By: Rassin Vannier
Dave Auguste lives on the west coast of Mahé in the Port Glaud district. Like the homes of many Seychellois, his house sits right next to the beach, offering a scenic view of the sea.
A splattering of tree-decked mountains cascading into the sea, and lined with buildings caricature the beautiful Seychelles landscape, which is home to one of Africa’s smallest populations, but which is bustling with one of the world’s richest biodiversity.
The Seychelles is an Indian Ocean Archipelago of 115 Islands renowned for its pristine beaches. It is a global destination for tourists. Mahé, the largest of the islands, is home to its capital city, Victoria.
Every morning, Auguste wakes up and scans the sea through his window to see if he’ll be going to work – fishing. He has done this for over 20 years as a fisherman, catching mostly octopus, whose meat is in great demand by both locals and tourists. They love to eat it with coconut milk, or salad.
A kilo of octopus meat fetches $10 at the local market but could sell for up to double that price in shops and supermarkets.
Some fishermen prefer to catch octopus in the barrier reef at low tide, but Auguste prefers to venture out into the sea and dive in his hunt for the giant, jelly-like, eight-limbed mollusk.
Sometimes he plunges up to 10 metres deep. In more recent years, he says, he has been diving deeper and deeper to catch the increasingly elusive octopus.
“At first I went because there was a group of friends out there at sea, but soon I felt comfortable in the water, discovering amazing things while at it,” Auguste recalls of his early days at sea, learning to catch octopus— a pass time that quickly became a means of earning a livelihood for his family.
Every day, when the weather allows it, he ventures out to sea. Apart from the money, Auguste says he derives personal satisfaction from the job. And with time he has become an expert of sorts at reading the sea.
“I go fishing according to the tide,” he says, explaining how his work schedule depends on the ‘mood’ of the sea.
Hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, earnings from the fishing industry in Seychelles is coming out of a bad patch, according to Auguste. But that’s just part of the story, he says: “Last year there was a lot of octopus because the demand was low. The tourists didn’t come. COVID-19 kept them away.”
He says that the demand for octopus is now back, but the catch is a lot less.
“I used to average about 15 kilos a day, but this year I only catch about 5 kilos a day, and that is not enough to meet the demand,” explains Auguste.
Because of the high demand, he says, many more fishermen are now focused on catching octopus, whose stocks appear to be dwindling.
“In general, every time I come back with what I’ve caught, I sell all of it,” Auguste says, adding: “My biggest customer is a tourist establishment nearby, but ordinary Seychellois also like treating themselves to octopus dishes during the holidays. They love it cooked in coconut milk.”
Octopus playing safe
A seasoned fisherman, Auguste has learnt a lot about the octopus over time.
“Octopuses are normally found in their holes. If not, they can be seen swimming in the corals. They like to camouflage themselves, but I can pick them out quite easily,” observes Auguste, his face lighting up with a smile.
All the while, Auguste is acutely aware of the threat overexploitation poses to this species of unique marine life.
“The important thing is to respect the breeding season and not catch the females that are laying eggs. It will be to our advantage to let them reproduce,” he says.
But Auguste worries about a lot more.
“There are fewer and fewer octopuses now. Before, I used to find them close to the shore, but now I have to go further out. Again, for the last ten years or so, going out to sea has become more complicated because the sea has become rougher and the currents stronger. If I’m not careful I can drift away from the shore,” explains Auguste.
In recent years, Auguste has noticed octopuses move much further offshore after heavy, prolonged rains as they don’t like what he calls the “reddish-coloured water” close to the shore.
The rain cycle and patterns have completely changed, Auguste laments: “We used to have rainy periods that lasted for several days, now it rains the same amount for one day and it all runs off to sea.”
Seychelles has lost more than 90% of its coral in some areas due to rising sea temperatures, thereby exposing and endangering its octopus population and its very survival as a species.
The government is studying the status of the octopus population, with a view to conserving it to ensure that future generations continue to enjoy this unique seafood.
“We’re going to evaluate the number of people involved in octopus fishing and assess its economic impact,” says Annie Vidot, a fisheries scientist at the Seychelles Fishing Authority (SFA).
Also, Nichol Elizabeth, the head of SFA, has called for the sharing of information with neighbouring countries on sustainable management of octopus fisheries.
What is being done?
Seychelles has taken steps in protecting its biodiversity.
In 2020, in a ground-breaking initiative with Nature Conservancy and the UN Development Programme, the country committed to increase the marine protected size of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from 0.4% to 30%, a total area of 410,000 square kilometres.
“As far as our fishing is concerned, we ensure that the quotas are well respected,” Seychellois President Wavel Ramkalawan told the media in an interview in Victoria, referring to the fishing quotas in a European Union-Seychelles tuna fishing deal. “When they exhaust their quotas the tuna fishing vessels stay anchored at port.”
Underlying President Ramkalawan’s passion for conservation is the inherent fear of the existential threat Seychelles, with 80% of its infrastructure in coastal areas, faces.
“We’ve started to see some of our islands changing shape,” said President Ramkalawan. “There is a strong possibility that some islands will disappear.”
To save corals, conservationists have several reef restoration projects. For example, the Marine Conservation Society has launched coral nursery sites on land and in the ocean. Here coral fragments are nurtured and later transplanted to the reef.
For marine species such as crayfish, the fisheries authority is now only allowing harvesting during a set period within the year, to curb overexploitation. However, while acknowledging its noble conservation goals, Keith Andre, the chairman of the Fishermen and Boat Owners Association of Seychelles, says fishermen in the country are feeling the impact of the decision to carve out 30% of the EEZ for conservation.
He describes it as “constraining”, saying fishermen now can’t access their traditional fishing grounds. “I hope it isn’t designed to push out the fishermen,” he says.
Second only to tourism, fishing is an important pillar of the Seychelles economy, contributing about 27% of the GDP.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), while industrial fishing props up the sector, artisanal fisheries remain of great importance for food security, employment and the cultural identity of the Seychellois. Artisanal fishing refers to the traditional, small-scale, low-technology fishing practices that tend to generate less waste than modern industrial fishing.
Jean Francois Ferrari, the Fisheries and Blue Economy minister, speaking at a recent UNDP fisheries workshop, reiterated the importance of artisanal fisheries and called for its positioning at the forefront of the fishing industry.
Auguste, like other fishermen, would like to continue fishing for many years to come. It’s his passion, but he is also very aware that Seychelles, like some other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), has unique environmental vulnerabilities and faces existential threats from climate change, particularly the phenomenon of rising sea levels.