Paul and I have spent a month volunteering at a Marine Conservation Project on Koh Seh island, off the south coast of Cambodia.
As mentioned in the last post, our roles as volunteers included assistance with the seahorse surveys and tagging (the flagship species of Cambodia), coral reef gardening (assisting in the production of new coral ‘gardens’ and keeping them algae free), beach cleans and general maintenance of the island.
Whilst we were here we were truly shocked at the amount of destructive fishing techniques regularly being used in the area. Apart from trawling (when a heavy net is dragged along the seabed causing complete devastation to the environment as well as catching all living things from the bottom of the sea to the top), fishermen are now using electric shock techniques with the trawling nets – so just before the trawling net starts dragging the fishermen realese an electric shock into the immediate vicinity via an electric line from the boat, which shocks anything hiding under the seabed which the net would miss. These shocked animals float upwards and into the net. Some of these animals are for food and some for aquariums, however once they’re shocked they die within a day or so.
This just shows how desperate the fishermen are becoming, using both techniques together – the oceans are emptying at an alarming rate. And don’t assume this is happening in just developing countries like Cambodia – trawling in general is being used by all countries, and the electric shock techniques are becoming more common as the amount of catch dwindles.
The staff here go on regular night patrols, as they have the governments backing to remove any trawler equipment found on boats in the area.
Every night they come into contact with at least two trawlers, and remove any necessary equipment. In one recent catch which was confiscated they found only juvenile fish (which are useless for eating and have no requirement for), a couple of octopus’s (one of which was still alive so they have placed it in their aquarium in the hope it survives), and one seahorse. There were no adult fish in the catch. What a waste.
At times the fishermen on board become aggressive, and the team have had stones hurled at their boat before and have been rammed.
On one of our boat trips back from a day off on the mainland we came across a trawler who had just hauled a full traweler net on board – our crew stopped and spoke to them. They let them off as it was a small catch and a local fisherman, but a warning was issued for the future.
It has been very eye opening regarding just how much litter gets washed up on the beaches around the island – all the volunteers go on regular beach cleans to try and keep on top of the problem. The most numerous litter is fishing related – nets, lures, buoy’s, and polystyrene containers used for storing equipment. It is absolutely everywhere!
Our days started with breakfast at 8am, which could be anything from pancakes to the local meat and coriander broth, then usually a scuba dive in the morning to participate in the seahorse survey, lunch at 12, afternoons spent either doing more survey work in another location, or land based activities such as beach cleans.
Dinner is at 7pm, and after all the volunteers usually socialise – beers, cards, movie nights (Harry Potter was always a hit).
The days went so quickly, and we were always so knackered!
Other entertainment on the island included volley ball, which we often played Australia vs The Rest Of The World (we had three Aussie lads on the island who were too good).
We also had a campfire for one of the volunteers leaving parties – the entertainment troupe played a couple of special Hot Cross Bun editions for the crowd which went down very well.
Our accommodation was basic but comfortable – 6 bed huts, however no flushing toilet (you had to pour water down it) and no shower.
We missed a shower so much! You have a large barrel of water in the bathroom which you just had to scoop water from and pour it over yourself.
We all had our own projects to work on in our spare time, I painted some signs from driftwood for the beach on the island – they are the names of the local/favourite beaches of some of the staff and volunteers home towns.
A couple of the lads had bought recorders from the local market and quickly became the entertainment of the island….
Rats and ants were the common pests of the huts. One night we entered our hut to find a mass ant infestation had occurred – it looked like the whole colony had decided to make their home in our hut. We have never seen so many ants before! The evening was spent spraying ant pest spray everywhere and sweeping up the victims.
The rats are a pain in the arse however we have to take our hats off to them for the ingenuity. We had two blocks of soap disappear in two days, so we borrowed a plastic soap box to store it in. Over night the rats knocked it off the shelf, where the lid came off, and took our third block of soap. We ended up just using hand sanitiser as soap was obviously a no go!
We had a glass jar full of coffee on another shelf, again the rats knocked it off, smashing the glass, and gorged on the coffee. It was a brand new Nescafe for God’s sake! We kept all food suspended in a backpack from the ceiling, as we’d be furious if they got to our chocolate stash!
They also found the first aid kit and had a good nibble on the plasters. So we had a very clean rat on the loose who was high on caffiene and covered in plasters….
We were trained how to spot seahorses as again, these animals blend into their surroundings so well, you have to be very observant to see them. Once we spotted one, we had to take measurements of it’s snout and body, record the conditions in which it was found, and take identification photographs of it. All very difficult whilst underwater! Paul was the first out of the both of us to find one – a large female Kuda, and I soon followed with a female Mohnikei (the smallest type of seahorse found in the area). We were both pretty chuffed with ourselves!
Once on land you then have to enter all the data you have recorded on your underwater slate onto the computer database.
We dived in different environments during our surveys, including reef, sand and shell, and mud. We also got experience with diving in different conditions – sometimes the sea was calm with little or no current, and visibility could be 4-5 metres, then the next day the wind would have picked up and you’re diving with strong currents and a 1-2 metre visibility.
Sometimes the work was a little intense – having to learn and remember the different species of seahorse, and ensuring you had correctly recorded everything. You cannot participate in scientific surveys if you are going to make mistakes!
We also had a lesson on how to tag seahorses using a deceased seahorse a trawler catch. We watched Amick, one of the members of staff, how to hold the seahorse correctly, then inject a very small amount of dye into the neck region.
We all then had a go ourselves. It was in fact quite challenging as their skin is thicker than what you’d imagine, and the insulin needle you are using struggles to dispense the thick dye. Once tagged, you would then release the seahorse, and watch it from a distance to ensure it is OK after the handling and injection.
When you check for the tag underwater you use an ultraviolet light to help show the colour.
It must be incredibly difficult to tag underwater, whilst trying to keep your buoyancy correct, and controlling your body especially if there is any current. A very challenging procedure which must take alot of practice!
Overall we enjoyed our experience here and both learned so much – not just the scientific side of survey work, but the frank truth of the state of our oceans, and the small but significant changes we could all be making to help the ocean and all that relies on it. The world could very soon run out of adult fish. This means humans will have a huge shortage of a massive part of our diets, seabirds will also suffer this shortage, and many other marine animals in the food chain.
What can we do to help our ocean? Keep it clean, obvious but important. Also buy ocean friendly fish – look out for the ‘pole and line caught’ food symbols on packaged and tinned fish. All seafood sold in supermarkets will have information on how it was caught – you will be surprised how many have ‘trawled’ written on.
Remember, traweler nets catch anything – from squid and seahorses to dolphins and turtles. More than 70-80% is by-catch and chucked back into the ocean dead. Please try and be a little more ocean friendly 🙂
To finish I must mention the most beautifully natured dog you will ever meet – her name in Jill and she lives on the island. We all absolutely love her, and when we are diving sometimes she comes to see us off whilst on the boat, and when we beach clean she suddenly pops out of nowhere and keeps us entertained. We will miss her!