Destructive fishing practices have decimated the once abundant seahorse population in Cambodia. One organization has stepped in to save the fragile animals by boosting marine conservation and education.
On a dock jutting into the cobalt-blue waters of Koh Rong Samloem, an island two hours by boat off the Cambodian coast, divers check their tanks before heading underwater. They are volunteers with Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), a group that documents the seabed and animal life off the island, which was once teeming with seahorses.
They track the animals' underwater habitat, says Emma Robertson, an Australian who is MCC's in-house marine biologist. "If we come across seahorses, we want to know what size they are, whether they're male or female. We're really trying to find out the demographic of the population."
That population used to be healthy, and fishermen would pull up at least 70 or so in their nets at every catch. But those days are long gone. Locals have told MCC numbers have dropped by more than half. To blame are largely boats from the mainland as well as from Thailand and Vietnam, who fish by dropping down weighted trawling nets that would simply scrap up everything they came across on the seabed.
Paul Ferber, a 36-year-old from the UK, saw the results of this type of fishing first hand. In 2007, he had come on a diving holiday to Cambodia. He and his wife were amazed at the number of seahorses they saw; the area was home to seven of the world's 53 seahorse species.
But then they saw the effects of the trawling.
"Imagine going into your nice garden that you've made very pretty and everything's growing and then a big bulldozer comes straight through dragging a rake," he said. "We'd go back to a place where we'd sat and watched seahorses going around and they were gone, the habitat was gone."
Experiencing this destruction first hand motivated Ferber to start MCC in 2008. The group tries to keep the seahorses from disappearing and encourages marine conservation in general. It was an idea that hadn't gained much traction in Cambodia, one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries.
Four times a day, weather permitting, MCC divers go down to an area of the seafloor, lay out tracking lines, and move along them recording what they see on slates. While Paul and his wife five years ago would regularly spot perhaps nine seahorses from almost any vantage point - today there are some dives where none are seen at all.
The trawling is the main culprit, but other destructive methods have also hit the fragile animals hard, such as fishing with dynamite.
Ferber began working with local villagers on the islands and ended up sealing a community fishing agreement. Local fishermen agreed to use sustainable methods to bring in their catches. But outsiders still came in with their weighted nets; 2012 saw a big increase in trawling and another decline in seahorse populations.
MCC is now working with the Cambodian government to try to get more stringent controls in place, and is having some success. All the data MCC collects during the daily dives is put into a computer. Quarterly reports are generated which are sent to the Cambodian Fisheries Administration. The documentation of the plummeting numbers helped spur the government to take action, and it sends out patrols on a regular basis to stop boats that are destroying the seabed.
The organization is able to do its work thanks to a steady influx of volunteers from around the globe, who come and work with MCC and go on the dives, inspect coral reefs, and - during their downtime - clean up trash that washes up on the beaches.
Ferber, who founded MCC in 2008, teamed up with the Cambodian government to install stricter controls
"This is a really disturbed area with lots of fishing going on," said 18-year-old David Delange from Amsterdam, who has been diving for MCC for just over two months. "It's just incredibly important that we keep the seahorses going. I think it's just something we can do for the world."
The work appears to be paying off. MCC has been working closely with other conservation groups, like UK-based Fauna and Flora International (FFI), to get a formal marine protection area established around the island. It would put stiff penalties in place for those harming the marine environment. It's hoped that Cambodia's first marine protected area will go into effect in 2014, and others to follow.
"It really is changing quite quickly and there are a lot of new organizations emerging and working on marine conservation issues," said Berry Mulligan from FFI Cambodia. "I think internationally there has been a push to establish marine protected areas, and that has taken a while to filter down to countries like Cambodia."
Educating the community
These days, Paul Ferber is often in Kep, a small coastal resort town close to the border with Vietnam. There, he has been working on setting up a small aquarium with 30 tanks with mostly fish from local waters, and seahorses of course.
His target audience is Cambodians, for whom Kep is a favorite destination. His goal is to increase awareness about the underwater life just 10 meters from the building, and hopefully change some harmful behaviors.
One tank contains nothing but trash.
"There's not going to be any beautiful fish in it. That one will be entirely filled with plastic bags and cups and straws and rubbish and it will be brown and dirty," he said. "Above it, in Khmer and English, it will explain this is where your rubbish goes in the ocean. This is what it makes the ocean look like."
In addition, he is planning to start a seahorse breeding program at the aquarium and reintroduce the animals raised there into the wild.
Six years ago, Ferber, who was then a recreational diver on holiday in Southeast Asia, never really expected his life would take this direction. But when he saw the seahorses under Cambodian waters, he felt a connection, although he's hard pressed to explain just why.
"I really don't know. There is just something calming about watching them," he said. "You settle down on the bottom of the ocean, and watch them. It's peaceful, almost like meditation. It's something Zen."