Taking action for seahorses with Marine Conservation Cambodia

By Lindsay Aylesworth

In our latest Field Notes, Project Seahorse PhD candidate Lindsay Aylesworth(@l_aylesworth reflects on taking action for seahorses in Cambodia.

My most recent seahorse adventure brought me face to face with a man who has a sixth sense for seahorses – Paul Ferber.

Paul Ferber. Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Paul Ferber. Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Paul runs a volunteer funded group called Marine Conservation Cambodia. They have been working in Cambodia since 2008 to monitor seahorses around the coastal islands and support the local fisheries department to stop illegal fishing. I had met Paul by email a little over a year ago, while working on a collaborative paper about Hippocampus mohnikei, one of the seahorse species found in both Thailand and Cambodia. After hearing about his expertise in seahorses and learning of his group’s mission, I decided to visit my colleague and see what seahorse experiences Cambodia had to offer.  

Location of the Island of Koh Seh.  Google Earth, 2015.

Location of the Island of Koh Seh.  Google Earth, 2015.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going. Paul said he was located on Koh Seh Island, which didn’t mean much to me initially. Turns out, Koh Seh is located in the southern part of Kep Province about a three hour drive from Phnom Penh Airport. By boat it takes roughly one hr to reach Koh Seh from the pier in Kep. It is the furthest island from the mainland and the closest island to Vietnam. The island is uninhabited except for a small marine police station and of course Marine Conservation Cambodia. The island is pretty small, and it takes about an hour to walk around it depending on the tides.

Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth

Photo by Lindsay Aylesworth

On my trip out to Koh Seh Island, I saw how serious Paul and his team were about protecting the seagrass beds in the area. There are many boats that illegally fish in Cambodia, and these coastal waters are also home to dense seagrass and coral reef habitat. As we were making our way to Koh Seh, the Marine Conservation Cambodia team had spotted a trawler fishing illegally, in this case from Vietnam, and the team went into action. One minute there was a Cambodian guy relaxing on the boat in his board shorts and tank top, and the next minute he’s putting on his official Fisheries Department uniform and making his way to the bow of the boat. We approached the boat, and after an exchange of words in Khmer and some angry gesturing, the fishermen pulled up the net, dumped the fish and seagrass back into the ocean and headed back to sea in the direction of Vietnam. This would turn out to be a typical experience for the Marine Conservation Cambodia team since they work full time with the local fisheries staff to increase the number of local patrols of the area.

Photo by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Paul Ferber, Marine Conservation Cambodia

My admiration for this group of passionate and dedicated conservationists increased throughout my short four-day trip out to the island. Paul built the base-camp and operations on Koh Seh island from scratch. He chose the location in particular due to the diversity of underwater habitats surrounding the island. The accommodation is basic – simple huts with bucket showers and electricity only at night – but the scenery both above and below the water is worth it.

Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Learning opportunities abound to volunteers who spend time on Koh Seh – with the local staff trained in fish, invertebrate and marine habitat identification – and of course seahorses. While out there I gave an iSeahorse Training workshop to the volunteers and staff and shared our training material with my fellow seahorse lovers. After the workshop, the volunteers and I jumped in the water for a practice dive to work on species identification and practise the iSeahorse data collection method.

Paul’s reputation for finding seahorses is well deserved. Within minutes he can spot a seahorse, which compared to some of the research I’ve been working on in Thailand - where seahorses have been hard to find to say the least - is amazing. In front of the base camp is a 300 x 800 m seagrass bed- with multiple species of seagrass and seahorses. During our iSeahorse practice dives we spotted the two most commonly seen species around Koh Seh – Hippocampus kuda and Hippocampus spinosissimus.  

Hippocampus spinossimus. Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Hippocampus spinossimus. Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

The future is filled with collaboration for Paul and me. We created a plan to build on the research I’ve been working on in Thailand about appropriate levels of effort needed to monitor local seahorse populations. Seahorses can be hard to find because of their ability to camouflage with their environment and as a scientist it’s important to understand how your ability to detect (find) seahorses in different habitats impacts your results. In Thailand I started to explore these ideas in sandy soft bottom habitats – the simplest habitats to find seahorses. The numerous habitats around Koh Seh and the neighboring islands are perfect for building on this research to include seagrass and shell habitats. During my short time there, I worked with Paul and his staff to create a research protocol and explain data collection procedures. We also discussed marking the seahorses in front of the base camp in the seagrass bed. The area acts as a de-facto marine protected area, since Paul and his team patrol it and would be a great research opportunity to study the population dynamics of seahorses in the wild. Sadly, my time in Cambodia was too short to put this plan into action, but we’ll be working towards starting this research project shortly.

Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

Photo by Marine Conservation Cambodia

My visit to Marine Conservation Cambodia was inspiring. It reminded me of my first marine conservation experience in a remote part of coastal Mexico where I combined scuba diving and science for the first time and the marine biologist inside of me was born. It was also refreshing to see something accomplished in the name of conservation, i.e. the illegal trawling boat dumping out its catch and heading back to where it came from. It can be challenging working in Academia - publishing research in journals and writing policy briefings for government officials – and I’m often left wondering if it makes a real difference on the ground. Are the natural resources in the ocean where I work better off at the end of the day based on my actions? In the case of Marine Conservation Cambodia, the answer is clearly yes. Paul’s group and his setting will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of marine conservationists for years to come.