Illegal fishing in Ream National Park threatens to wipe out fish stocks in the next five years, cutting deeply into the already meager livelihoods of villagers, according to a new report
Illegal trawlers, which can collect more fish in a few of hours than village fishermen can catch in several months, are seriously depleting fish stocks, according to the report by a team of experts led by Thanakvaro Thyl de Lopez, a Cambodian scholar at Cambridge University in the UK.
But park rangers, who are paid about $9 a month, can’t afford fuel to run regular patrols, said Kan Vibol of the Parks Society of Cambodia, who worked on the report. In addition, their boats often are too slow to catch the high-powered vessels that offenders use.
The rangers also have no way to defend themselves against armed poachers.
Undersecretary of State for the Environment Ministry Thuk Kroeun Vutha acknowledged the problem, but he said there isn’t enough money to pay rangers and equip them to do their jobs effectively.
Based on a previous survey from the Ministry of Environment, the report estimates a 40 percent decline in legal fish catches between 1996 and 2000. At current fishing levels, all fish will be gone by 2005. Eighty-nine percent of fishermen said their catches had shown a marked decline in the last five years.
The decline is partly to blame for the extreme poverty affecting the 4,640 families living in the park, according to the report. Villagers earn an average of $92 a year compared to the nationwide average of $268. Fifty-eight percent of families rely on fishing for part or all of their incomes.
The threat comes not from local fishermen, who have practiced subsistence fishing in the park for centuries, but from large-scale illegal operations that use techniques that are prohibited in the park. The number of families logging or hunting illegally is “insignificant,” according to the survey.
The park, known as “the jewel of the south” for its beauty and abundance of animals and plants, has been severely degraded by widespread illegal logging, which came to an abrupt end after the Ministry of Environment extended ranger patrols.
The five-year project, funded by the UN Development Program, concluded in December 1999. UNDP spokesman John Britain said there are no plans to fund another such project. Currently, only a few Cambodians and about 200 foreigners visit the park each year, the report stated.
Based on extensive surveys of tourists in the beaches around Kompong Som, it is estimated that at least 10,000 tourists would visit the park annually if its facilities were improved over the next five years. The improvements, which include doubling the number of rangers to 50, raising their wages and offering training, would cost about $500,000, according to the report. The report projects that nearly $68,000 could be generated from tourist traffic.
(Additional reporting by Alex Devine)