Marine Protected Areas - the new controversy

Cousin Island Special Reserve is a Marine Protected Area (MPA) managed by Nature Seychelles

SEALife Edition 5 - 2014: Why and what for, asks Nirmal Shah. This was the front page headline of Today in Seychelles (16-5-2014). As the second Seychelles Marine Spatial Planning Initiative workshop closed on the 15th of May, Today reported that Nature Seychelles CEO Nirmal Shah raised the alarm about the possible implications for fishermen as well as the public that the creation of protected marine areas will entail.

“How much more of our national heritage will become out of bounds in the name of the environment?” This question – surprisingly - comes from Nature Seychelles CEO Nirmal Shah –, a man known for his commitment to the protection of the environment, Today reported. Dr. Shah was reacting to the two day workshop on the Seychelles Marine Spatial Planning Initiative. Despite its pompous name, the initiative is basically about declaring a percentage of Seychelles’ Exclusive Economic zone (EEZ) “protected areas” ostensibly in the name of conservation.

The EEZ covers 1,374,000km2 and the marine space is currently mainly used for fishing, tourism activities and conservation. But oil drilling activities will start soon and over fishing requires some level of control to avoid the over exploitation of marine resources, officials have explained. Shah believes this may be “another attempt at making large tracts of our ocean off limits to keep people out”. Such is the force of his persuasion that Nirmal Shah refused to take part in the second workshop although he was a participant in the first preliminary one.

 Tove Jogensen using a traditional fishing trap while carrying out fish tagging in a Nature Seychelles research project

“It’s all well and good on paper – let’s set up protected marine areas. But how many of those have we already got that we can’t even take care of?”, Dr. Shah asked adding that huge areas of the EEZ will be declared off limits. “Who will manage them?”, he asked pointedly. Nirmal Shah also questions the ultimate objective of protecting these areas – “who will get excluded and what is
the purpose of it all?”

Today reported that in an initial meeting with the authorities prior to the workshop, “fishermen expressed their concerns that they would suffer from the decision to declare large portions of Seychelles’ seas off limits. But the concerns were brushed aside by officials who said they would take all stakeholders’ apprehensions into consideration, and that the decisions would be for the “benefit of everyone”.

Fishermen have previously expressed their frustration with the limits imposed on their fishing area by petitioning the President recently to complain about the fact that the Seychelles Fishing Authority (SFA) was prohibiting them from fishing around the Providence and Farquhar Islands. They have even threatened legal action if the problem was not resolved. Now, another threat to their livelihood has just reared its head.

 Fishermen on a boat by Glen Jackway 

But the authorities say that the creation of protected areas provides “a practical, transparent way to create and establish a more sustainable use of the Seychellois marine space, to balance the demands for development with the need to protect the environment and to achieve social and economic objectives in an open and planned way”. They add that government “has a mandate to fulfil” and point out that discussions with relevant stakeholders, including civil society have been transparent. They insist that all concerns will be taken on board.

In an exclusive interview with SEALife Seychelles Shah said he has no quarrel with the notion of Spatial Planning nor with the idea of marine protected areas. In fact he says he was one of the first advocates of spatial planning for Seychelles conservation. But he says that it shouldn’t be taken as a “Gee Whiz technology” that can solve anything. “Spatial planning is simply a tool. We must first know who the tool is for, who is going to use it, how is it going to be used, and who will benefit from it. 

Shah said his frustration stems from the fact that in the first workshop it was announced that this was going to be a participatory activity. But he told SEALife Seychelles “ lo and behold the stakeholders were never informed that a coordinating agency was then later appointed in the form of an NGO and in fact had to learn about it from an advertisement in the newspaper that that NGO was recruiting personnel. Some key decisions had therefore been made behind closed doors. That doesn’t behoove well for participatory planning. There should have been proper consultation and an open bid launched for the coordinating entity. What else will be decided behind closed doors?”

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