KEP ARCHIPELAGO, CAMBODIA, (April 5th, 2019)
The islands that make up the Kep Archipelago off the coast of Cambodia are known for their tranquil waters and at one time, some of the most exquisite seagrass meadows in Southeast Asia. The waters of Kep Archipelago act as important feeding grounds and provide migratory routes for numerous threatened species including Irrawaddy dolphins, dugongs, giant clams and Cambodia’s largest concentration of seahorses. Unfortunately, the area has faced considerable damage from illegal fishing and destructive bottom trawling practices that have ruined parts of the seafloor, creating an underwater desert. However, the work of organization Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), through their research, direct conservation practices and local activism has greatly helped to restore Kep Archipelago’s precious ecosystems and species, including the endangered and iconic Irrawaddy dolphin.
The Kep Archipelago has been declared a Hope Spot by international nonprofit Mission Blue in recognition of the impact that MCC’s conservation work has had in preserving the area’s unique seagrass meadows and sensitive marine species.
Hope Spot Champion and MCC Founder Paul Ferber explains, “Inshore areas and seagrass meadows like those found in the Kep Archipelago are rapidly disappearing around the world, but the potential for restoration and recovery is still there. What was once one of the most productive marine ecosystems in Cambodia is struggling but has a resilience that is impressive considering the destructive and illegal fishing pressures it continues to face.”
The Kep Archipelago Hope Spot is located in southern coastal Cambodia and extends approximately 113 sq km, encompassing a dozen islands covered with tropical forests. Its shallow waters host spectacular fringing coral reefs, mangrove forests and what used to be one of the largest seagrass meadows of Southeast Asia. The archipelago is home to a highly diverse ecosystem, acting as important feeding grounds, migratory routes and nurseries for numerous threatened marine fauna, including green and hawksbill turtles, whale sharks and four endangered seahorse species. Its waters are also fundamental for local traditional fishing communities, for whom the abundance of marine resources is a matter of survival. This 11,354-ha area now constitutes a promising protected recovering habitat (Marine Fisheries Management Area, or MFMA, Cambodian equivalent of Marine Protected Area). Unfortunately, the area has experienced profound damage from illegal and unsustainable fishing and bottom trawling, which has effectively wiped large areas of vital habitats, such as seagrass meadows and bivalves beds.
In order to restore the local marine ecosystem, MCC’s scientists and volunteers have deployed artificial habitats, called Conservation and Anti-Trawling Structures. These multipurpose 4-ton concrete block units, which snags and entangles bottom trawling boards and nets, effectively damage valuable fishing assets, imposing a strong economic disincentive to illegally fish in the MFMA. These strong and considerably heavy devices not only help to physically stop the scraping and destruction of the sea floor but also act as fish aggregation devices and as a safe haven for the Irrawaddy dolphins. MCC won the Marine Protection Prize 2018 for this project, by the National Geographic Society, awarding the most efficient and promising initiatives for Ocean protection.
Hope Spot Champion Tom Collombat explains, “I joined MCC to fight for Kep Archipelago two years ago, and I’ve seen with my own eyes the effect of direct conservation. Deploying our structures is clearly making a difference, and progressively allows Kep’s marine life to thrive again.”
The Irrawaddy dolphins are recognized as Endangered by the IUCN, with their populations struggling due to the decimation of their feeding grounds. However, MCC has established acoustic monitoring in the area within the concrete block structures, and have noted large pods entering the protected area nearly every night to feed.
Sarah Tubbs, MCC’s Dolphin Project Coordinator on Cambodia’s only Marine Mammal Program has noted the positive impact that these blocks have had.
“Today, the only thing protecting Kep’s Irrawaddy dolphin population from illegal fishing activities, associated bycatch, habitat degradation and prey depletion, are our concrete structures.”
Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC) saw firsthand the struggling marine ecosystem in Kep and established their conservation efforts in the area in 2013. MCC got their start working towards the creation Cambodia’s first large Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA) around the Koh Rong Archipelago. The organization was then invited by the Royal Government of Cambodia to begin work in Kep province. After 5 years of groundbreaking research and direct action effort, their proposal for the creation of Kep MFMA was accepted by the National Fisheries Administration and Kep’s provincial government. This new area around the Kep Archipelago is already contributing to the return of many species that had previously disappeared. Coral reefs are healthier, endangered seagrass beds are being protected, offering important shelter to one of Kep’s iconic species, the blue -swimmer crab. More than 40 fish species have returned In Koh Seh’s no-take zone since 2012, where MCC’s conservation efforts have been focusing.
Rachana Thap, Hope Spot Champion and Executive Director of MCC has been working with MCC for two and half years.
She first joined MCC against all odds. Coming from a University with no marine biology degree, she rented a boat herself to reach the organization headquarters on Koh Seh, resolute to become a Marine Conservationist. She had a lot to learn, but was determined to join and help to restore the beautiful Kep Archipelago. After 6 months as an intern, when she learned to swim, scuba dive and conduct scientific surveys, she finalized the first marine biology thesis on artificial reefs ever done in Cambodia. She then came back, and took a leading role of Executive Director and handles all the relations with the Cambodian government and manages the MCC Khmer Staff. Rachana is MCC’s future leader, and a future Marine Conservation Figure in Cambodia.
Paul Ferber, who has been mentoring and teaching Rachana explains, “The future of Cambodia’s ocean really relies on the young people of Cambodia to make a stand against the destructive and illegal fishing practices that are currently being ignored. Rachana, as a young dynamic woman, has love and passion for her country and its ocean. With this, I hope she can enact positive change for Cambodia and lead Marine Conservation Cambodia to greater success in its goal to protect and restore the Kep Archipelago.”
MCC works closely with the Cambodian government, including the Royal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Fisheries Administration and Marine police. Apart from government entities, MCC works with local schools and universities, such as the Royal University of Agriculture, Pannasastra University, the Liger Academy and Kep province schools. MCC has partnerships with the International Conservation Fund of Canada, their longest partner, National Geographic Society, Heinrich Boll Foundation, and the Waitt Foundation for project financing.
Paul Ferber declares, “Without the International Conservation Fund of Canada, none of this work would have been possible”.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue adds, “The work conducted by Marine Conservation Cambodia is a fantastic example of people coming together to do what they can to protect and restore Cambodia’s marine ecosystems– offering hope to the rest of the world.”
Marine Conservation Cambodia’s work has helped to not only preserve the unique treasures of the local marine ecosystems but of the livelihood of the people who depend on it. The Kep Archipelago is an area of miraculous resilience and with continued support, MCC’s scientists believe that a healthy marine ecosystem for the Kep Archipelago and the surrounding coastal areas of Southeast Asia can be enjoyed for generations to come.
About Mission Blue
Led by legendary oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue is uniting a global coalition to inspire an upwelling of public awareness, access and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas – Hope Spots. Under Dr. Earle’s leadership, the Mission Blue team implements communications campaigns that elevate Hope Spots to the world stage through documentaries, social media, traditional media and innovative tools like Google Earth. Mission Blue embarks on regular oceanic expeditions that shed light on these vital ecosystems and build support for their protection. Mission Blue also supports the work of conservation NGOs around the world that share the mission of building public support for ocean protection. The Mission Blue alliance includes more than 200 respected ocean conservation groups and like-minded organizations.
About Marine Conservation Cambodia
Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC) is an independent NGO that works to restore marine ecosystems in Cambodia and to deter illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, while protecting and improving livelihoods of local communities of Kep archipelago. Created in 2008, MCC was the first organization to work on the ground in marine conservation in Cambodia. We pioneered research on seahorses, which resulted in their inclusion in CITIES for Cambodia. We spurred the creation of Cambodia’s first Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA, Cambodia’s equivalent for marine protected area) in Sihanoukville Province, which led to our founder becoming co-Chairman of the National Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fishing committee.
After four years of scientific research and patrols, MCC recommended the establishment of a second 11,354-ha Marine Protected Area in Kep province, which was proclaimed nationally on April 19th, 2018. During the following 9 months, MCC began its work on the ground implementation with the deployment of Conservation and Anti-Trawling underwater Structures, meant to deter IUU fishing and act as marine life aggregation device. MCC also developed several pioneering scientific research projects for the past 5 years, focusing on local marine mammals, seahorses, seagrass, and coral reefs.
Our long-lasting collaboration with local fishermen brought us an awareness of the most pressing issues to tackle, allowing us to work toward ensuring them a long-term sustainable livelihood. For more than a decade, MCC has vigorously defended the rights of the local communities, while trying to prevent on-going and blatant destruction of marine habitat. Organization objectives include protecting and restoring healthy and sustainable marine ecosystems, supporting and empowering small-scale fishing communities who rely upon local marine resources for their food and livelihoods, and engaging with local, regional and national government in the development of sustainable fisheries and the implementation of best practice regulations for Cambodia’s network of MFMAs.