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Islanders Begin Protection of Their Waters

The 437 families living on Koh Rong have established a fishing community to preserve 5,000 hectares of ocean and rivers, hoping to protect the aquatic creatures and plants that have made life on this island sustainable—and could even make tourism here prosperous.

The community’s chief, Yun Mon, said the group was established two months ago to stop illegal fishing, after a survey by Sihanoukville’s fishery department showed a major depletion of the once-rich sea life around the island.

“The survey shows that a day’s catch for a fisherman on average dropped from 30 kilograms last year to 15 kilograms this year,” he said, adding that the livelihood of Koh Rong islanders is reliant on the sea.

The decline in marine life was due to an increase in local populations, illegal fishing and mangrove clearance on the coast, he said.

Choung Sam At, a Sihanoukville fishery official, said the boundary of the Koh Rong fishing community was designed around water areas up to 20 meters in depth, which are home to seaweed species, reef and a variety of fish that may prove to be attractive to divers.

“It is necessary to protect them; the seaweed and reefs are attractive for tourist divers,” he said. “Where there are seaweed and reefs, there are combinations of colorful fish.”

The areas are protected from big commercial fishing, but limited catches on a small scale or through traditional means are allowed for the islanders.

Illegal fishing remains a problem. Trawlers, which are definitely banned from the 20-meter waters, are often seen drifting in at night.

However, concrete pilings up to a meter in diameter have been laid underwater as a deterrent, which is helping keep the bigger boats out of the protected areas Choung Sam At said.

The preservation efforts could take between five and 15 years to renew the richness of the sea areas, he said.

Ung Nit, deputy chief of Koh Rong commune, said the percentage of fishermen on the island had dropped from about 70 percent of the population of 1,400 to 30 percent. Some fishermen had given sold off their tackle and boats to jobs as construction workers or woodsmen. Those who have kept fishing sell their catch in Sihanoukville markets. (Duch Sokhom, chief of the commune, disputed the decline, saying around 70 percent of the islanders remain fishermen.)

Koh Rong fishermen hold out hope that an island resort development planned by Phnom Pen’s Royal Group will bring them better business.

“I think I will get more benefits if I sell my fish to the company here, rather than going to [Sihanoukville],” said Si Sanh, a 39-year-old islander. “I keep losing 10 liters of gasoline by piloting my long-tailed boat to Sihanoukville to sell my fish.”

Jacov Mentross, business and finance manager for the Royal Group, said the preservation work by the fishing community will rehabilitate some of the marine life. He expects the new resort to buy fish from the locals.

About 120,000 people will begin working on the hotel and casino project, he said.

“A lot of people on the island are fishermen, and they may chose to continue to be fishermen,” he said. “Then it will be great for us…. Instead of selling their catches at Sihnoukville, there will be a large industry on the island where they can sell their catches directly to the island.”