Cu Lao Cham Marine Park

Vietnam

Building solutions while strengthening economies

Fishermen on the Cham Islands off the coast of Danang in Central Vietnam were recently motivated to implement an effective program to address plastic pollution which has plagued waters in Southeast Asia. The designation of Cu Lao Cham Marine park as a UNESCO biosphere preserve in 2009 provided the impetus needed for the community to take an interest in clearing plastic from the waters around their islands and maintaining plastic free environments which in turn has provided them with increased income from a growing tourist industry.

The reefs that had been shrouded in plastic bags were cleared and have since started to thrive. The improved habitat encouraged the growth of fish populations. The tourists have followed in suit with boats providing snorkel and dive tours shuttling people out from the UNESCO Heritage site of Hoi An as well as the booming city of Danang. Part of the tours include lunch and beach time on the islands, which provides added income for the families who run the businesses there. Although illegal fishing continues to be an issue within the preserve, the efforts taken towards environmental preservation offers hope in a place that has not historically demonstrated a strong concern for the environment. In this case, money talks. For the first time since the recession following the American war, Vietnamese have developed a strong enough economy to embrace the luxury of environmentalism.

After spending time in Vietnam over the past 25 years and seeing a dramatic economic transformation of the country, I delighted in the opportunity to participate in environmental recreation in the islands with old friends Hoa and Nga. Nga was not familiar with swimming, but we suited her up with a mask and took her out amidst numerous flotation devices so that she could discover the wonders of coral gardens. She was deeply moved by the colorful marine landscapes, saying she had never imagined such worlds. It was an inspiring reminder of how important it is to cultivate environmental stewardship through direct experience. It’s encouraging to see Vietnam reach a point where this kind of experiential opportunity is available to people there.

Fish Sauce bottle
Even as local Cham Island fishermen and dive boat guides recognize the importance of keeping the sea plastic free, currents carry pollution into the sanctuary. This bottle was picked up on a free dive of the corals surrounding the islands and is used in the Debris Project as a tile interspersed with diatom forms.
There is a long way to go in shifting attitudes towards plastic pollution from the wider population. This Cham Island youth makes a show of cleaning up the plastic left behind by the swimmers in the water. We can sense his frustration at this routine which has become all too common.