Koh Kong province – While development plans abound for Koh Kong province, and the planners plot new roads, ports, power plants and factories, 70 percent of the people in this province still make their living by fishing.
Despite the progress made in the past three years by some conservation groups, sources agree that fish stocks in the Gulf of Thailand are declining. And many locals in Koh Kong are feeling the pressure of dwindling fish stocks and growing competition from overseas commercial fishers.
“Before we could catch 5 to 10 kg a day. Now we get less than 5 kg,” said Bun My, a deputy village chief in Chroy Pros fishing village on Koh Kong island. “There are too many people in this business.”
Koh Kong Fisheries Department Director Hout Thoung said the number of fishermen in the province ballooned during the 1980s and early 1990s, when people were too afraid to work in the mountains because of the presence of Khmer Rouge fighters.
Add to that relatively small territorial waters available for fishing, and the use of increasingly sophisticated equipment as fishers compete with each other for limited resources, and overfishing seems inevitable, he said.
Others made a starker assessment.
“Fisheries are being severely depleted right now by foreign trawlers and by illegal fishing methods by local fishermen,” said Suwanna Gauntlett, country director of WildAid, a conservation group active in Koh Kong.
Declining catches are driving fishers to use methods that cause major environmental damage, such as tightly woven dragnets, electrocution, poisons and explosives, to increase their yields, she said.
While Gauntlett worries about cyanide use, the fishermen of Chroy Pros worry about Thai trawlers.
Complaints of unfair competition from large commercial fishers include conflicts between Cambodian fisherman and complaints that Thai trawlers come at night to fish illegally in Cambodian waters.
“The sea stock is going to be all lost, because they weave the nets so small,” said Saing Ravy, a 35-year-old fisherman in Chroy Pros. “I see trawlers increasing day after day, so the small boats will starve.”
According to one local official, who did not wish to be named, Thai trawlers continue to take advantage of Cambodia’s weak navy and poorly defined maritime borders to fish in Cambodian waters.
Cambodia, the official said, does not have enough manpower to monitor its territory, and boats leave no tracks that could support an accusation.
Others claim the local authorities are complicit.
“The trawlers pay bribes so they can access the fishing in shallow waters or prohibited areas,” Saing Ravy alleged.
“Based on our experience, there are several government enforcement bodies that are taking taxes from trawlers to allow them to fish in Cambodian waters,” Gauntlett claimed.
The same enforcement agencies that are unable to stop the large trawlers, however, seem quite capable of demanding bribes from smaller boat owners, Saing Ravy claimed.
Much of the coast of Koh Kong province consists of large mangrove forests, a coastal ecosystem that provides a breeding ground for sea life. Mangroves, however, are highly vulnerable to damage from shrimp farming, trawling, pollution and the cutting of trees to burn for charcoal.
By 2000, Hout Thoung said, much of the mangroves along Koh Kong’s coast were gone or seriously endangered. Now, he said, there are areas where the mangroves seem to be beginning to make a recovery.
In Koh Sralauv village, on Koh Sralauv island in the Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, village officials said that mangrove area has actually increased, thanks to efforts by the Ministry of Environment and organizations such as Danida and CARE.
“When the mangroves grow, it can support our living conditions,” said village Chief Ken Sayuth. “It can be a harbor of sea stock; it is a resource to support fish and lives.”
Ken Sayuth is one fisherman who said the sea around Koh Sralauv island had become more abundant in the past year.
Deputy Village Chief Bun My said people from his village had also stopped cutting mangrove trees for charcoal, although they still cut small amounts for construction and home maintenance.
While acknowledging that something has been achieved in Koh Sralauv, Gauntlett said that in the rest of Koh Kong province mangrove ecosystems are still under serious threat.
The mangroves, experts agree, are a magnet for impoverished people from around the country to come to try to make money from charcoal production.
One of WildAid’s projects, Gauntlett explained, is patrolling the mangroves to try to shut down charcoal burning operations.
The situation in most of Peam Krasop park is not improving, she said, and charcoal kilns abound wherever “rigorous patrolling and law enforcement” are not available to stop them.
But what happens to the charcoal-sellers whose businesses are shut down by patrols, or “discouraged” by conservation programs?
“They change from the charcoal producers to the fishermen,” said Kim Nong, a team leader for the Ministry of Environment’s Participatory Management of Mangrove Resources project.
Some of the migrant workers who came from other provinces may return home, Kim Nong said.
“But some people, they don’t have the money to go back to their hometown, so they stay and become a fisherman,” he added.
And as more fishermen in Koh Kong province compete for diminishing fish catches, a simple fact becomes evident: “There’s not enough for everybody,” said Gauntlett.