Preah Sihanouk has long been considered one the Kingdom’s provinces with the most tourism potential due to natural treasures like its 32 islands, numerous beaches and mangrove forests.

Tourism and provincial officials are aiming to develop another tourist attraction – underwater. Cambodia’s coastal seabed is rich in biodiversity, including coral reefs that could prove to be of great interest to scuba divers from around the globe.

Orm Bunthoeurn, a reporter for The Post, interviewed Preah Sihanouk province deputy governor Long Dimanche to learn more about this new tourism frontier.

Of the 32 islands in the province, how many have diving sites with coral?

The archipelagos with the most potential for seabed diving are Koh Tang, Koh Poulo Wai and Koh Rong. These are all places with beautiful coral reefs as well as abundant biodiversity on the seabed. Koh Rong archipelago is easily accessible and convenient for dive training.

How many species of coral are there on the seabed around those islands?

In short, we have two types, soft and hard species of coral. These two types of coral cover almost all of the seabed surrounding the islands and there are many species of fish there as well. Coral reefs provide a habitat for other species of marine life by providing them with food and other benefits, so biodiversity tends to be rich near them.

Are there any rare or endangered species found in the waters near the coral reefs?

In terms of endangered biodiversity, we see whale sharks there, especially those that get trapped in fishing nets and die. Sometimes they pass away because of marine pollution or climate change, and some are changing their usual habits and leaving our territorial waters.

We also have seahorses, sea-stars and some other endangered animals. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Fisheries Administration, as well as the Department of Conservation at the Koh Rong Marine National Park, are all paying close attention and considering how to reduce the impact of tourism on marine life. The National Committee for Maritime Security is also planning to patrol the area to prevent any problems from occurring.

What is the conservation status for coral reefs around the islands? Is it currently sustainable?

There are many groups in Preah Sihanouk province that are interested in researching, conserving and protecting our existing natural resources. In terms of the resources themselves, they remain rich and vibrant, and are well-protected. Any further plans for the area in the near future will include effective resource management, as well as education and training about those natural resources.

Is there any concern that development of the area could cause damage to the marine habitat?

The development on those islands could have a severe effect on biodiversity, both on the islands themselves and on the marine habitat around them. In other words, any development on these islands must take into account the potential impact on the ecosystem.

If development requires excavation work, for example, then the developer must ensure that construction waste does not flow into the sea, as it could pollute the marine environment. This is especially crucial during the rainy season.

Are the coral reefs considered protected areas?

We are working with the agriculture ministry and the fisheries administration the allocate protected status to all of the resources that require it.

Any areas which are facing a loss of biodiversity will be declared conservation areas, so no activities other than conservation ones will be allowed there.

We will also designate specific locations for a range of tourist activities, such as water skiing, fishing or scuba diving.

Do any illegal fishing activities take place near the coral reefs?

There are some, but they are generally the small-scale actions of local fishermen who do not realise how important it is to protect our marine biodiversity. People who support their families through fishing need to be educated about where they will be forbidden from harvesting from the ocean, but we have not yet finalised which zones will be designated as conservation areas.

What steps have the authorities already taken to conserve the Kingdom’s coral reefs?

The Ministry of environment established the Koh Rong Marine National Park in Preah Sihanouk province, the Koh Kong Marine National Park in Koh Kong province and the Kep Provincial Marine National Park, in order to protect, conserve, and promote the potential of our seabeds and biodiversity.

The National Committee for Maritime Security was also established. Its role is to crackdown on all crimes that affect biodiversity.

Are there any environmental NGO’s activities involved in conserving the reefs?

A number of national and international NGOs conduct research and conservation activities in several locations, such as Koh Song Saa or Koh Krabei. They use their funding to protect our natural resources. While they are present, they work closely with government institutions, such as the ministry of environment of the fisheries administration.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.