Cambodia fishermen struggle as the sea warms

STORY: Cambodia's crab fishermen are struggling with a warming sea.

Ung Bun is one of many crab catchers in Cambodia’s Kep province, famous for its delicious flower crabs.

But as he checks his catch before sunrise this morning...

There's not much there.

“I feel despair that I cannot harvest even one crab after a day, when about five years ago, I would have caught about 10 kg to 20 kg (22 pounds to 44 pounds) of crabs.”

Source: Climate Change Institute, University of Maine

Data show that ocean temperature spikes above normal have become increasingly common in oceans that encompass Cambodia's coastline since 2010.

Ung Bun worries the changes could rob him - and future generations - of a life reliant on crustaceans.

Kep province is about 100 miles southwest of the capital, Phnom Penh.

Crabs attract both tourists and local residents...

Who savor the dish as a special delicacy.

But fishermen like Ung Bun are getting anxious about their small catches... a development that experts attribute to a warmer sea.

Escalating emissions mean more carbon dioxide being dissolved in the ocean, which makes it more acidic.

The warmer and more acidic water reduces the concentration of carbonate, which shellfish need to create their shells.

On this day, Ung Bun made about $10. The money went to gas for his boat.

“I want to change my job, but I have no money, so I have no choice now. These days I still owe the bank for this fishing boat. I am paying the mortgage to the bank, but I have no savings so I borrowed from someone else to pay. Every month my debt is growing bigger and bigger. Once again, I want to change my job but there’s no choice because I have no money to do so.”

Overfishing also hasn't helped, says this vendor.

(Khim Sdeung, Crab seller)

“There are fewer crabs now. There aren't as many crab catchers around too, even fewer than a few years ago and yet, the flower crabs can't grow big in time before they are caught. The crabs do not grow in only a couple of days, instead they need months before they grow big but we have crab catchers who catch them every day.”

The Cambodia government launched a crab releasing campaign in 2010 and this year it began working with the non-profit organization Wild Earth Allies.

The initiative aims to educate fishermen about the benefits of releasing gravid female crabs back to the ocean.

Here's project coordinator Ith Srey Oun:

“Regarding climate change, the increased heat in the sea water can affect the survival of crabs. One female crab can have over a million eggs and from those, only thousands of babies can survive until they become mature after hatching. So, for example, if one female crab lays tens of thousands of babies in the sea then the surviving numbers can be even lesser until they reach mature age due to the hot sea water."

For his part, Ung Bun keeps a crab bank at home.

It provides a safe haven for gravid crabs to lay eggs and for young ones to grow before being released.

The local fishery administration pays participants about $12 a month.

Ung Bun says he's released hundreds of female crabs – and thousands of babies - back into the water.

And while he is hoping to protect his own livelihood... he also wants to shift the mindset of others.

"So if the villagers see my work, many would not understand what I’m doing. However, if I continue to do this as a symbol for the younger generation, they can follow my action when they see what I do and that will help to preserve the crabs so we can harvest them in greater numbers again."