Fishing Wars

We went back to Sihanoukville for one night on the Big Yellow Boat to get supplies. This is a very pleasant trip across the Gulf of Thailand, but the getting on and off present quite a challenge! Jetties here are not like any others and health and safety have never been heard of. You have to judge the swell in order to get off, leaping across at the wrong moment onto rickety boards can be unpleasant, if not actually fatal.

Here are a couple of examples! The jetty on the right is about 20 feet above the water.
Not only is the boat the main diving vessel here, it doubles as a free ferry for the islanders and also helps the local community to police their marine conservation and fishing zones.

On the way back yesterday we spotted a boat anchored on the reef in the middle of the protected area and made a detour to check it out. The boat turned out to be a tourist fishing trip from Sihanoukville. The owner wasn't happy to be challenged, but he did eventually move. It felt rather like belonging to Greenpeace!

Then, today, while out on a diving expedition to a wreck site, they found two Vietnamese boats close inshore, fishing illegally in Cambodian waters.

The boats were tiny, with hardly room for one to sleep, never mind three, and they were loaded with fish and clams.

One of them was 'pipe fishing'. This is a really dangerous practice, where a small plastic hose (you can see the coil of blue plastic) is attached to an air pump on the boat and then someone dives to the bottom, sipping air out of the end of the pipe. They walk along the bottom collecting shellfish and spearing bigger targets with home made trigger spears. Sometimes they go down to almost 20 metres and stay down for two or three hours. Apparently many of them die from the bends or necrosis, because they don't understand how dangerous it really is.
The two boats tried to get away, but were no match for the speed and power of the BYB and eventually they gave up with a shrug and a reluctant grin. They were towed back to the island, where they were arrested and their catch confiscated. It seemed very hard. These fishermen are extremely poor and regularly brave long journeys (more than 12 hours from Vietnam) across the hazardous South China sea to fish here, because there's so little left at home. It seems that there are increasing numbers of countries now keeping the hungry out at gunpoint to protect their own people.
Being here makes you question all kinds of things. People who are hungry don't think about preserving the planet, but only about feeding their families. The volunteers on the island want to show the people that it's possible to preserve the environment and feed themselves in an environmentally friendly way that will also protect their resources. They are also trying to convince them that they can earn a better living from eco-tourism.

But then I start asking myself what right have we as westerners to come here, intervene and tell them how to live? Isn't that what got them into this mess in the first place? (the history of Cambodia and Vietnam is a tangled mesh of colonial interference) What's needed are global initiatives for environmental preservation and conservation of food resources. But what are the chances of getting world governments to agree? The issue of climate change is a good example of how difficult it is.

And then, is eco-tourism really ecological? In the first place, when we arrive, we bring all the trappings of western society with us - computers, mobile phones, televisions, fridges - and the people, not surprisingly, want them too. And then, however simply we live when we're here, the amount of fossil fuel we've burned to get here is astronomical.

All I'm really sure of at the moment is that there's a real need to protect communities like this, who still know how to live in a simple way off the basic resources that they have, without our technology, in a way that we've long since forgotten. One day, we're going to need them to teach us how to live.


  1. A wonderful and telling analysis of the paradoxes of that situation. Your eyes must be so wide open they must be sore...
    Thank you for sharing it.



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