KEP CITY – The provincial governor on Thursday called for an end to the illegal fishing that plagues the ocean here, but officials charged with carrying out the order explained how difficult it would be to uproot entrenched fishing communities—especially given that they don’t have a boat.
The establishment on Thursday of a Fisheries Administration cantonment in Kep was described by governor Ken Satha as a turning point in the battle to save the vital underwater ecosystem here, which is torn apart in swaths almost every night when fishing boats drag weighted nets across the fragile seabed.
“Year after year, we have seen that our sea resources are being reduced. There is not a lot of legal fishing here,” Mr. Satha said at a ceremony to inaugurate the new fisheries cantonment, which brings Kep in line with other coastal provinces.
“Please, all authorities, cooperate with fisheries officials to protect our sea resources and put an end to illegal fishing.”
The ceremony elevated Kuch Virak from his position as deputy chief of the Kampot fisheries cantonment to head the Kep branch, with a team of three deputies and 10 officers set to do battle with the roughly 50 boats, mostly from Prek Tanin village, that continue to ply the waters despite increasing pressure to stop.
“Those fishermen have a lot of tactics and we have never had the tools to stop them,” Mr. Satha said. “There have only been four fisheries officers, so when they came face to face with suspects, there was always the risk of an incident.”
However, while Mr. Virak has been given the authority and the team to tackle the trawlers—often manned by crews that use electric currents to stun sea life and simplify their job—he is still lacking one vital tool.
“We don’t have a patrol boat and we don’t know when we will get one,” he said, explaining that the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries was currently discussing how to provide the new cantonment with a vessel. A ministry spokesman could not be reached.
In the meantime, Mr. Virak said, he would collaborate with Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), an organization stationed on Koh Seh island that has loaned vessels to fisheries officials in the past.
Cambodia’s 2006 Fisheries Law effectively makes all trawling illegal in the shallow inshore waters off Kep. Electric fishing is outlawed across the country. And while Mr. Virak said he was eager to finally wipe out these two methods, which conservationists say have decimated Kep’s fish stocks and breeding grounds almost to a point of no return, he also warned of the social upheaval that could ensue should the fishermen from Prek Tanin be stripped of the income stream that they have relied on for so long.
“We need to give more consideration to how to deal with these people who are using methods that they would call traditional,” Mr. Virak said. “They have been fishing in the area since 1992; the law came after that, so there must be more discussions.”
Sao Sarin, chief of the fisheries cantonment in Kampot, where illegal fishing is also rampant, was at Thursday’s event and said that the solution could be in sacrificing part of the ocean to the trawlers in exchange for them leaving the rest to flourish.
“We must separate the seagrass from the trawling,” he said, conceding that a definite end to all illegal fishing was unlikely. “You want to stop it all? OK, let’s just bring all boats back to the mainland and keep them here.”
During and following the ceremony to inaugurate the new Fisheries cantonment, tourism was repeatedly raised as the chief reason to shut down the illegal trawlers, which in one night can turn crystal waters into a murky brown soup.
Som Chenda, director of the provincial tourism department, claimed that the province had already received in excess of 1 million visitors this year (up from 700,000 in all of 2014) and said that banishing the trawlers was key to the survival of one of the province’s biggest draws.
“The crab, there is not enough for all the tourists coming to Kep province—the governor has talked about that as well. The crab in Kep is very good, very delicious,” he said. No trawlers, he added, would mean “more crabs. More crabs, more tourists.”
Diving, too, has great potential in the waters of Kep and the archipelago that stretches south from its coast, according to Paul Ferber, the director of MCC, which is working to rehabilitate the seagrass around Koh Seh.
“The area could be perfect for Cambodians to learn to dive. There are no real currents, the water is not deep. It could be a training ground,” he said.
“There is huge potential for accomplished divers as well. There are shallow reefs—more diverse than in Sihanoukville—seahorses and all sorts of uncommon sea life that you can’t see in other areas. For underwater photographers, it would be an absolute mecca.”
Mr. Ferber said he had operated dive tours here previously but was forced to give up.
“You just can’t trust the conditions,” he said. “If the trawlers have been out the night before, you can’t even see your student in front of you.”