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Seychelles extends protection to marine area twice the size of Great Britain

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  • The archipelago in the Indian Ocean has committed to protecting 400,000 sq km (154,000 sq miles) of marine area, about 30% of its waters.
  • Conservationists say it is a step in the right direction, but the bigger challenge will be for the government to effectively manage the vast network of marine protected areas (MPAs).
  • A ‘debt-for-nature’ deal allowed the country to restructure its sovereign debt and leverage $21.6 million to fund the creation of the MPAs and adaptation to climate change.
  • Seychelles hosts giant tortoises, nesting sites for turtles, and fragile coral reef ecosystems that the new MPAs aim to protect.

Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean famous for its turquoise waters, giant tortoises and wondrous birds, has extended protection to 400,000 square kilometers (154,000 square miles) of its seas, an area twice the size of Great Britain. The move fulfills the country’s long-standing pledge to safeguard 30% of its marine waters.

“Seychelles’ marine ecosystem is the foundation that the economy is built upon, with fisheries and tourism being the primary pillars of our economy,” President Danny Faure said on March 26 at the signing of a decree that created 13 new marine protected areas (MPAs). “The people of Seychelles have a direct dependence on our ocean resources for food security and livelihoods.”

The terrestrial area of the Seychelles’ 115 islands is only about 460 km2 (180 mi2), about three times the size of Staten Island in New York City, but the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) spans 1.37 million km2 of ocean, twice the size of Texas. The challenge for the country is to prevent the unsustainable exploitation of its biodiversity, which it projects as its biggest selling point to the world.

Image courtesy The Ocean Agency

The declaration of new MPAs was facilitated by a “debt-for-nature” deal proposed by the U.S.-based NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The scheme came on the back of the 2008 financial crisis, when the Seychelles government was unable to pay back its foreign creditors, defaulting on its sovereign debt. Debt restructuring aims at avoiding default by changing the terms of repayment. The agreement with TNC allowed the country to free up $21.6 million in foreign debt, provided it ramped up protection of its marine resources and took climate adaptation measures.

While debt-for-nature schemes have been used before to protect terrestrial ecosystems, most notably in Latin America and the Caribbean, this is the first for marine areas. Nearly half of Seychelles’ new MPAs will be “no-take zones,” where economic activity such as fishing, mining or drilling will not be allowed. In the other half, called Zone 2, economic activities will be allowed, subject to regulation.

The island republic’s marine biodiversity is threatened by overexploitation, pollution generated inland, habitat degradation because of offshore oil exploration and extraction, as well as rising sea temperatures.

The hope is that the expansion will safeguard the habitats and nesting sites of endangered turtles, the last remaining population of dugongs in the Indian Ocean, preserve coral reefs, and also allow the country to invest in making the fisheries sector more sustainable.

Among the expected beneficiaries of these efforts are shark species. Shark fishing is an ancient practice in Seychelles, where till the 1940s, there were frequent sightings of hammerhead sharks (belonging to the family Sphyrnidae) and tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier)*.

A healthy coral reef with a blacktip reef shark near the shores of D’Arros Island, Seychelles. Image by Byron Dilkes

“Sharks have a strong cultural importance in Seychelles, and I think that marine protected areas are a critical tool for shark conservation locally,” said James Lea, CEO of Save Our Seas Foundation, a Swiss group that works extensively in Seychelles. Lea added that there is indirect evidence to suggest that MPAs help shark species. “Aldabra Atoll has been protected since the 1980s and has an abundance of marine life, including sharks. Blacktip reef sharks [Carcharhinus melanopterus] and sicklefin lemon sharks [Negaprion acutidens] in particular are thriving there,” he said.

The Aldabra Atoll, the world’s second-largest coral atoll and a UNESCO world heritage site and special reserve, is arguably a success story in terms of conservation. It is home to the largest population of giant tortoises in the world, as well as more than 300 other species of animals and plants. The reserve extends into the sea, 1 km (0.6 mi) from the shore. Its remote location and long history of protection have combined to keep it safe.

A new MPA has now been designated around the atoll, whose boundaries extend to Tanzania’s EEZ to the west and Madagascar’s EEZ to the south. It is one of five MPAs that are no-take zones.

Until 2012, only 0.04% of Seychelles’ marine territory was part of its MPA network. Under the debt-for-nature deal, reached in 2015, the government announced the first round of expansion in 2018, when 210,000 km2 (81,000 mi2) of marine areas were designated MPAs.

Convincing fishers and hoteliers

Image courtesy The Ocean Agency

“Expanding Seychelles’ MPA network is a very important and major first step in the conservation of Seychelles’ biodiversity, but it is only the first step,” Rabia Somers and Vanessa Didon, from the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles, said in a statement to Mongabay. “The conservation of Seychelles’ biodiversity ultimately depends on multiple factors, such as enforcement, public-private partnerships, and innovative management models.”

The announcement was finalized after consultations, more than 200 of them, over six years to decide which areas will be protected and to what extent. The main challenge for the government and conservation NGOs was to convince people who rely on marine resources that the new protections would benefit them. Buy-in from the fisheries sector, both small-scale and large-scale, and the tourism industry will be crucial for the MPAs to work, experts said.

With its many privately owned island resorts, Seychelles often hosts the rich and famous, and sometimes even royalty. Prince William and Kate Middleton honeymooned on one such retreat on North Island; George Clooney and Amal Clooney also vacationed in Seychelles after their wedding.

“The environment is core to the tourism product they offer,” Wilna Accouche from the local NGO Green Island Foundation told Mongabay. “They have to make sure that that the tourism activities do not damage the environment.”

The NGO helped to get the marine area off another private island, Denis Island, designated as a protected area. While convincing hoteliers that they should conserve the most attractive features of their resorts is easy, Accouche said that getting them to recognize that their inland activities affect marine ecosystems is more challenging. This includes the discharge of waste, construction activity, and reclamation projects to create artificial islands.

Fishing communities maintain they are not solely to blame for the loss of marine species. Recreational fishing is common and unregulated in Seychelles. Marine stocks are also affected by rising sea temperatures and water pollution.

According to Accouche, a big problem in the effective management of marine areas is the mistrust between fishing communities and the government. For years, fishers have grappled with restrictions being imposed from the top. The conservation objectives of the new MPAs will only be achieved if fishers believe it is in their best interests to comply with restrictions, she said.

To minimize the new protections’ impact on fishing communities, some NGOs like Marine Conservation Society Seychelles work with communities to create temporal protected areas (TPAs) that will permit some activity during parts of the year. Seychelles beaches serve as seasonal nesting sites for green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). “TPAs restrict certain activities during certain critical time periods and also mitigate threats faced by sea turtles during the nesting and hatching season; poaching of nesting females and disturbance of nests and emerging hatchlings,” Somers and Didon from the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles said.

Green turtles mating in the waters of the Aldabra reserve. Image by James Lea

Enforcing the new protections

Regulating activities in Zone 2 of the recently announced MPAs, where activities are allowed but subject to regulation, will be more difficult, experts said.

The National Information Sharing and Coordination Centre (NISCC) in Seychelles, together with other agencies, has been monitoring the country’s EEZ and surveilling MPAs. The agency will implement a five-year marine spatial plan that will be rolled out next year, covering not just the MPAs but the entire EEZ of Seychelles

“The five-year plan would include using more innovative methods to monitor MPAs, such as satellites and drones,” said Leslie Benoiton, who heads the NISCC. The plan will also focus on developing human resources and capacity for overseeing MPAs and educating and sensitizing communities, he said.

A technology-intensive approach, however, will come at a cost.

The funds secured through the debt-for-nature deal might not be enough to guarantee protection. To effectively manage such an extensive MPA network would require somewhere between $75 and $106 per square kilometer every year, according to an estimate from Seychelles’ Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust (SeyCCAT), the entity created to channel the funds freed by the debt deal to the Seychelles government. At the top end of that range, the cost to effectively manage the massive swath of area now under protection would cost about $42 million a year.

Image courtesy The Ocean Agency

Though the Seychelles government also sets aside funds for marine management, it is not nearly enough, so it is seeking grants and loans to secure the MPAs. To ensure effective coordination between the multiple agencies involved in overseeing the now-complete MPA network, the government is establishing a new body, the Seychelles Ocean Authority. It is also considering imposing an environmental levy of $10 on tourists — a small price to pay for those seeking solace in a country where you can literally book your own slice of beach.

(Banner Image: One of the small rocky islands that make up the Seychelles archipelago. Image courtesy The Ocean Agency)

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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[* Editor’s note: The article has been updated to clarify the kind of shark species that were sighted off the Seychelles’ coast.]

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