Collaborating on the coast

Aceh is well known for the devastating tsunami that struck in 2004, but less well known for its traditional marine management system that dates back 400 years. I joined a trip to the FFI Aceh Programme with Cambodian government officials, a commune chief and private tourism operators to learn from the Panglima Laot traditional marine leaders who are in charge of managing fisheries resources using customary laws.

Boats moored in the beautiful waters of Aceh. Credit: Berry Mulligan/FFI.

The term Panglima Laot refers to both individual elected leaders and an institution. It is an institution that survived Dutch colonisation, Japanese occupation during WWII and attempts in the 1970s to centralise fisheries management. The delegation from Cambodia was there to see how they could apply lessons taken from the resilient and adaptable fishing communities of Pulah Weh to fisheries management on the Cambodian coastline.

Mangroves play a key role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem. Credit: Berry Mulligan/FFI.

Mangrove forest regeneration can improve fisheries and coastal protection, and the FFI Aceh Programme seeks to educate elementary and junior high school children on Pulah Weh about the importance of mangroves.The project provides opportunities for community members, pupils and teachers to participate in mangrove planting. Nearly 19,000 saplings have been planted so far with a survival rate of 80%.

While such awareness raising and habitat improvement is important, to me what was most striking about the project was the level of discussion and direct collaboration between the Panglima Laot and the local and provincial authorities. The fishing communities carry out their own planning and fisheries zoning and have their customary laws recognised by local and provincial authorities, which creates a powerful tool to implement coral reef protection and management on a broad scale.

Those 19,000 mangrove trees will only persist if there is a management and protection system established involving both the community and government.

Mr Doch Sokhom talks to the group about marine management in Cambodia. Credit: Berry Mulligan/FFI.

Normally I’m no big fan of workshops. This one, however, had the obvious advantage of being by the sea rather than a stuffy meeting room in Phnom Penh, but more importantly it was spread over a few days which gave time for the Cambodian delegation and the local fishermen to really explore what works and what doesn’t, and why.

During the workshop, Mr Doch Sokhom, Commune Chief on a Cambodian island archipelago, addressed Panglima Laots, District Fisheries Department and FFI staff. He discussed the management of relatively recently established Community Fisheries around the Cambodian islands, and the potential to establish a larger Marine Fisheries Management Area.

The term Panglima Laot, which translates as ‘Commander of the Sea’, refers to both individual elected leaders and the institution. Credit: Berry Mulligan/FFI.

A ‘Commander of the Sea’ (a translation of Panglima Laot) explained how he also supplements fishing with tourism, which has bounced back following the tsunami. As if on cue, boat loads of people arrived and began to make the most of the crystal clear waters surrounding the islands.

Boat loads of people arrive to make the most of the crystal clear waters. Credit: Berry Mulligan/FFI.

Acehnese tourists take the ferry out from Banda Aceh for a day trip, and provide direct income through the hire of glass bottom boats, snorkels and life jackets. We also met foreign sports fishermen and divers who benefit from the careful management of the marine environment by the Panglima Laot.

Some areas (such as spawning grounds of commercially important fish species) are off limits, but others are allocated for fishing and recreation. For religious reasons every Friday is a ‘day off’ for the sea and taking boats out for tourism or fishing is forbidden between certain hours.

Tourism provides an important source of direct income in Aceh. Credit: Berry Mulligan/FFI.

The evenings were spent planning how to apply the lessons from FFI’s 6 years of work on Pulah Weh (and the decades of experience of the Acehnese Government and Panglima Laot) to a Cambodian context, as fruit bats glided overhead.

Beautiful views as the sun sets on discussions. Credit: Berry Mulligan/FFI.

With funding from the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative, FFI and the Fisheries Administration have just initiated a 3 year project to establish Cambodia’s first Marine Fisheries Management Area, which aims to engage coastal communities, government and the private sector to improve marine resource management.

While there is no traditional institution such as the Panglima Laot, the Royal Government has established numerous Community Fisheries as they push for fisheries reform in a country where 80% of the protein in people’s diets comes from fish. These Community Fisheries can provide a platform for fishing communities to engage in the management of the area and of their own marine resources.