the types of potential earnings lost along the entire coast,” Saunders said.
In other areas, the structures will be used to grow oysters, or as anchor points for seaweed farms. The plan includes incubator programs and other assistance for community members to establish and run their own enterprises.
“First you increase the value of the product, which will in turn create a more sustainable market; then you get more buyers, more visitors, increased tourism. It’s a snowball effect,” Saunders said.
“But if we can’t get these blocks in the water in the next few years, then the whole program is pointless.”
Back on the pier at Trapang Ropov, an old homemade cart creaked in relief as two men used a length of bamboo and two old bike tires to shift the weight of another concrete pillar onto their shoulders.
In the distance, three other fishers turned ad hoc conservationists shoveled wet cement into a wooden mold to produce 10 more.
“I’ll build as many as they need,” one man said.
He’ll need some help: The plan to turn around the 25 community fisheries requires a total of 5,000 anti-trawling devices, or 100,000 handmade concrete pillars.
That’s a massive scale-up from the 230 structures that MCC has used to mark out the border and different zones of Cambodia’s first Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA) in the nearby Kep Archipelago. Even before the government officially established the 11,354-hectare (28,056-acre) MFMA in 2018, MCC patrolled the area, keeping trawlers at bay, and now revived seagrass beds have enabled marine life to flourish, including increased fish stocks and better catch for nearby fishing communities. MCC’s marine mammal program has monitored the return of Irrawaddy dolphins and dugongs, among other species, as the protected area has taken effect.
The idea is to replicate the Kep MFMA’s success on a national scale.
“It’s huge — the biggest thing we’ve ever been involved in,” said Thap Rachana, MCC’s executive director, referring to the nationwide plan.
For now, MCC’s main focus is on upscaling and fine-tuning their methods of deploying the structures. And the demand for concrete pillars has been turned into an opportunity, with seven of the coastal communities already signed up to build them on site, supplementing lost income for at least some period as they wait for the reimagining of Cambodia’s fisheries to bear fruit.
“The fishermen are the most important people in this whole big plan. I work with them every day and I just want to see them smile again,” Rachana said.
“If they don’t buy in to what we are doing, then it’s a waste of time.”
Banner image: Trapang Ropov community members load a concrete pillar onto a raft in Trapang Ropov in March, 2023. Image by Matt Blomberg for Mongabay.
Matt Blomberg is an investigative journalist in Southeast Asia, reporting largely on human trafficking and environmental crimes, as seen in the 2020 documentary Current Sea.
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