Epiphany at the WIOMSA Symposium

The latest, and exciting, edition of the WIOMSA Marine Science Symposium was held in La Reunion from the 24th to the 27th August and was attended by the top marine scientists and managers working in East and Southern Africa and the Western Indian Ocean islands. This not-to-be-missed symposium is a landmark event organised by the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) where the state of knowledge of many marine and coastal environmental subjects is discussed.

In one of those epiphanic moments, or what my pop psychologist friend Bert used to call an “Aha Insight”, I realised that every keynote address at this Symposium contained reference to Seychelles. This could be serendipity at work….On the other hand, it may be that scientists find entry points for research easily available in the country. But I think the reason why many researchers come to Seychelles is that there are serious issues fomenting under the water.

First, out there in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the future of the tuna fishery is murky with overfishing a major problem. Yes, climate change is an issue but well known tuna expert Francis Marsac said it is only a contributing factor compared to overfishing which is the elephant in the room. Yellowfin and big eye tuna stocks are in serious trouble. There are still some opportunities left for skipjack and albacore fisheries, but no one knows for how long.

In the near shore areas, we have known for some time that the local artisanal fishery is fully exploited. Many stocks in peril according to the presentation by leading researcher Dr. Josh Ciner who laid out the picture for the entire region In addition, the Seychelles coral reefs which were severely bleached in 1998 don’t have much of a future. Based on the information presented by Dr. Tim Maclanahan, the ocean around Seychelles is a “hot zone”, where sea surface temperatures are predicted to increase in the future. There is very little room for maneuver to save our reefs.

The bad news is tempered by good social capital fundamentals inherent in the country.. Pioneering research, also alluded to in the keynote presentations, show that Seychelles, of all the countries in the region, may have a high socio-economic capacity to adapt to this crisis. Compared to say Kenya and Tanzania where overfishing, coral bleaching, pollution and so forth are pushing more people further down the poverty trap, the high human development index in Seychelles means that people could find solutions to the crisis.

The research results clearly demonstrate that in Seychelles we have the potential to surmount present and future environmental dangers, more so than the people in neighboring countries. But this is only a potential. It needs to be realized. Thus, the national challenge facing us in Seychelles is how to mobilize and leverage the innovation and creativity latent in our society.

Yes we can make fisheries sustainable!

The world’s fisheries are in bad shape. Not only are most of them in decline but other problems such as illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, pollution and environmental destruction are mounting. The collapse of all commercial species within the next 50 years is expected if action is not taken. Customers all over the world have now become wary, even paranoid, of purchasing sea food.

But now the Labeling Program of the Seychelles Hook and Line Fishermen is up and running. This is a first-of-its-kind program in Seychelles that targets international markets to assure customers that the fish are caught responsibly and keeping to the highest standards.

The Labeling Program was initiated by some fishermen themselves because they realized the quality of their products is indeed high. To improve this value and emphasize the exceptional fishery, environment, and product quality, they decided to label the fish, hence making it unique and easily identifiable.

Schooner and whaler fishermen are involved in this scheme and the labeled fish are caught using only the hook and line method. Line fishing is a common traditional technique. The size of the “circle hook” allows mostly larger fish which have already reproduced to be caught. Another advantage is the incapability of catching or causing harm to turtles, sea birds or habitats.

With the web site now operational anybody who purchases a fish labeled by the Seychelles Hook and Line Fishermen can find out who caught the fish and where and how it was caught. This assures customers of the origin, quality, traceability and sustainability of the fish. It will also allow customers to support local people who make an honest and fair living from a noble profession.

Boat owners and operators involved in the project have agreed to comply with a code of conduct and a specification on the quality of their work on board including capture, storage, handling and traceability, The hotels, restaurants and retailers supporting this scheme are also pledging their commitment by signing a letter of agreement.

The project, funded by the European Union, is led by the Seychelles Fishing Boat Owners Association (FBOA) with assistance from the SFA and the Association des Ligneurs de la Pointe Bretagne. This is a unique and very important initiative not only because of the environmental and economic benefits but also because it is driven and owned by the stakeholders themselves. Since the operators who make up the FBOA, and the fishers and others who work for them, will be the direct beneficiaries, it means that the industry itself will ensure that environmental and health and safety criteria are respected.

Image courtesy of http://seychelles-hookandline-fishermen.org/

Sustainable energy for a sustainable economy

“I’d put my money on the sun and on solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ‘til oil and coal run out before we tackle that”, wrote Thomas Edison at the turn of the 20th Century.

Well, this homily applies to Seychelles because the country’s energy bill is so large that the Government has to borrow money to buy oil. The oil bill has put a strain on the country’s finances. In fact, Seychelles probably consumes more fossil fuel per capita than any other Small Island Developing State.

Therefore a move to more sustainable energy systems would not only be good for the environment but for the economy as it would reduce the large foreign currency outlays. At the moment except for some limited photo voltaic electricity generation on some small islands the energy needs of this country are met though imported oil.

If we take a look at Mauritius we see an energy picture that is worth examining in more detail. Mauritius has adopted the “Sustainable Island” slogan to pursue a path to renewable energy. Currently, 20% of Mauritius’ electricity is generated from renewable biomass systems.

In recent years thousands of Mauritians have obtained loans at a preferential interest rate from the Development Bank of Mauritius to purchase solar water heaters. Small photo voltaic solar panels to power sodium lamps at night are a common sight in many public gardens, parks and car park areas.

Innovations like a new project to build a tidal power station to generate electricity from the sea are going ahead. A UNDP and Agence Française de Développement project is underway to provide technical assistance to install a wind turbine as a pilot for developing a larger wind farm, to develop energy audits and to use solar thermal energy in large institutions such as hospitals.
Mauritius plans to produce 40% of its electricity from renewable sources within the next 10 years. And it seems it will meet this target. As a major route to energy savings, it also introduced Daylight Savings Time (DST) in 26th October on a trial basis. Simulations suggest that the country would use 15 megawatts less of energy through DST.

Yes, Mauritius is fortunate in having sugar cane waste or bagasse since this is a vital component of the government’s national target for renewable energy. But its other energy strategies may be relevant to Seychelles. Whatever the case may be, it is imperative that we adopt a renewable energy policy and national targets and move to implementation of renewable energy programs across the board to meet these targets.

Seychelles Food Security: Try Edible Landscaping

A well known agronomist who recently visited Nature Seychelles’s Heritage Garden at Roche Caiman told me that this demonstration Garden, jam packed with fruit trees, crops, grains and vegetables, was a landscape that needed to be replicated across homes, in back yards, on reclaimed land and around buildings to produce food to feed Seychelles in these difficult times. That remark got me thinking because I had just read an article from the City University of London that made similar observations about Britain.

The City University says Britain will have to rely on a return to past methods of food production. The country needs to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago and to change its diet to one that includes less meat, fewer dairy products and more fruit and vegetables. Britain produces less than 10 per cent of the fruit it eats and experts say that the country has to consider planting on a massive scale as well as encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetable.

The skyrocketing rise in food prices has made most countries re-think their food strategy. With the multiple shocks of high oil prices and domino effect down the food production chain, increase in biofuel production, the credit crunch, higher demand for food in India and China, and the carbon footprint involved in transportation of food, a total revolution in every nation’s agriculture is needed to save them from serious food shortages

The City University says it is no longer acceptable that 40 per cent of the grain produced in Britain is used to feed livestock that provide meat and dairy products. Growing grain which is then fed to animals is an inefficient way to produce protein. Livestock should be confined to hillsides where they can graze and not use up grain that has required oil-based fertilizers for its growth. Prime land should be protected from development and used to feed people directly.

If countries like Britain are already discussing such enormous changes to food production, what of Seychelles? The loss of arable land over the years, the rise in oil prices, and now the impacts of our economic restructuring program all lead to one inescapable conclusion. In the short term, many of our people may not be able to nourish themselves or their families properly.

We need a radical re-thinking of food security and the rapid implementation of activities that include home and community gardens that generate local food for local people. I suggest that, among other things, we need edible landscapes that look like the Heritage Gardens at Roche Caiman across all the urban areas of Seychelles

Tsunamis- Past and Present

1993 – I was with a Dutch coral reef geologist at Anse Boileau looking at ancient reef deposits when a local resident showed us sandy sediments inland that had been exposed by some excavations. The geologist believed these were reef sediments deposited there many years ago by a huge storm or upheaval.

Now, scientists have found layers of similar sandy sediment dropped by a 600 year old tsunami under more recent layers deposited in 2004 in Thailand’s Phra Thong Island. These findings have been published in the journal Nature.

The two sandy sediments in Thailand are similar in thickness, suggesting a tsunami 600 years ago similar to that in 2004. Both tsunamis were caused by earthquakes. The longer the intervals between tsunami events, the more stress that can build up at the tectonic plate boundary and the larger the earthquake will be.

Were the sediments we found at Anse Boileau deposited 600 years ago by a tsunami or earlier by another event? Indeed a tsunami did hit Seychelles in August 1883 when the massive explosions and collapse of the volcano of Krakatoa generated large waves. These waves destroyed 295 towns and villages in the Sunda Strait in Western Java and Southern Sumatra drowning 36,417 people.

The Krakatoa tsunami, being of volcanic origin was only destructive locally in Indonesia, but in Seychelles the effect was apparently seen through a tidal effect that temporarily emptied the Victoria harbor area and left fish and other sea life stranded. If it did generate waves in Seychelles that were similar to those of the 2004 tsunami is not well known.

The 2004 tsunami, unlike the one from the Krakatoa disaster, was caused by an earthquake off the western coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The resulting tsunami devastated the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South India, Thailand and Seychelles.

With the new discoveries in Thailand, there is evidence that a similar earthquake-generated tsunami occurred 600 years ago and may have hit countries like Seychelles. This is important because it will build more knowledge about the time intervals between these earthquakes.

But tsunamis can also be detected by signs that appear in the natural environment. In Seychelles and elsewhere coastal animals like crabs and turtles disappeared hours before the 2004 tsunami. The sea gypsies of Indonesia who had ancestral knowledge of previous tsunamis saw the signs and saved coastal villages by giving them early warning.

Both science and indigenous knowledge are useful in making sense of the natural world. This proves that we must look at nature in a more holistic fashion and we must quiz local people for whatever knowledge they may have.