The eyes of the marine world will shortly be turning to Lisbon, which is hosting the United Nations Ocean Conference from 27 June to 1st July. With the call to “save our ocean, protect our future” this pivotal event will, it is hoped, catalyse meaningful – and long overdue – action on the part of global leaders and decision-makers. 

Nowhere is the need for ocean action more evident than Cambodia, where the coastal waters support some of Southeast Asia’s most valuable, and most threatened, marine biodiversity. Cambodia’s small but mighty coastline supports extensive coral reef, seagrass and mangrove habitats, as well as populations of endangered sea turtles, alongside lesser-known critters such as the majestic Neptune’s cup sponge, colourful sea slugs and mysterious flatworms.

Cambodia’s coastlines are home to an array of extraordinary marine creatures such as this scorpion fish. Credit: Morokot Long/Fauna & Flora International

FFI has been striving to conserve Cambodia’s marine ecosystems and safeguard vital small-scale fisheries for more than a decade, responding to the critical threats posed by illegal trawling and unsustainable coastal development. Our work started with research to understand the status of marine turtle populations, and has since grown into a nationwide collaboration with communities, government and local NGOs to create a Marine Protected Area network spanning the entire coastline, from the tangled mangroves in northern Koh Kong to offshore islands in southern Kep.

One of the FFI team members working to make Cambodia’s marine conservation vision a reality is Morokot Long, who is part of a growing cohort of young Cambodian environmental leaders.

Morokot in the days before she swapped her hiking gear for scuba gear. Credit: Fauna & Flora International

After completing her Bachelor in Environmental Science degree, Morokot worked originally in terrestrial conservation as a volunteer. She joined FFI in 2021 as a marine intern, supported by funding from the Conservation Leadership Programme. Morokot has increased her marine expertise, becoming a certified scuba diver and coral reef surveyor, and playing a key role in marine habitat monitoring across the Cambodian coast. 

Alongside a team of FFI staff and partners, Morokot spends long weeks afloat, criss-crossing the water to find and survey coral reefs in remote corners of Cambodia: “My work involves going to the field a lot, for two weeks at one time. We start early and finish around 7-8pm and spend most of the day on the boat and in the water.” 

“When I started scuba-diving it was the first time I had seen coral, and fishes swimming freely in their natural habitat. What I most like about diving is that I feel submerged into marine ecology, I feel like I’m one of them when I’m under the water.”

A crown-of-thorns starfish, one of the world’s largest sea stars and a well-known coral predator. Credit: Morokot Long/Fauna & Flora International

Morokot has also taken the opportunity to hone her photography skills, producing stunning images of Cambodian marine wildlife. “I like to show them to my friends and tell them how beautiful marine life is.” 

Nudibranchs (commonly called sea slugs) come in a dazzling array of shapes and colours and are her favourite portrait subject:The best underwater photos I have taken so far are of the nudibranchs. They are tiny yet very beautiful and they are easy to photograph because they don’t move a lot. They are indicator species, which means their presence and diversity shows the health of coral reefs and the water quality.”

One of the numerous nudibranchs recorded in Koh Tang, Cambodia. Credit: Morokot Long/Fauna & Flora International

Many nudibranchs display bright and beautiful colour patterns. Credit: Morokot Long / Fauna & Flora International

Like much of Cambodia’s marine life, nudibranchs are under pressure from unsustainable exploitation. “The biggest threat to Cambodia’s marine life is destructive fishing, such as dynamite fishing and bottom trawling fishing. I think that spreading the awareness, especially to the fisherman themselves, is very important to make them understand how and what impact they are having and how it can impact their livelihoods, because if they keep using those destructive gears in the future there might be no fish for them to fish.

Destructive fishing practices, plastic pollution and unsustainable development are among the main threats to Cambodia’s marine life. Credit: Morokot Long/FFI

Morokot is hoping that others will follow in her footsteps: 

To Cambodian women who want to pursue a career in marine conservation, I would say go for it and don’t be scared. Of course, there are some challenges, but these will push you outside of your comfort zone and make you strong. And this job is very fun!
Morokot Long Research Assistant, Coastal & Marine Conservation Programme

Morokot’s story, and the work of the entire FFI marine team in Cambodia, is just one example of a wave of local ocean conservation action across our projects and beyond. All our marine colleagues eagerly await the UN Ocean event in Lisbon, and FFI will be there in person, championing marine conservation and calling on governments to make the ambitious commitments needed to protect our ocean.