Marine Conservation Victory in the Seychelles

First Ever Marine Debt-For-Nature Deal

Seychelles government creates the 2nd largest marine protected area in the Indian Ocean

Seychelles government creates the 2nd largest marine protected area in the Indian Ocean

The Seychelles, an island nation off the coast of East Africa, recently designated 81,000 square miles of ocean as Marine Protected Areas, prohibiting fishing, oil & gas exploration and large-scale development. The designation is the result of a “debt for nature” financial agreement forged between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Seychelles government in 2016.  The Nature Conservancy assumed $22 million of the country’s $406 million in international debt in exchange for marine protection for 30% of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The recent MPA designations, mostly in remote and deep water areas, will be followed by others closer to population centers in an ambitious project to develop a MPA network covering 154,000 square miles.

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This month’s designation represents one step in a multi-pronged effort to provide long-term protection for the nation’s Blue Carbon resources and rebuild its fish populations. In addition to the recent announcement, the Seychelles government is engaging with local citizens in a public process to develop a marine protected area network for the rest of country. TNC is also considering buying more of the country's debt in exchange for other policy changes to further improve management practices.  

This agreement is a big victory for coral reef, mangrove, and seagrass conservation and a model for similar deals across the globe. The Nature Conservancy has used debt-for-nature swaps to protect forests in the Caribbean and Latin America with great success, but this is the first one aimed at protecting ocean resources. In response to this deal, island nations in the Caribbean such as Grenada, St. Kitts and Jamaica have approached the Nature Conservancy looking for similar opportunities.

Marine Protected Areas (MPA) – especially no-take reserves - are vital to restoring fish populations and healthy reefs.  No-take reserves prohibit all fishing, ensuring that fish will get larger and more abundant inside their borders and protect sensitive habitat from the side effects of damaging fishing practices. The expanded fish populations will spread from the MPAs, providing a sustainable source of catch for local fishermen. In addition, coral reefs need fish to keep them healthy.

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The habitat designation of such a large area of ocean by a developing nation in exchange for debt relief could present a powerful future opportunity for cash-strapped nations to simultaneously meet debt obligations while protecting resources that benefit all of us. Poorer nations took on considerable debt from banks in the West during the last financial crisis. The Nature Conservancy's model, from a long-term viewpoint, seems like a win for the Seychelles economy and environment. I look forward to interviewing local people during my month of dive research training in the Seychelles in April.

The Seychelles depends on tourism and fishing as its two major sources of revenue, so its no surprise that it would be attracted by this opportunity. But the nation is also pursuing other financial opportunities simultaneously. PetroSeychelles, the state-owned energy company, has made exploring the Exclusive Economic Zone for oil & gas a top priority.

I see two unknowns that only time will answer. First, will the local people adhere to a top-down conservation solution like this? Yes, there is a government-led process to give locals a say in where coastal marine protected areas will go, but the government likely has minimum standards it must abide by in the joint Agreement. Closing some popular fishing areas will likely be required to develop marine protected areas that are big enough and close enough to one another to be effective. The marine protected areas created so far around the world have had mixed results because many don't provide enough protection, have poor local support or a lack funding for enforcement.  Hopefully, with all eyes on this first ever debt for nature marine habitat deal, there will be effective resources to build local community support for marine protected areas, including those in some popular fishing areas.

Second, will foreign commercial fisherman observe the new MPAs? Countries around the world meet regularly and sign commitments respecting each others sovereign rights, but don't hold their nations' fishermen accountable. Enforcement of international rights will be difficult for an island nation of 100,000 people spread across 115 islands with marine protected areas covering 154,000 square miles of ocean. Some recent signs give me hope, such as the United States Navy leading regional military exercises in the Seychelles earlier this month to fight piracy and illegal fishing, and a recent joint agreement between it and India to expand joint enforcement to reign in illegal activities. But illegal fishing is rampant in many parts of the world and countries have few options to police their waters far from shore.

Local enforcement of the nation's domestic and commercial fishing fleets will be paramount for this effort to be effective. Despite my concerns, this is a big victory for marine conservation in Africa. I commend The Nature Conservancy for its efforts and hope it leads to more debt for nature swaps on land and in the sea.

For more information on the Seychelle's marine protected area development process click here.