Last week, I had the enormous pleasure and honour of participating in creating a new artificial reef in Cambodia! Reef Dive Resort, The Dive Shop joined forces with Navy General Tea Sokha, Provincial Governor Yun Min and Tycoon Tea Vichet to design and sink two decommissioned containers off the coast of Koh Rong to create a new ecosystem for fish and coral. See full video here!
What Is An Artificial Reef?
An artificial reef is a man made structure typically built to promote marine life on a featureless bottom. In this case, two decommissioned shipping containers were designed and cut up to create a house-shaped swim through with a coral nursery on top. Holes for windows and doors were cut into the sides of the containers for easier access while metal spikes were welded on top as attachment places for the coral. Coral can reproduce sexually, through spawning and asexually through fragmentation : meaning if a branch falls off, or is broken off it can re attach and form a new colony. Through attaching the coral on these containers, the hope is to develop a thriving ecosystem to improve fish populations.
Sinking the Containers
The sinking of the containers took two days. We arrived at the chosen location off Koh Rong Sanloem at 6pm the night before the official sinking and creation of the coral nursery.
The two containers were on a shipping boat ready to be lowered in with a truck crane. Each container had 12 200l barrels attached to it, so that it would float in the water until pulled into the desired location and sunk.
The process took a mere half an hour, and with the help of two divers : Tom Borky and Pierre Kann. The containers were lowered into the water, released from the crane and attached to anchors to keep them from drifting away.
Collecting Coral For The Nursery
Boat grounding and anchor dropping in reefs cause damage to coral, and potentially leave hundreds of small pieces of coral scattered across the sea floor. These little pieces of coral would most likely perish if left alone, however they receive a second chance at life if transferred to coral nurseries. Coral Nurseries also allow for easy access for marine biologists and citizen scientists to keep track on their health and growth. The double benefit of creating these sanctuaries is to help the coral grow in a stable environment and provide an abundance of healthy young coral to transplant to previously devastated and dead areas of the reef.
Stag-horn Coral were the target in the morning gathering of coral, as they predominantly reproduce through small branches being broken off during storms and reattaching in new locations, therefore they generally thrive in nurseries. Reef Dive Resort dive team spent a 45 minute dive on the 29th of April 2017 at a shallow dive site near Koh Koun collecting broken coral. In this area, many boats throw their anchors into the corals and result in large numbers of candidates for this artificial reef project. 6 divers emerged with four bags brimming with coral, mostly various table corals and some Stag-horn Coral. Unfortunately, many pieces were suffering from bleaching and algal growth and were therefore unusable.
After sorting through the coral, and separating the healthy from the dying, the Reef Dive Resort team travelled another 30 minutes to the location of the floating containers. We were met with several film crews and an excited crowd, all here to witness the creation of the newest artificial reef and conservation hope in Cambodia. A video was quickly made and shared by Navy General Tea Sohka (diving in a blue rashie and the best Scubapro equipment) his social media, eager to demonstrate the wonderful work! (You can probably recognise me with my signature pink Seawing nova fins!)
On our arrival, we discovered that one of the containers had sunk over night. After further inspection it was discovered that a couple of the barrels had ripped off during the night and floated away. One of the containers had dropped in 4m of water, meaning it will need to have barrels re attached and moved again, as 2m depth at the top of the container will leave the coral nursery susceptible to boats during low tide.
Sinking The Shipping Container
The second container was dragged by one of the fellow boats to the designated location, 8m depth on sand sheltered by the headland. Then two divers carefully cut the lines to the floating barrels ensuring everyone else was at a safe distance from the shooting up buoyant barrels. The almost 30 ton container dropped to the sea floor with a flurry of sand and particles filling the waters. Ecstatic looks were exchanged by the divers before separating into two teams to continue work. One team went to retrieve the anchors that had dropped during the move to secure the container in the location, while the second team began preparing the coral pieces for attachment.
Creating A Coral Nursery
The dive team then spent the next dive attaching the coral samples to the shipping container, joined by an enthusiastic Navy General Tea Sokha and several of his friends. While underwater, certain corals were broken up into small pieces to remove dying parts and infected areas. Zip ties were used in attaching many small healthy coral pieces onto the spikes of the container, as well as some larger table coral specimens to provide variety. Since all of the specimens were collected in nearby waters at similar depths, these corals should hopefully take hold and attach to the container within the next six months.
What The Future Holds
The containers now sit in 7m of water 40m off the coast of Koh Rong Sanloem. We are all hoping that this first step into conservation in Cambodia will lead to many more successful projects in creating protected environments, artificial reefs and more coral nurseries. The support of the local government has been outstanding, Navy General Tea Sokha, Provincial Governor Yun Min and Tycoon Tea Vichet all demonstrating their interest in the reef and vital conservation efforts. Cambodia needs people like this to drive the protection of marine ecosystems forward, as the reefs are still flourishing and have a chance to attract tourism and marine research.
In the same location, the future plans are to potentially sink additional objects for an extended artificial reef : including helicopters, ships and maybe even a tank! Such a dive site would become a worldwide attraction to the stunning islands of Cambodia.
The Significance In Marine Conservation
Cambodia is still a very new country when it comes to marine protection and conservation zones and laws. Many reefs are suffering from over fishing and damaging mooring. Similar artificial reefs allow for fish population to rebound and create sanctuaries for them to live. The growing interest in the underwater environment can lead to the attachment of mooring buoys to allow minimal environmental impacts on the reef, future coral reef surveys (similar to citizen science and coral watch) and hopefully protected sanctuaries to allow fish and other marine species live in safety from human intervention.
While the sinking of two containers may seem like a small project, the first steps in conversations are always the most crucial. Coral Reef value is enormous including tourism, healthier fisheries, coastal protection, sources of medical advances, climate records and intrinsic value. Every small step in protecting the health of these reefs, such as allowing coral to regrow to create new reefs, helps combat the devastating statistics of enormous amounts of reefs dying. The Great Barrier Reef is bleaching in unprecedented amounts for the second year in a row, causing worldwide outcries and concern from the scientists about the potential end of the largest reef in the world. The health of Cambodia’s reefs (which so far look like they are doing significantly better) is vital to protect and monitor.
Economic Benefit of Artificial Reefs
Planned man made reefs as this provide economic benefit as they attract fish and marine life to known locations, increasing the interest in divers and snorkelers boosting the tourism industry. According to Cambodian Tourism Statistics, in 2016 the tourism industry made over 3,000 million US dollars. This is an enormous jump from just 10 years before where tourism brought in 1,000 million US dollars.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of money which would be produced through an increase of scuba diving attractions such as this artificial reef as divers contribute directly to dive shops, hotels, transport, restaurants and further tourist attractions. The Great Barrier Reef famously generates around $6 billion with 69,000 permanent jobs while the US estimates the value of coral reefs there to be at 100$ million. With scuba diving becoming a continually growing hobby with currently over 6 million active scuba divers, with their numbers steadily growing every year, Cambodia and its beautiful reefs can become an economic powerhouse in the tourism industry.
Thank you to Reef Dive Resort for allowing me to participate in this monumental and historic moment, and thank you Cambodia for the chance to help our reef. Some photos and videos (the incredible quality ones) are thanks to Pong from Reef Dive Resort.