Seychelles protects swathe of Indian Ocean, shielding marine ecosystems from unsustainable development and climate change while safeguarding its economy

An area of the Indian Ocean the size of Great Britain critically important to endangered marine life and a $300 million-a-year fishing industry has been protected to better prepare it for climate change.

Seychelles created 210,000 sq km (81,000 sq miles) of Marine Protected Areas as part of a groundbreaking conservation finance deal designed by The Nature Conservancy and funded by public and private donors including the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

Close to one-third of that ocean area is now so strongly safeguarded that only very limited activities including research and closely regulated tourism are allowed, and then under strict conditions to conserve the ecosystem in the face of climate change uncertainties.

The deal, completed in 2016, turned sovereign debt repayments into conservation funding. It was the first such ‘debt conversion’ designed to protect marine environments.

Oceanic nations like Seychelles are among the most vulnerable to climate change because their economies are often almost totally reliant on marine resources. Failing to plan how to sustain those resources as the climate changes could eventually be ecologically and economically disastrous.

By demarcating large areas to be both protected and properly managed, Seychelles is now better prepared for the unknown effects of warming and rising waters, ocean acidification, and increased and illegal fishing.

“This effort will help the people of Seychelles protect their ocean for future generations, and will serve as a model for future marine conservation projects worldwide,” said Leonardo DiCaprio, Chairman of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

“These protections mean that all species living in these waters or migrating through them are now far better shielded from overfishing, pollution, and climate change.”

Didier Dogley, Seychelles’ Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Change, announced the two new Marine Protected Areas at an event on Wednesday February 21, 2018, in Victoria, the capital. They are the first milestones in a six-year process that will end in 2020 with 30% of Seychelles’ ocean safeguarded, as part of a new comprehensive Marine Spatial Plan for all of the country’s waters.

“We realized that as small islands and more importantly as Large Ocean Nations, we share many features and face common challenges with other nations,” said President Danny Faure of Seychelles. “Our large ocean brings development opportunities but also responsibility. With an Exclusive Economic Zone of 1.37 million sq km, the second largest in Africa, our ocean is central to our development and for the future of generations to come.

“Our approach is ambitious. It is about a paradigm shift on how we manage and use our coastal and ocean resources, how we work together as a government and as communities. By planning properly to protect our environment, we can be sure we are also protecting our people and their livelihoods against an uncertain future. I’m very happy to celebrate today’s important milestones in the development of the first marine spatial plan for tropical oceans.”

The areas of the Indian Ocean now fully protected include the waters around the remote islands of the Aldabra Group that are critical foraging areas for some of the world’s largest seabird nesting colonies. Two of four sea turtle species there are endangered, including the critically-endangered hawksbill turtle.

The archipelago includes the world’s second-largest raised coral atoll — a UNESCO World Heritage Site – that, like Galapagos, is a window into evolutionary processes in an ecosystem barely touched by human activity.

It is home to the most endangered animal in the western Indian Ocean, the dugong, and 100,000 rare giant tortoises — on an island nearly 1,000 km (620 miles) from the nearest large land mass.

A second area covers busier and economically more productive areas closer to Seychelles’ main islands, where some activities are allowed but under strict new conditions.

Jobs in Seychelles’ leading foreign income earners — fishing and tourism — will now be more secure into the long-term thanks to significantly stronger conservation of the marine ecosystems that sustain them. Together, these businesses employ 43% of the country’s workforce.

Without these Marine Protected Areas, activities like oil and gas exploration, deep-sea mining, dredging, and controversial fishing techniques, could take place in one of the planet’s most pristine, biodiverse oceans with little or no restriction or direction.

Now, with the Marine Protected Areas, there is a unified and integrated list of binding conditions governing activities threatening this vulnerable swath of ocean, agreed upon after three years of public consultation with more than 100 parties, including Seychelles’ citizens, businesses, government, and scientists.

Seychelles chose to increase the protected area of its ocean from 0.04% to 30% as the significant component of the debt refinancing it designed with The Nature Conservancy and key stakeholders. The Marine Protected Areas announced today amount to the first 16% of that area to be secured.

Seychelles was able to pay off an outstanding sovereign debt with $21 million The Nature Conservancy raised. The transaction means a portion of Seychelles’ debt repayments will now finance innovative marine protection and climate adaptation projects, funded via the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust (SeyCCAT).

“This milestone MPA designation demonstrates how very important conservation outcomes can be generated with new financial tools,” said Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. “This is a critical accomplishment in our mission to bring conservation to scale across the globe; what you see today in Seychelles is what we expect to introduce in the Caribbean and other ocean regions facing the threats of climate change.”

Two further phases of zoning, concentrating on both shallower inshore or ‘territorial sea’ waters and remaining deep ocean areas, are due to be completed by the end of 2018 and the end of 2020, by when Seychelles will have designated 30% of its waters in Marine Protected Areas.

Critical to the success and completion of this deal was creating the Marine Spatial Plan. The Government of Seychelles leads this initiative with planning, science, and facilitation managed by The Nature Conservancy with the GOS-UNDP-GEF Program Coordinating Unit.

The Plan covers all 1.37 million sq km (529,000 sq miles) of Seychelles’ territory — technically, its Exclusive Economic Zone and Territorial Sea. It is the second-largest area of ocean in the world to be covered by such a plan, after one in Norway, and the first marine plan designed to address climate change and sustain a national ‘Blue Economy’.

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