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Seychelles snorkelling

Courtesy: The Ocean Agency

The Seychelles, a tiny island archipelago in the western Indian Ocean, has become one of the world’s greatest success stories in ocean conservation. For decades, the island nation was a go-to destination for Europeans wanting sun, sea and sand. But overfishing, plastic waste and coral bleaching threatened both local fishing communities and tourism.

Spurred on by a debt crisis in the 2010s, the Seychelles government and local NGOs embarked on programmes that have become the gold standard in marine conservation.

The debt crisis also resulted in some creative financial solutions. Rather than cutting spending on a fragile economy, the government opted for a “debt-for-nature” swap scheme in 2015 that wound up saving one of the world’s richest oceanic environments.

The Seychelles archipelago of 115 islands lies roughly 1,600 kilometres from the African coastline and has an ethnically diverse population of less than 100,000. The Exclusive Economic Zone of the Seychelles spans nearly 1.4 million square kilometres – a space over four times the size of the Philippines’ total land area.

Scientists and conservationists have developed coral ‘gardening’ techniques, in which resilient corals are fragmented, grown and then transferred to damaged reefs to boost coral numbers

The Seychelles’ inner islands are mainly made of granite and feature dramatic boulders, while the outer islands are made up of various coralline islands. Mahé is the largest island of the Seychelles and is separated from the outer islands by vast expanses of water – to reach them requires a boat ride, a flight or both.

Seychelles fish

Protected fish swim in the Seychelles | Courtesy: Fregate Island

Known for its tropical climate, turquoise water and pristine sandy beaches, it’s not surprising that the Seychelles became a tourist hotspot. Yet the real magic of the Seychelles goes beyond its outstanding natural beauty. It also harbours one most diverse arrays of sea life on the planet. Thanks to its conservation efforts, the Seychelles remains one of the world’s top fishing locations, while divers and snorkelers can swim through never-ending schools of shimmering fish.

The inner and outer islands of the Seychelles offers divers a rare glimpse of an underwater world teeming with life and featuring some incredible topography.

Courtesy: The Ocean Agency

The sheer abundance of fish life around the sites of the outer islands is striking. Divers can swim through never-ending schools of colourful bluelined snapper, witness masses of vampire triggerfish descend onto reefs, and be followed by a bunch of curious batfish for most of their dive, keen to find out where the bubbles are coming from.

Not far from the shores of these pristine islands, there are plateaus covered with intricate coral structures, giving these underwater worlds the appearance of miniature cities, with busy ‘commuter’ species whizzing their way around the reefs.

At the edge of the plateaus, the reefs drop of to form dramatic walls. There, divers can find eels, octopuses, shrimps, nurse sharks, green turtles and stingrays hiding or resting in the overhangs and crevices.

Turtles in the Seychelles

Turtles were nearly hunted to extinction

By contrast, the towering boulders resting on the sea floor near the granitic inner islands offer a chance to dive with whale sharks, the gentle giants of the ocean. Wherever you choose to dive, you’ll be in crystal-clear tropical waters, typically ranging from 26-29C. The inner islands have been more damaged by coral bleaching and coastal development, but the outer islands still have much to offer.

How has the Seychelles managed to do such an incredible job of preserving its ocean environment and natural resources – a feat at which so many other countries have tragically failed?

There are numerous and diverse approaches toward its ocean conservation agenda. Countless organisations, both local and international, are at work in the Seychelles protecting marine life. Unesco has declared the Aldabra Atoll, the world’s second-largest raised coral atoll, as a World Heritage Site.

Local fishing boats

Local fishing boats | Courtesy Jason Houston

One of the biggest milestones came in 2015, when the Seychelles signed a “debt for nature” deal. The deal saw almost US$22 million of national debt (then estimated at US$900 million) written off in exchange for a promise the country would protect at least 30% of its waters – up from less than 1%. After a debt restructuring and donations from philanthropists, money that would have gone to servicing the debt was spent on ocean conservation and developing marine parks.

The waters of the Seychelles have therefore remained a haven for marine life. In turn, this has had a positive impact on local fishing communities and boosted the country’s already thriving tourism industry and Blue Economy.

Ensuring marine life flourishes requires constant vigilance from the government and conservationists. The Seychellois’ reliance on fishing and tourism has made them extremely vulnerable to the plight of the ocean.

the superyacht Silver Angel is available for charter in the Seychelles year-round

The superyacht Silver Angel is available for charter in the Seychelles year-round

FACING CHALLENGES

Turtle conservation eforts have been so successful that scuba divers in the outer islands can now hope to encounter as many as 50 turtles in just a 50-minute dive. It hasn’t always been this way.

In the 1980s, turtle populations were at dangerously low levels in the Seychelles. The Seychellois hunted the two main species of turtle found in the Seychelles, hawksbill and green turtles. The herbivorous green turtles are a delicacy among Seychellois, and nesting females make particularly vulnerable targets for hungry poachers.

Hawksbill turtles were hunted for their beautiful shells, which were used to make accessories for export.

Before the turtles were gone, various monitoring programmes were put in place across the Seychelles. These efforts, combined with the government’s decision to prohibit the killing and trading of turtles in 1994, brought local turtle populations back from the brink of extinction.

Coral reefs, one of the main reasons people enjoy scuba diving and fishing in the Seychelles, are another constant concern. The Seychelles has an abundance of coral reefs, but warming events of recent years have had catastrophic consequences, with slow regrowth in some areas (particularly the inner islands).

Coral restoration work underway

Coral restoration work underway

As a result, scientists and conservationists have developed coral ‘gardening’ techniques, in which resilient corals are fragmented, grown and then transferred to damaged reefs to boost coral numbers. Since 2010, 24,000 corals have been successfully transplanted to the reefs surrounding Cousin Island Special Reserve, which is managed by Nature Seychelles, the country’s leading conservation NGO.

One of the biggest milestones came in 2015, when the Seychelles signed a ‘debt for nature’ deal. Almost US$22 million of national debt was written off in exchange for a promise to protect at least 30% of its waters

Preliminary findings show that these reef restoration programmes are working, which means that ocean enthusiasts can continue to swim in seas teeming with life for years to come.

Similar work is being done by the WiseOceans reef restoration project, while volunteer programmes such as the one run by Global Vision International allow visitors a unique chance to get some hands-on coral gardening experience.

Unfortunately, not all problems facing the seas of the Seychelles are local. Fishermen use floating objects called fish aggregating devices (FADs) to attract fish and make them easier to catch. Use of FADs surged in the 1990s, sparking concern among conservationists – FADs tend to attract juvenile fish, and loss of juveniles is strongly associated with population decline.

coral restoration work

Coral restoration work | Courtesy: The Ocean Agency

Further problems with FADs include unwanted fish ending up as bycatch, while discarded FADs ensnare marine creatures and even wind up on coral reefs, destroying fragile coral structures.

Faced with this threat, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, a UN organisation, introduced measures to reduce the number of FADs used by Spanish purse seine fleets in the Seychelles.

The Seychelles Fishing Authority, Islands Development Company, Island Conservation Society and a Spanish purse seine group launched an initiative called FAD-Watch, which uses software to monitor and intercept FADs that have entered buffer zones in Seychelles waters. But the trouble with FADs is far from over.

And, even in the furthest islands of this archipelago, you will find plastic waste.

At the Aldabra Atoll, which comprises four coralline islands and is located over 1,000 kilometres from Mahé island, an astonishing amount of ocean plastics can accumulate. In 2018, the Seychelles Islands Foundation teamed up with UK universities to carry out a mass clean-up operation. In just five weeks, teams made up of students and volunteers removed an incredible 25,750 kilograms of ocean debris from the islands. Among the debris were 50,000 discarded flip-flops.

 

VALUING THE INVALUABLE

The Seychelles has shown itself keen to act inventively to protect its local waters. This is not surprising given the importance of local fishing and marine tourism.

The Seychellois are generally on board with marine conservation, especially the younger generations, thanks to education programmes. There are plenty of scholarships and grants for locals keen to study or research ocean conservation.

Seychelles’ legendary beaches;

The Seychelles has legendary beaches

The Seychellois are generally on board with marine conservation, especially the younger generations, thanks to education programmes. There are plenty of scholarships and grants for locals keen to study or research ocean conservation.

There’s a strong Seychellois presence among the teams of all the major conservation groups, most of which operate only in the Seychelles

Despite this, clashes do occur between locals and conservationists when people’s livelihoods are at stake. For instance, the decline in fish populations around the inner islands has pushed some locals into fishing in protected waters. Conservationists hope that fish numbers will ultimately rise outside of protected areas, which will ease the pressure on small-scale fishermen.

Local fishing techniques | Courtesy: The Ocean Agency

Conservationists also hope that the Seychelles’ success stories can be repeated elsewhere.

So far, there is cause for optimism: as highlighted by the International Toolkit created by the Reef Restoration project and the training sessions held with representatives from several African countries. Similarly, the restoration of green and hawksbill turtle populations is a huge win for conservationists, one that may inspire neighbouring countries to implement their own conservation programmes.

Protecting the marine world is not easy – there are countless logistical, financial and scientific hurdles to overcome. But the Seychelles has shown even small island nations can conserve their marine environment, both for the benefit of local people and for those who want a glimpse of what a healthy ocean looks like.

 

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Source: Asia-Pacific Boating

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