Cambodia creates first marine national park

Coral Ocean

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.

Coral 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.”

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.

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.

Read more at Mongabay.

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