In open seas off the coast of Sihanoukville, Vietnamese fishermen floating in cane baskets are the bottom rung of a lucrative squid-fishing racket that extends to the highest echelons of the Cambodian navy.
GULF OF THAILAND – For 15 hours a day—from before the sun rises until after it is gone—Nguyen Truong is cast adrift in a cane basket, bobbing around the open seas fishing for squid.
“In Vietnam, there is no squid,” the 69-year-old said from his fishing basket last week. “Cambodia has squid, and we need it.”
Each morning at about 4 a.m., dozens of unflagged fishing boats detach from moorings off the islands of Koh Tang and Koh Rong Sanloem and motor into open water, where they lower hundreds of Vietnamese anglers into solitude, and an ocean teeming with squid.
Armed with long lines and hundreds of lures, the fishermen—who get no respite from the searing sun or violent storms—collectively pull hundreds of kilograms of squid out of the ocean in a day.
Shortly after 7 p.m., the mother boats return, hauling the fishermen aboard and heading back to their moorings to tally the day’s catch.
“I can collect up to 10 kg of squid each day,” Mr. Truong said through a translator. “Once a week, we go to Koh Tral, where we sell the squid for [about $5] a kilo.”
About 40 km southwest of Sihanoukville, this vast and lucrative squid racket is plundering the seas unimpeded, and, according to the fishermen, the Royal Cambodian Navy is being paid for the privilege.
Over two days last week, Vietnamese men who fish from the baskets, captain the ships and say they have delivered the bribes spoke openly about their life at sea and what amounts to a multi-million-dollar operation.
“This is a good job for making money,” Mr. Truong said. “It is easy; we just throw the line and lure into the water, wait for two hours, and drag it back in.”
Mr. Truong mans one of 16 fishing baskets (thung chai in Vietnamese) handled by a mother ship whose captain claims 2 kg of every 10 kg of squid that comes aboard. In return, the captain scouts the best fishing spots, allows the 16 fishermen to spend their nights on his 50-footer, and takes them to the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc—called Koh Tral in Cambodia—once a week to sell their catch.
“I can make between $500 and $600 every month,” Mr. Truong said. “Working the sea is easier than working the land.”
Apart from his fishing gear, Mr. Truong carries a gas cooker, a stock of rice, canned fish, water and plenty of cigarettes—all stacked under the basket-spanning timber platform that he sits on throughout the day. Two timber poles extend overhead from the basket, with a canvas sail attached to catch the wind. He has an anchor, but drops it only when a swell threatens to carry him away.
For emergencies, he has a light attached to his makeshift mast, a two-way radio, ropes, a paddle, and a moldy life jacket, which he pointed to when asked if he can swim.
“In bad situations, I am able to float.”
The thung chai bob around listlessly, spread out over great swaths of the sea with hundreds of meters of ocean between them. In 10 years on the job, Mr. Truong said he had heard of “many” men who had not returned from their day at work, lost at sea without a trace. His decades of experience, however, save him from fear.
“I have skill,” he said when asked how he combats storms. “When there are big waves, I can maneuver my thung chai to avoid anything from happening. I don’t think anything that happens in this ocean can kill me.”
About 15 km from where the thung chai were floating last week is the island of Koh Tang, and the Koh Tang Naval Base. On the mainland, some 40 km away, is the Navy headquarters.
None of this inspires concern among the fishermen.
“We moor half the time at Koh Rong Sanloem and half at Koh Tang,” Mr. Truong said. “It’s as if we are living in Vietnamese territory.”
Viet Nan, 47, has been fishing from thung chai for 20 years. He and two of his sons are part of a team of 17 attached to another mother boat. His third son, who lives with his mother on Phu Quoc, plans to make his debut before the rainy season.
“Most of the men who get lost, it happens in the rainy season,” Mr. Nan said Wednesday. “Last year, we lost five or six people. They were never seen again.”
Mr. Nan pointed to his bilge pump when asked what stood between him and wild weather. He insisted that his shirt was useful for plugging holes, and said that if a basket does capsize, the only hope is that another fisherman is close enough to see through the storm and radio for help.
But even then, the chances aren’t good.
“When there is strong winds or a storm, the boat does not risk coming to pick us up,” he said, his basket rising steeply then dipping with the swell. “They wait until the storm is over and then they come.”
“If your thung chai capsizes and no one is around to see, maybe that is the end.”
Over the years, Mr. Nan said, he has seen many seamen extorted by authorities in the ocean or detained and taken to dry land to be shaken down for cash. But that process has now been streamlined, he said, with direct, monthly payments.
“Police don’t arrest us now because we pay the Navy,” he said, explaining that the 17 fishermen hand a collective $1,000 to the mother boat’s captain each month to buy protection from the law.
Mr. Truong said his team paid $1,100 each month.
“The captain of the boat takes our payments,” Mr. Nan said. “Small people working for [Royal Cambodian Navy Commander] Tea Vinh collect the money from him.”
Each evening, with dozens of boats anchored on the backsides of Koh Tang and Koh Rong Sanloem, the fishermen trade information—honest or otherwise—about the day’s yield. Good captains solicit weather reports and other useful information from locals in order to establish the best place to drop the fishermen the next day.
Early Thursday morning, the floating fishermen were further west than the day before, some 15 km southwest of Koh Rong Sanloem. As the thung chai began to appear as dots on the horizon, so too did one of the mother boats.
The captain of the boat, Treung Than, welcomed reporters aboard his 50-foot vessel, offering menthol cigarettes as his brother dragged a long line up the stern (the lone basket still on the boat was in for repairs, but that wouldn’t keep him from his daily catch).
Mr. Than, 42, explained how the 15 men that he navigates the seas for were family, friends and neighbors from his village on Phu Quoc. In 10 years fishing from a thung chai himself, he earned enough to buy a boat in 2010 and make himself a captain.
“I stopped fishing from the basket because this is much more profitable,” he said. “For every 10 kg [of squid] the fishermen bring back, I get 2 kg.”
Squid fetches about $4.50 per kg on Phu Quoc, he said, which translates to a few thousand dollars a month for Mr. Than if he has a good run reading the currents and predicting where the mollusks will be most abundant.
Since moving from the basket to the mother boat, Mr. Than makes more cash and takes fewer risks, but that doesn’t save him from the fear of losing a man. On top of the wild storms that lash the area from July to September, the wiry seaman said vigilante Cambodians were also a danger.
“Sometimes, Cambodian fishing boats see our basket fishermen and they smash into the side—boom—and flip the basket,” he said, using his hands to simulate the collision. “Some get rescued, some do not. It depends if there is another basket nearby.”
A veteran of 15 years fishing these waters, Mr. Than corroborated the stories of Mr. Nan and Mr. Truong: they moor off Koh Tang and Koh Rong Sanloem, hundreds of thung chai operate each day, it is an all-Vietnamese operation, and the Cambodian Navy is complicit.
“I send $1,000 per month via a broker to the son of Tea Vinh in Sihanoukville,” he said.
At the southern end of Koh Rong’s Tui Beach, a small community of Cham fishing families live behind a row of guesthouses and bungalows. They say they have watched the thung chai creep across the gulf from Vietnam in recent years, depleting the squid population along the way.
According to Mey Ni, 25, the fishing baskets first became an issue for anglers from Koh Touch village about three years ago.
“The Vietnamese started here in 2012,” he said. “Since then, we can estimate that all fish stocks have dropped by 40 percent.”
“We have told the Fisheries Administration that the Vietnamese are fishing in our waters. They say ‘don’t worry, we control it,’” Mr. Ni said. “They have the protection of authorities; what can we do?”
The Fisheries Administration (FiA) is currently in the final stages of establishing Cambodia’s first marine national park, a conservation area in the waters immediately surrounding Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem.
Ouk Vibol, director of the FiA’s department of fisheries conservation, said by telephone Tuesday that “illegal activities” had been reduced by up to 70 percent in the proposed area—the plan for which is “on the prime minister’s desk awaiting approval.”
Outside the planned conservation area, Mr. Vibol said, international maritime borders are “not completely clear.” However, the area between Koh Tang and the Koh Rong Archipelago—where the Vietnamese men were seen fishing for squid—is “Cambodian water; that whole area is Cambodian.”
Asked why the squid fishing operation was allowed to prosper in waters patrolled by Cambodian authorities, Mr. Vibol attempted to absolve the FiA of responsibility.
“This is not only the Fisheries’ concern,” he said. “There are also military police, Navy and border army in the area—we don’t know who allows them to get in, but it is not Fisheries.”
Aside from commercial squid fishing, the waters around the Koh Rong Archipelago and beyond are plagued by Cambodian-flagged trawlers, which use massive nets to scoop from the sea everything that comes into their path. Conservationists and local fishermen also speak about blast fishing—in which explosives are used to stun or kill fish—and cyanide fishing—where a toxic mixture is sprayed into the ocean to corral sealife.
All three methods are illegal and wreak irreversible destruction on underwater ecosystems.
Yann Walliser, a marine biologist from Switzerland, works for Save Cambodian Marine Life (SCML), which is headquartered on Koh Rong Sanloem and is dedicated to preserving coral reefs.
While blanket squid fishing is less destructive than the other methods plaguing marine life in the oceans here, Mr. Walliser said, the reefs and fishes would certainly suffer from the quantities of squid that are being taken from the water.
“We can already see a lack of big fish here, the predators that feed on the squid,” he said. “It is natural that a decrease in the population of one species can entirely shift the structure of the marine life, and that can lead to the destruction of a marine habitat.”
“The E.U. won’t import seafood from Cambodia, and that is because there are no checks and balances on these kinds of things.”
Away from the tourist beaches and conservation offices of Koh Rong Sanloem, a community of Vietnamese-speaking fishermen—some of them former members of the thung chai operation—carve out a simple living.
Jang Sang, 28, said he has lived in the Koh Rong archipelago for 15 years. Mr. Sang, who speaks fluent Khmer, acted as translator for interviews conducted at sea, and later shared his own experience—which he said lasted for three years and ended about three years ago—as a runner for the “big boss.”
Mr. Sang said that once a month he would take an evening walk to the southwestern bay of Koh Rong Sanloem to meet the captains of six mother boats, who would each hand over $900 in U.S. bills. Mr. Sang pocketed a $50 commission from each payment, he said, and then delivered the remainder to “the big boss’ mansion in Sihanoukville” the next day.
“I paid the money to the son of Tea Vinh. Tea Vinh used to control this area but now it is his son,” he said. “I don’t know his name; I only know his nickname—Ma Tor.”
Mr. Sang said the thung chai operation stretches west toward Thai waters.
“They go all the way to the Thai border, but they do not cross,” he said. “The Thai Navy is different; if they see, they arrest.”
When Chuon Narin was installed as Preah Sihanouk provincial police chief in April, replacing a predecessor accused of sleeping on the job, he began sending teams of officers on month-long rotations to police the islands offshore.
Sek Dararith, an officer from the provincial security and order department, was just a few days into his stint on Koh Rong Sanloem when he told reporters last week of his desire to shut down the squid fishing racket, which he said was “100 percent a Vietnamese operation.”
“We can see the illegal fishing but we can not stop it alone,” he said.
Mr. Dararith said that his team of three had no resources—specifically, no boat—to take action. “We need the cooperation of the Fisheries Administration or the Navy,” he said.
Koh Tang is about 55 km, or some two hours by speedboat, from the mainland. The Koh Tang Naval Base, staffed by a few dozen seamen, is commanded by Yos Sivutha, a stocky 55-year-old colonel who has been stationed in these waters since 1990.
Over lunch at the Navy base, Mr. Sivutha at first deflected questions about the thung chai—“Why do you want to know about that? There is nothing interesting”—before defending the presence of Vietnamese fishermen in the waters he is charged with patrolling.
“Our Cambodian fishermen, we go to fish in Vietnamese waters, and the Vietnamese come in here. It is the same. It is not a problem,” he said.
“Cambodia and Vietnam have an understanding,” he continued. “There is no need to accuse each other. We are neighbors, Cambodia and Vietnam, and we give to each other.”
All of the Vietnamese fishermen interviewed over two days last week said that they paid bribes to the Royal Cambodian Navy, specifically a man they knew as Ma Tor, who they believed to be the son of Navy Commander Tea Vinh.
Admiral Vinh’s son, Tea Sokha, is the commander of maritime security stationed at Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville.
Mornh Chhundy, a deputy commander at the Ream Naval Base, confirmed this week that Vice Admiral Sokha is responsible for oversight of all waters off the coast of Sihanoukville.
Numerous calls to Vice Adm. Sokha over the past week and a half garnered no comment on the squid fishing operations. On Tuesday, he said he was in Singapore and unable to answer questions.
Also on Tuesday, Adm. Vinh said he was unaware of the network of Vietnamese fishermen pilfering tons of squid from Cambodian-patrolled waters each month.
“I have never heard about that or seen it,” he said. “Let me check to see if it is real or not.”
Like every official interviewed about the thung chai, Adm. Vinh passed the buck.
“Fisheries [Administration] officials are in charge of these issues,” he said, declining to answer further questions.
The Vietnamese, however, are under no illusions as to the rules of the ocean and who is calling the shots.
Mr. Than, the fisherman-cum-captain, said he had been given strict and simple instructions for fishing in Cambodian waters: Just as he must hoist his national flag on his weekly approach to Phu Quoc, he must lower it again when he leaves.
“The Navy just told us to drop the Vietnamese flag when we come into Cambodian waters,” he said.
Asked if he was aware that his operation may be in violation of Cambodian law, Mr. Than smiled.
“We pay the Navy,” he said. “This is the law in Cambodia.”