The Rush for Blue Gold

World Fisheries Day 21 November

The first time I actually held a live tuna was back in 1987 when I was on an experimental Japanese purse seiner in the Indian Ocean and we were trying to tag as many tuna as we could as part of a stock assessment program. I was the assistant director of research at the Seychelles Fishing Authority and I was acting as a scientific observer on the vessel.

Today, the tuna stocks of the Indian Ocean, termed as Blue Gold, have never been in such dire straits. Yellowfin tuna was determined to be overfished since 2015 by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO) which falls under the aegis of the UN FAO. Yet the IOTC has failed to reduce overfishing under its own yellowfin tuna recovery plan put in place since 2016.  The species is listed as “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List.

For us in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO), the Eastern and Southern African countries and the island nations, it is the so-called Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFNs) which are the crux of problem although IUU (Illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing is also an issue of major concern. The DWFN fleets consist of South East Asian longliners and European purse seiners which are licensed to fish in the waters of the WIO, unlike the illegal fishers. The purse seining fleet is made up mostly of French and Spanish owned boats but they operate under the European Union (EU). The EU exerts a massive influence at the IOTC. The EU is in fact trying to grab all the tuna stocks through what is known as catch allocation

The Spanish have been overfishing tuna for some time. We have figures from the IOTC scientists themselves since 2017 which clearly shows massive overcatch by the Spanish. This has been pointed out to the EU by myself, national and international NGOs, international marine scientists, coastal nations of the Indian Ocean and others. I produced a report on the gross overfishing and this was discussed by the Seychelles government and raised with the EU Ambassador for Seychelles. Till date, the EU has not explained the overfishing to anyone.

A worry is the method of fishing which is impacting on the ability of stocks to recover. Ninety four per cent of the yellowfin caught by purse seine vessels are juveniles. This is because a large part of the catch is fished from under Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs). Tuna especially juveniles congregate under floating objects – FADs are simply artificial floating objects many with radio transmitters so the fleet can locate them. The Spanish fleet have thousands of FADs in the WIO and although coastal states have tried to reduce the numbers they have failed. Widespread use of FADs is contrary to the notion of sustainable fisheries.

The long liners are not innocent either. There is very little information on transhipment of the catch at sea, their favoured method of transporting the tuna to market. The spotlight is back on the longliners these days also because of accusations of forced labour. The US has recently added fish caught by Chinese and Taiwanese distant-water fishing fleets to its annual “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor”. The majority of the crews on the Chinese fleets board are migrant workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, who are particularly vulnerable to slavery.

The basic problem is that the DWFNs provide massive subsidies to their fleets. Without these subsidies they would not be fishing at all. Its been well known that most subsidies lead to more and more boats chasing less and less fish. This practice has been condemned by international and environmental organisations. Recent studies have shown that without government subsidies, industrial fishing would be unprofitable.

The market has started to respond to the overfishing. Tesco, Princes which has 2 tuna canneries in Mauritius, and others have pledged to stop buying yellowfin tuna from the Indian Ocean until the IOTC puts in serious conservation and management measures to stop overfishing. This is a very serious move that would jeopardise the coastal countries’ lucrative export which brings in much needed foreign currency.

It is vital that civil society organisations in our region take much more of an interest in tuna fisheries. Till date it’s been mostly foreign NGOs which have been active. This is the reason why Nature Seychelles has been actively canvassing for sustainable fisheries and  is a member of SWIOTUNA, a recently formed regional NGO made up of national NGOs working in this field.

As coastal countries of our region kick start their Blue Economies, sustainable management of fisheries is a must. Those who take our fish illegally or under false pretences are sabotaging our Blue Economies. Tuna fisheries operating in the Indian Ocean is a 4 billion Euro business. Little of that actually enters the economy of our countries. Over 50% of tuna in the EU is caught in the WIO. Last year tuna was voted the most important fish in Europe. We need to get more benefits from the fishery. Plus, if we don’t get the DWFNs to stop overfishing, our grandchildren will see tuna only in picture books and in movies.


We need a reset between civil society and government

Way back in 2004, I wrote a paper entitled ‘A new compact between government and the NGO sector in Seychelles’, where I said “…to meet the challenges that globalisation forces on our small island state” we “have to foster strong partnerships between civil society and government”. I said, “The government and NGOs must improve their understanding of each other’s roles and priorities and must enhance their skills in structuring and sustaining mature relationships”. I, and others, have been asking for a “relationship resetting” for years in articles, interviews and reports but our pleas have crashed on rocks.
Civil society organisations in Seychelles believe that government needs to streamline its operations by focusing on priority issues and problems. The public is convinced there are duplication, wastage and obsolescence in government. So the need is for a review of agencies and programs. Government could work with the private sector and civil society organizations to see how and where they can take up activities and programs currently run by government. As government right-sizes, experts and practitioners believe there is great scope for an expanded involvement of relevant civil society organisations in delivery of projects.

I think civil society sector can contribute immensely to the socio-economic development of Seychelles if the policy and legal environment can be clarified and improved. In UK, this sector is known as the Third Sector and there is a Cabinet Minister responsible for it as well as a well-supported Charities Commission. In the United States the non-profit sector employed 13.5 million paid worker’s representing 10% of the total US workforce and making this sector the third largest employer of any US industry behind only retail trade and manufacturing. In 2018, non-profits contributed more than 1 trillion US Dollars to the US economy about 5.5% of GDP. We mustn’t forget the power of voluntary work as well – an estimated 25% of US adults volunteered in 2017 contributing about 8.8 billion hours, calculated to be worth at around 195 billion US Dollars.

The Ramkalawan Era is upon us and expectations are high. Many people have asked me for my thoughts. My response is as simple as it is urgent: we need to reset the relationship between civil society and government.

COVID-19 has brought the economy to its knees. There are important things to be done. But there also ways to do it. The way it does those things is going to shape the way people perceive the new government. The previous government had stopped listening to many good people, smart people, hardworking people, people with purpose, because it considered them rivals or nuisances or unimportant or worse, enemies. For those of us working in civil society we want to deal with government officials who don’t look at us with distrust, disinterest or dismissiveness. We no longer accept to be disposable after government uses us to tick boxes or to have our brains picked and our passion hijacked to only get bones thrown at us from the big table. We want to forge robust partnerships with government agencies and departments, partnerships based on mutual respect and need. So are we going to get counterparts in government who think like us? We must! The country needs all hands on deck. There’s no better time to reset the relationship.

Slavery is another blot on industrial tuna fisheries – this time it’s not the EU

One clear day in 1987 I decided to go with my Seychelles Fishing Authority (SFA) colleague Felix on board an Asian long liner anchored a ways off Port Victoria. I was the new Assistant Director of Research and I wanted to understand all the intricacies of fisheries. Felix, a tough looking guy in charge of enforcement, warned me about the crewmen – we had been told that the long liners were manned by convicts and criminals serving time at sea. Today, with far more information and knowledge, I realise the worn-looking men were probably forced labour.

It’s been known for some years that large parts of the tuna fishing industry are built on the back of forced labour, or to call a spade a spade, slavery. The US has recently added fish caught by Chinese and Taiwanese distant-water fishing fleets to its annual “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor”. The majority of the crews on the Chinese fleets board are migrant workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, who are particularly vulnerable to forced labor and who are sometimes recruited by agencies that deceive workers with false claims, says the US State Dept. The report is the U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking.

Several recent investigations by Greenpeace and others have identified the practices of Taiwanese distant-water longliner vessels as particularly problematic, says Monica Evans. Forced labor and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing continue to occur within major tuna supply chains, despite efforts by governments to stamp them out.

Andy Shen, Senior Oceans Adviser at Greenpeace USA has said, the US’ decision to put Taiwanese-caught tuna on the List officially confirms that the Taiwanese fishing industry runs off slaves. Major American retailers such as Walmart and Costco, and national tuna brands such as Bumble Bee, source from the Taiwanese fleet and must assure consumers they are not profiting from and perpetuating modern slavery on the high seas.”

Taiwan is the second-largest fishing entity on the high seas, with over 1,000 Taiwanese-flagged and over 200 Taiwanese-owned, foreign-flagged DWF vessels. It is the largest longline tuna exporter in the world. Nearly six years after articles have emerged about modern slavery in seafood supply chains progress has been slow, policies have been largely disappointing, and good practice continues to be the exception rather than the norm. Transparency remains elusive as most companies have yet to take the step beyond policies and processes to reporting on negative impacts and their remediation, says Andy Chen.

Contributing risk factors of human trafficking and forced labour onboard fishing boats (kiEJF)

The US report is not the first to flag this problem. Last year, a report published by the Businesses & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), an international corporate watchdog, noted that only 4 of the world’s 35 largest tuna retail brands said they conducted due diligence with the specific aim of uncovering modern slavery in their Pacific supply chains. Of the 35 brands surveyed by BHRRC, 20 percent claimed to have mapped out their supply chains in full, and only 8% said that they required their subcontractors to enforce their modern anti-slavery policies throughout their supply chains.

Slavery is allowing fishing fleets to go further and to be at sea for longer periods than normal, good practice labour policies and management would permit. This also allows IUU fishing to occur because the crew cannot divulge what is happening.  Shannon Service, the co-director of Ghost Fleet, a multiple-award winning documentary about slavery in the Thai fishing industry says, “Slavery is the Achilles’ heel of overfishing — these boats went further and further from shore and they needed a labour force. So human traffickers stepped into the gap and started selling people.”

But new tech is bringing optimism that men being held captive on large fishing vessels may be identified. A report from Liberty Shares demonstrates how trends in satellite data may indicate a vessel is fishing illegally and harboring slaves. Those involved in the use of technology are confident that globally tracking ships and using machine learning to identify suspicious behaviour by vessels can help prevent and crackdown on slavery and other illegal activities at sea.

In response to the growing concern in the fishing sector, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has developed a 5 year, holistic, multifaceted and integrated programme “Global Action Programme against forced labour and trafficking of fishers at sea” (GAPfish). The ILO has warned that forced labour in the fisheries sector is frequently linked to other forms of transnational organized fisheries crime. The term “fisheries crime” has recently appeared in the context of emerging practical responses against offences committed within the fisheries sector, which puts these practices fairly and squarely on the radar of the UN and many international and intergovernmental organisations.

But Francisco Blaha, an expert I correspond with, warns that the labour failures on fishing boats are governance failures. The reasons are complicated and multidimensional, so one has to be wary of simple solutions. Fixes do require a toolbox approach, not just a hammer, Blaha says. The toolbox includes safe and decent labour conditions based on ILO standards as part of the licensing conditions, crew change (who, when, where get in and out of a vessel) then stop (or tightly control transhipment at sea). Then implement Port State Measures, flag state responsibility standards, and the more diplomatic tools, he says.

The sad and awful truth of forced labour in tuna fisheries has finally emerged into the limelight. The US List is another big step forward towards possible solutions, especially when it concerns public demand. Market forces may play a big role. Customers increasingly want assurances that their seafood is sustainably and legally sourced and that people have not been harmed or treated unfairly at any point in the catching or processing of the seafood they buy. Stakeholders throughout the seafood industry can advocate for effective fishery laws that bring a clear result for those who do not follow the rules: unpurchased fish and lost profits.

I know that awareness of this problem has been raised with people in government departments and private sector in Seychelles, people who wouldn’t normally be thinking about slavery on fishing vessels. This makes me optimistic that when government officials board Asian longliners they would be viewing the crew through a different lens than I did back in the ’80s.

I don’t know how to replace tourism as the main funding source for conservation. Do you?

As someone who runs a #conservation organisation and a #protectedarea, I am so fed-up of all the Professors and “experts” who tell us we have to find new models to fund conservation since COVID-19 collapsed everything. They tell us we shouldn’t have relied so much on #tourism, but yet have never come up with alternative models. It all sounds so facile – issue a green or blue bond here, set up an endowment fund there, persuade the government to roll out a new deal for the environment. I have read many blogs and papers and attended innumerable webinars since the COVID-19 crisis started but still have no clue how to replace tourism as our primary unrestricted funding source. We have had NO revenues since end of March this year. We’ve knocked on all doors but we’re on our own. Yet Cousin Island Special Reserve is a highly effective and award winning national land and sea Protected Area. We can’t manage surveillance and anti poaching patrols and our long term monitoring programs will end once we run out of money to pay our Conservation Manager. So much for funds available for marine protection.

Finally the #WWF has had the courage to admit they are as clueless as we are. They have launched an innovation challenge to discover and incubate new revenue models that do not depend on tourism, but still enable local communities in Africa to derive income from wildlife, manage their natural resources sustainably and improve their collective wellbeing. WWF is looking for innovative concepts, ideas, revenue or finance models that can generate sustained benefits for rural communities from wildlife conservation, beyond tourism. They are not calling for investment-ready proposals, but for ideas with high potential that might be developed during the incubation programme. But what about institutions like Nature Seychelles? Hmmm! Left behind again!!

Cousin Island Special Reserve had “the perfect marriage between tourism and conservation” until COVID-19 instigated a sudden divorce.

Construction on remote islands made easier with 3-D printed blocks from local soil.

Shipping construction materials to small, fragile islands like Cousin Island Special Reserve is a major headache. The logistics involved in freighting and landing heavy stuff like concrete bricks in an archepelagic state like Seychelles sometimes surpass the ability of the most seasoned mariner.

Now there may be light at the end of the tunnel: researchers report progress toward a sustainable building material made from local soil, using a 3-D printer to create a load-bearing structure. An advantage to using local soil in construction is that the materials would not need to be manufactured and transported to the building site, reducing both costs and environmental damage.

Globally, the construction industry is currently facing two major challenges: the demand for sustainable infrastructure and the need to repair deteriorating buildings, bridges and roads. While concrete is the material of choice for many construction projects, it has a large carbon footprint, resulting in high waste and energy expenditure. We are eagerly awaiting the commercial application of this new technology.

Landing craft stuck on the beach of Cousin Island Special Reserve after delivering construction materials for repair of Reserve infrastructure

An amazing conservation site is hiding in plain sight

The best kept secrets are not always found in hidden papers or on the net

The secret conservation area

Seychelles has been an acclaimed champion of protected areas. From the nature reserves enacted in the 1960’s to the new marine protected areas (MPAs) legislated this year dedicating 30% of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to conservation. What is rarely talked about are the other sites that are not legally protected but are being managed for conservation, in a few cases perhaps more effectively so than some of the legislated ones.

An outstanding example is the Sanctuary at Roche Caiman (SARC), an award-winning conservation site nestled alongside the Seychelles national sports complex the Palais de Sport. This is the only managed urban wetland in Seychelles.  The original site was heavily degraded, part of coastal reclamation that was undertaken for various development projects. Over 20 years Nature Seychelles has re-engineered this site to be a model of a fully functioning coastal wetland in Seychelles. Four species of mangroves, all planted, thrive as do other indigenous coastal vegetation. Grey Herons, Chinese Bitterns and Black Crowned Night Herons nest here.

It is a location which is an outdoor classroom for hundreds of  children every year, an attraction for tourists, a site where we have undertaken our Green Health program which has helped busy executives to substance abusers, and a vital green lifebelt which harbours biodiversity, absorbs carbon and acts a a large sponge and filter for runoff from hard urban infrastructure all around.  We installed an 800 metre long boardwalk, a bird hide and a discovery platform, constructed with planks made from 100% recycled PETT bottles. There is also a large activity centre available for groups.

The SARC is not formally protected although it is designated as a Sensitive Area under the Environment Protection Act. It is what is known as an Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measure (OECM). An OECM is a conservation designation for areas that are achieving the effective in-situ conservation of biodiversity outside of protected areas. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) says it is a “geographically defined area other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio–economic, and other locally relevant values” (CBD, 2018).

An OECM  like the SARC offers a huge opportunity to increase recognition and support for effective long-term conservation that is taking place outside the legally designated protected areas. There is much for even protected areas managers to learn from an OECM like the SARC. For example, Nature Seychelles has restored and is managing this area without any government funds despite it being owned by the state. The Wetlands unit of the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change has never included the SARC in any wetland programs, events or projects. The time has come for the SARC and others like it to emerge from the shadows of their better known and more glamorous cousins, the Special Reserves, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

An Indian Ocean El Niño may appear soon.

An Indian Ocean El Niño could appear in the next 30 years, according to new research. The Indian Ocean exeriences small climate swings from year to year as the prevailing winds blow gently from west to east and maintains stable ocean conditions. The research says global warming could reverse the direction of these winds, destabilizing the ocean and tipping the climate into warming and cooling wings similar to El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific Ocean. The result coukd be new climate extremes across the region, including disruption of the monsoons over East Africa, islands like Seychelles and India

The EU brings back subsidies for its fishing fleets. Is this the end of our tuna?

Coastal nations of the Indian Ocean be worried, be very worried. On Thursday 4th of April, members of the European Parliament agreed to bring back fisheries subsidies, despite the risk of massively increasing overexploitation of fish stocks

The Le Monde newspaper says that with the fisheries subsidies worth about 6 billion Euros, the European Parliament has jeopardized the commitments made 15 years ago to combat excessive fishing in the EU

However, for us in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO), where 40% of the EU catch of tuna comes from, this may mean the end of our tuna stocks. Currently, the EU strategy at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission in terms of tuna allocations, if successful, will be devastating to WIO coastal nations particularly Seychelles

The new subsidies will help build newer, larger and more efficient fishing vessels that will now come to our waters and harvest our fish even faster than in previous years. The subsidies may possibly also assist fishing boats which are engaged in illegal fishing but perhaps more likely incentivise some fisheries activities which may not be strictly illegal but are shadowy in terms of evading quotas and national enforcement. And who watches the EU which has been accused of neo-colonial approaches to tuna fisheries

The yellowfin tuna stock is in deep trouble according to scientific estimates The deployment of thousands of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADS) by EU fleets leads to juvenile fish (which like to aggregate under floating objects) getting caught The subsidies will make FAD- fishing even more efficient, vacuuming even more juvenile fish out of our Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).

Its been well known that most subsidies lead to more and more boats chasing less and less fish. This practice has been condemned by all international and environmental organisations Recent studies have shown that without government subsidies, industrial fishing would be unprofitable

The European Union has been working for years with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) so that member states reach an agreement on the elimination of fishing subsidies harmful to marine resources Why then this sudden volte face?

Furthermore, in 2015, the EU committed itself to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including the Ocean Goal, Goal 14. Target 14.6 of this Goal states that by 2020 we must “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies” Is the EU sincere in its international commitments?

The decision is a “dramatic backwards step”, said Andrea Ripol, fisheries policy officer at Seas At Risk. “Allocating taxpayers’ money to directly finance the construction of new vessels or the replacement of engines is counter-productive. This will fuel fisheries’ overcapacity, exacerbating the overfishing problem, without any guarantee of delivering any public good”

With this latest move the EU Parliament has sent exactly the wrong message to the rest of the world: we don’t care what you do to protect your marine resources because we are giving billions of Euros to Europeans so its easier for them to come and take what’s left of your fish. What are we in Seychelles going to do?