Marine Conservation Cambodia by Jake Norton

MCC Funding Blog

Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC) was formed originally to protect Cambodian waters from overfishing. Destructive trawler nets from fishermen destroyed anything on the sea bed such as coral reefs, and pulse fishing, a technique which produces a limited electric field above the seabed to catch fish killed everything around the ‘barb’. Protection was needed urgently which is when MCC stepped in. Slowly overtime they worked to improve fishing techniques and helped deter illegal foreign fishermen from stealing profit from Cambodians. They created Cambodia’s first large scale marine fisheries management area. Later they were invited by the Royal Government of Cambodia to commence similar work in Kep Province where they are based today. Based on Koh Seh they patrol fishing areas, taking illegal fishermen’s gear, as well as protecting the marine environment around the island. They do year-round research on numerous marine related subjects, from seahorse habitat to the rejuvenation of fishing grounds. They are a small NGO funded by volunteers, and a in the process of setting up a new funding page. However despite small funding, they are making a huge difference to the marine life around Cambodia.

Week 1

After arriving in Kep, a small fishing village on the Vietnam border I met the MCC boat at the Konsai pier. I boarded the high-speed patrol boat along with the weekly supplies, new volunteer Fiona and a few other volunteers who spent their weekend on the mainland. After 40 minutes we arrived at what looked like an ideal island, palm trees, blue seas and thick jungle. Aesthetically it was, beautiful beach bungalows provided accommodation and a huge central hut providing the communal eating, studying and social area. Dig under the surface though and you found limited freshwater, every biting insect on earth and bucket showers. Small prices to pay to live on this beautiful remote island. I shared my bungalow with 4 others. Manu the dive instructor, Reid an American gap year student and Doug, who has just retired from building satellites for NASA!!

Week 1 I spent learning the basics from seahorse ID and ecology to dolphin survey techniques. In-between involved beach clean ups (an endless job even on this 300m long island) underwater gardening and fun dives. The water may look great from the surface however below tells a different story. Trawling digs up the seabed lifting the anaerobic muddy benthic layer into the water column making visibility poor. To add to this jellyfish larvae, ‘sea lice’ had hatched from the increased water temperature making being in the water painful as they bit you. Trawling is only legal in certain areas around the islands due to MCC gaining protected areas. However due to overfishing, the strictly no fishing areas around our island is the only place you can catch a decent sized catch. As you can imagine this sees fishermen pushing the boundaries as to where they can fish. Evenings were spent with talks from Doug about his work with satellites, Pete on his work in conservation and some documentaries.

Week days we have food cooked for us, however at weekends volunteers cooked for each other so Saturday night saw Doug and Thomas (a French volunteer) and I fire up the pizza oven. Weekends are also spent in anyway you like, which for me involved a jungle trek through the island discovering Khmer Rouge bunkers from the late 70’s, volleyball and scuba diving… of the better weekends I’ve had.

Week 2

Week 2 began with more seahorse training and then the exam which I thankfully passed! This then allowed me to go onto more practical training where I would need to find 15, ID them and measure them accurately to allow me to start collecting data. Sounds easy but for the rest of the week we only found 2 seahorses, they’re ability to blend in with their environment in incredible.

I also got my initial dolphin survey training, this allowed me to estimate group size behaviour and other important characteristics influencing the dolphins such as boat traffic. This also showed me how to fill out the data form when we do spot dolphins on surveys. All surveys I was involved with this week however saw no dolphins. Highlight of the week was finishing a survey and being invited to drink with the local Khmer workers who were building new huts on the island. We had helped them out getting free beer by crushing beer cans which can be exchanged for more beers, so me and Reid sat with them and attempted to talk Khmer which was highly amusing for them.

Other activities involved teaching the 4 children who live on the island some English and maths skills, as well as helping the education programme out with a presentation we are taking to a school next week about plastics. We also did a few beach-cleans which as ever collected well over 50kg of rubbish from around the island!

This weekend a few of us volunteers had to do a visa run to the Vietnam border on mopeds which was fun. We then spent a couple of nights in Kampot, a local town where we could have proper showers and a taste of civilisation again!

Week 3

Week 3 brought much better diving conditions meaning I could start to find a lot more seahorses. We also deployed anti trawling structures, which involves assembling 150kg blocks into triangles underwater. The big boat also needed to be cleaned underwater, so we grabbed our scrapers and scraped all the barnacles off the hull. A ‘shark sucker’ joined me under the boat eating all the barnacles I scraped off. Barnacles can lower the efficiency of the boat by 25% so regular cleaning is important….even if it means barnacles going all down your clothes. We also dug up an Irrawaddy dolphin which had stranded on the island 9 months previous. We washed and cleaned bones and then arranged them.

I learnt what a small world it is when Amy Jones, a second year Marine and Freshwater student from UoC turned up to work on the dolphin project. Although having never met her it was great to have some form of familiarity on the island. Great to have someone to chat to about next years modules. After Manu the Dive Instructor left, I was the next highest qualified diver as a divemaster. This allowed me to perform a scuba review for Amy putting her skills to the test which she passed with flying colours!

This weekend I went onto the mainland again to explore Kampot National Park. It claims to have wild Elephants, Leopards Monkeys and plenty of species of birds. I only ever saw monkeys despite sitting on a ledge for hours hoping to see leopards. Unfortunately however whilst sitting up on the ledge there was an evident background noise of chainsaws; illegal logging is a huge problem in southern Cambodia.

Week 4

Week 4 began with a late trip back to the island from the mainland. The bad weather affected our journey. Storms were just off the coast, the sea was rough and it was getting dark…..just about the time all the illegal boats head out. Needless to say it was a long, rough and nervous journey back.

Being my last week I wanted to get the most I could out of the experience. Therefore I spent as much time as possible being taught techniques for research dives, mostly in seahorse surveying as well as seagrass. While not in the water I spent a lot of time with the kids on the island helping them collect worms for their compost heap and playing various games. We also decided to build steps up to the dolphin shelter which had become notoriously slippy! I played plenty of volleyball with the occasional game being interrupted by dolphin sightings just off the shore. In the evenings the dolphins love spending time around the artificial reefs built off shore, this place really is idyllic at times! My last day began with my first boat dolphin survey. Weather had prevented every other one while I was there, so I was excited to finally get to do one. The skies were stunning as the sun began to rise (5am start). We saw 3 separate groups of dolphins, one group with over 10 dolphins. My role was to log all the data about them, from behaviour to number of boats near to them. What a great way to spend a morning!

Before I knew it my time was up and I had boarded the boat back to the mainland. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time on the island, met so many interesting people from so many different places and backgrounds. The hands-on conservation experience I have gained is so valuable for my degree, and I have learnt so much from so many people. Living on a cut off island on our own teaches you so much about waste and the poor health of our oceans. You learn to live with so many different people, and how to live without being reliant on technology. One of the best parts was the conversations we would have all evening in the absence of technology.

Volunteering with MCC was an unbelievable experience, and without the help of the Eleanor Peel Trust funding I would not have been able to make it. I can’t thank them enough for their support and would highly recommend applying for funding through them if you’re wanting to volunteer abroad.