Paul Ferber and his deckhand Puppet stand wide-legged at the bow of their charging vessel. A lopsided half-moon brightens the night, reflected in a shimmering pyramid of light upon the bay. The pair are silhouettes until Puppet flashes on a search lamp and points it ahead. Revealed in the beam, like an apparition, a cracked and peeling fishing boat appears out of the darkness. Its smoky engine pops and bangs, a deep, desperate rattle, the sounds like quick-burst gunshots, as it begins fleeing. Puppet struggles to keep the search lamp steady as they chase after it, illuminating leaping silvery fish in its quivering beam.
“Grab the net!” roars Ferber as they near the vessel. The fleeing boat has become fully consumed in its own smoke, looking less like a watercraft now and more like a storm cloud.
Puppet reaches under the bow and extracts a long, hooked pole. He hands it to Ferber as they near the vessel’s stern, where the trawling net rests.
Ferber dives from the bow, stabbing with the pole. He snags the net, and yanks, but it stays put. Behind, the captain cackles a sharp, wild laugh, like the chortle of an exhilarated video-gamer, audible even over the wind and the roar of two overworked engines: Hah-hah! They fall behind the trawler and zip in for another go.
For Ferber, the founder of the environmental group Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), such daring patrols are a near-nightly ritual. The Briton founded the group in 2008 after two years of working as a diving instructor in Cambodia. Though only in his late thirties, he looks almost a decade older, bald, with sun-weathered skin, a bushy Van Dyke beard, and his arms, back and stomach peppered with nautical tattoos. Only his candy blue eyes look youthful.
The boats trawl constantly – and illegally according to Cambodian law – in the shallow waters of Kep Bay off southern Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. Scooping up anything that moves, their weighted and sometimes electrified nets wreck coral reefs and tear up critical seagrass habitats “like a bulldozer going through a forest,” as Ferber often describes it. Such inshore areas act as breeding grounds for sea life as well as protection from predators for juvenile fish. Without them – without shelter, mating and breed grounds – fish and invertebrate populations plummet. If ripped out fully by the roots, seagrass may take a decade or two to grow back, while coral, which can take a hundred or more years to form, takes that amount of time to return; one session of inshore weighted trawling can cause damage that will last a lifetime or more.
Locals who catch blue swimmer crabs, a famous culinary specialty of Kep Bay and popular livelihood for local villagers, are already suffering. It was reported in June that crabbers, many of whose families had been crabbing for a generation or more, were leaving the industry in droves. There were so few crabs to be found. Crabs are especially vulnerable to trawling because they lay their eggs in seagrass. Fragile seahorses, of which Kep Bay contains a uniquely large amount, including acutely endangered species, also depend on seagrass to survive.
The official Cambodian agencies in charge of preventing trawling – the Fisheries Administration and the Marine Police – Ferber found, were either doing a very poor job of patrolling the waters, or in some cases, were fully complicit in the illegal trade, collecting fees from trawlers for allowing them to fish in off-limit areas – yet another case of official criminality in a country regarded by Transparency International, a group that monitors government corruption, as the most corrupt in southeast Asia.
Ferber figured that the only hope of preserving Cambodia’s rapidly-deteriorating inshore ecosystems was to physically chase the trawlers away himself.
If you want a thing done well, as the saying goes, do it yourself – or as Ferber describes his thinking, “Well I thought: Fuck it, I’ll do it then. Somebody’s gotta do it.”
So Ferber collected a patrolling team. He recruited Cambodians, a few Westerners, and also six Khmer-American deportees – Cambodian refugees who came to America as children but have been, for one criminal reason or another, deported back to their birth country. Many belonged to street gangs in the States and, though they are ethnically Khmer (the predominant ethnic group here), most struggle to assimilate into Cambodian society. Hardened, untethered and in need of a purpose, they make for good patrolmen.
With money saved up, and some borrowed, Ferber purchased boats, each of them weathered, wooden beat-up crafts. He now has three, which they refer to as the small, medium and big boat, respectively.
Initially, MCC settled on Koh Rong Samloem, a vacation island off the coast of Sihanoukville, a port city in southern Cambodia. After a few years of conducting marine assessments by day and chasing out illegal trawlers by night there – without any official authorization – MCC received a tacit stamp of approval from the government – not a patrol license or a permit, but a private research island, the small, hilly jungle isle of Koh Seh, an hour by boat off of Kep, a lazy fishing town, and a stone’s throw away from the Vietnamese border; the biggest and most destructive trawlers come from Vietnam.
There on Koh Seh, Ferber and a rotating pool of volunteers built their island getaway, Robinson Crusoe-style, complete with a meeting hall, bungalows, storage closets with plenty of scuba gear, a long, rickety dock, and a volleyball court; a DIY-heaven.
“We’re like a hippie commune without the hippies,” Ferber says.
Some people in Cambodia demonize Ferber. A small piece on his unique conservation work in a British newspaper last year prompted several dramatic, winded comments.
“He is utterly reviled by locals, expats, tourists and volunteers alike, and with good cause. Several, in fact. He has abused the trust of everyone who has had dealings with him, not to mention the property and person of more than a few,” wrote one anonymous commenter.
“Let’s praise an expat known throughout [Cambodia] for scamming and ripping people off and also for having a notoriously violent temper,” added another.
None of the comments made specific references (nor did any commenters respond to inquiries) and though Ferber refutes any accusations of cheating people, it is not hard to see how his cocksure, never-back-down persona could rub some the wrong way.
“I’m a little bit too happy with the fists, so I’ve made a few enemies,” he admitted one night on Koh Seh. “Knocked out a few people. I’ve got a reputation as being a violent offender. Nothing that wasn’t entirely justified. I have zero tolerance of idiots.”
Ferber himself pins all the ugly Internet comments on a group of grudge-holding Sihanoukville businessmen he claims to have repeatedly confronted over unethical business practices while he lived there during his first years in Cambodia. “I exposed all the stupid shit they did,” he says. “The more people lose, the more they want to win.” He believes they are still out to slander him.
Whatever the truth there, it is evident that Ferber is reluctant to speak of his past. “I’m bloody terrible with time,” he often says when asked to describe things chronologically.
When first interviewed about his life back in England, he said he had been a police officer in Whitehaven. The next time he revealed that he had been fired from that job. The third time he said that he had actually been fired towards the end of police training, and thus had never officially been an officer. Why was he let go? For stabbing a bullying colleague in the hand with a fork in the officer’s canteen.
Ferber grew up in the hilly, Cumbrian civil parish of Appleby-in-Westmorland, with a brother and sister. His father was a builder and marble sculpture artist, his mother a special education teacher. It was a rough neighborhood. Schoolboys called Friday nights “Black Eye Fridays.”
“Being in school and being out in the street was no different in those areas. Walking in the school you end up having shit ransacked and everybody wants to punch you in the face,” Ferber remembers.
“The easiest thing to do was pick the biggest fucker and knock him out and everyone else would leave you alone.”
At fourteen, Ferber dropped out of school to work manual labor. He slept in his father’s friend’s attic with a dog named Dennis. “I used to take him down to the pub and give him Guinness in an ashtray and he used to fart really badly and we’d get thrown out.”
He fell into drugs and was homeless for a year in his late teens. After he cleaned up, his father convinced him to take the high school equivalency test. He earned his degree but continued in construction work. In his early twenties he took a backpacking trip to southeast Asia and when he returned to England, he went out for the doomed cop job, his last attempt at a “normal life.”
“I had two choices. One: go back to the life I wanted – this – or conform to society, get married, have kids, white picket fence, mortgage, house, conform to everything that I’ve been told throughout my life is what I’m supposed to do. So I gave it a go – wasn’t for me.”
The second choice was “this.”
But not everyone in Cambodia sees Ferber as an interloping roughian. Vincent Chevallier, a French diving instructor who worked briefly for MCC and now lives in Sihanoukville described his former boss as a straight-shooter.
“Paul is always straight to the point. There’s no bullshit with this guy. He is probably the only person in marine conservation here who really cares about what he does,” he said.
Amick Haissoune, 30, a well-tanned, surfer-dude type from Quebec, has volunteered with Ferber for over two years, teaching diving to MCC volunteers, running marine assessments around the island and helping conduct sociodemographic research in the fishing communities around Kep Bay, a key aspect of MCC’s work. He spends much of the year on Koh Seh.
“Paul is quite amazing,” he says, in the open-aired meeting hall, a salty breeze blowing, standing near a shelf full of books on marine ecology and whiteboards with cartoon diagrams of seahorses. “He’s really inspiring. That’s his room, man,” Haissoune said, pointing toward a mattress standing upright, where Ferber sleeps in the open with his wife Sal, joined often by one or two of their five pitbulls. They also have four young children that are raised on the island.
“He’s making a lot of sacrifices, personal and financial, keeping this place afloat,” Haissoune adds.
Delphine Dublin, 25, who first volunteered three years ago with MCC and returned recently to join them on Koh Seh, spoke similarly of Ferber. “He’ll just talk to you and you’ll be like, ‘Okay I wanna do something and I wanna do it now,’” she says. “He cares for the country so much, and its ocean. It’s amazing.”
Ferber’s Khmer and Khmer-American crewman – Pom, Puppet, Nang and Tee – seem willing to follow him anywhere. Certainly they put their lives at risk chasing trawlers with him; illegal fishermen have killed Cambodian officials attempting to confiscate their nets, as well as other fishermen. The MCC crew themselves regularly fall into ramming matches with the boats they chase. Sometimes the fishermen brandish axes, knives and rocks. Several of the patrolmen have received death threats.
One night after a successful patrol, while sitting out on a wooden platform near the beach, Ferber detailed his most intense chases.
He described one incident, after confronting a Vietnamese trawler, when his boat’s propeller got snagged in the trawler’s industrial-sized net.
“They started to tow us back to Vietnam,” he recounted. “If we crossed the border, we’d be fucked, cause the guys who own that boat are the Navy guys from Phu Quoc [a neighboring Vietnamese island].” Ferber said he dived into the surf and sawed the net off the propeller with a meat cleaver.
After that he became silent. “I like it. Nang, Puppet, Pom, Tee, myself. I don’t know, something exciting about having that intenseness. A lot of the other guys get a little bit scared; freak out sometimes. But it’s…” he paused again. “Interesting…Protecting the turf, eh!”
It felt like a confession.
One afternoon while on Koh Seh the team set out for a patrol. It was rare to find trawlers in the daytime but Ferber had spotted some with his binoculars from the end of the dock.
The green-blue bay zipped by under azure skies as they made their way to the other side of the bay. “The big white casino over there,” yelled Ferber over the wind, pointing, “That’s the Vietnamese border.” Along with the normal patrol crew on the boat were a handful of MCC volunteers. “It’s safer in the daytime,” quipped one Londoner when asked why she decided to join.
Dotted across the bay lay a string of hilly isles. A small coral-red crabbing boat loaded with nets floated by. Ferber clutched two iPhones and sucked on a clove cigarette. A flying fish skirted across the water like a skipped stone.
Gradually some trawlers came into view, a pair of white blimps lingering between two green plops of land. Ferber peered through his binoculars. “They’re running now,” he said. He and two deckhands stood at the bow, their hands on their hips. The boat was moving at a steady pace. Ferber began recording a video on his smartphone as they neared, footage he would later send to the Cambodian Fisheries Administration, whose job they were doing, and also upload to Facebook. Pom the captain smirked.
The boats were resting when MCC came upon them, crumbly and worn-out. Up close and in the daylight you could see the fishermen well, three to a boat, each wearing stained shirts and flip-flops. Their dark hair blew in the breeze. Puppet and Nang berated them in Khmer as their boat circled like hyenas. A pile of seagrass lay destroyed on the trawler’s decks. There was no fish. After a couple minutes of being shouted at, they puttered away. “Don’t come back boys!” Ferber yelled after them, flipping them off. The volunteers sat and grinned, clutching cameras.
Another patrolman spotted a third boat and they headed towards it. It was more pitiful than the last two, its cabin sagging as if made of old cake and its two outriggers like chicken bone wings. One sinister-looking fisherman wore a balaclava. Ferber leered at him, “Smile you rude mothafucker,” and the Khmers went through the same screaming routine. The fishermen glared back as they motored away.
“They’ll come back here later,” Ferber said as they left. “They don’t give a fuck cause nobody really punishes them.” He pointed down at the water. “See that? It looks like it’s snowing. That’s what happens to the visibility when the trawlers come.”
Sure enough, on the way back, less than ten minutes later, they encountered the same boat. The deckhand in the balaclava was frantically pulling up their nets. The Khmers berated them again, circled, and they took off. It felt like maritime hide-and-seek, or, as Ferber saw it, “just a big chess game.”
But seeing all of this, you couldn’t help but wonder what the point of it all was. After all, these fishermen were going to return again and again and again. Even Ferber said so. “I’d be so demoralized going out after the same people every day for two years,” reflected one MCC volunteer who had joined the daytime patrol. “It’s incredible that they come out every single day to do this.”
Though the trawlers were owned by powerful men – some of them government officials – the fishermen were certainly destitute, desperate, uneducated, and though there was little fish left in Kep Bay, there was enough to make it enticing for poor men.
It was hard to shake the feeling: The whole mission seemed doomed. With his meager resources, shabby boats, no money, little legal recourse, no serious mechanism of enforcement and a fantastic level of government complicity, MCC seems to stand little chance against the trawling threat. It seems inevitable that this place will be plundered and ruined. Ferber must know that but still he chases. He holds up his binoculars. He crosses his arms and swears. He gets sunburnt. He pisses people off. He receives death threats. He goes broke. He gets rocks thrown at him. He gets rammed, dragged. And for what? A tiny speck of water in a country not his own, a society that 40 years ago would have murdered him if he stepped foot in it. Against the odds, he has made his island a kind of refuge of law and justice in a place that had little. But in doing so, he built his own prison too. Ferber has put so much into his mission, how could he ever leave it?
“Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit,” a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia used to warn green visitors. “You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.”
Darkness. The engines roar like tigers.
Two boats, one trailing the other, are moving parallel to a string of empty islands, without light, floating black mounds. Puppet flashes on the search lamp again and Pom brings them in for another go at the trawler. They near the fleeing ship and Ferber, crouched at the bow, goes in for another stab with his hooked pole. This time it sticks. He yanks back and the trawler’s net comes undone, unfurling from the back of the speeding trawler like a monstrous tongue. Ferber does not waste a moment. He hands the pole to Puppet – the light flickers – stands up and takes hold of the anchor. Pom keeps their boat close to the net, careful not to get stuck, a difficult trick at this speed. Clutching the anchor, Ferber heaves and tosses it towards the floating net. It is a direct hit. Pom stalls the boat and begins reversing until the two boats are in a tug-of-war, the snagged anchor lifting the trawling net out of the water between them, making a momentary bridge between hunter and prey, dripping seawater.
The position holds for several moments before a boyish deckhand bursts out of the trawler’s cabin; the only sign of life from the boat this entire chase. Frantically he sprints to the stern and unlatches the ends of the net. Click! Click! The net floats over, their trophy, and the trawling boat putters off in defeat, smoke-filled, net-less, demoralized, frightened, into the black bay.
As they motor back to Koh Seh, Ferber looks exhausted as he and Puppet untangle the anchor from the net.
Nearing the island, hundreds of shimmering bodies appear in the water alongside the boat. The shapes drop in and out of sight, a school of mirages, flickering only at the surface.
They are scores of glowing fish, dipping and diving in the boat’s wake, a nocturnal shoal illuminated by millions of microscopic phytoplankton.
“Look at that,” says Ferber. “You only get that around our island, where there’s life. But it should be like this everywhere.”