19 May 2017

Seychelles: Board Chairman Interview - Seychelles Fishing Authority Should Take Hard Decisions Quickly

With limited land resources, Seychelles is dependent on the ocean and for many years the fishery sector has been the 115-island archipelago's second-largest part of the economy, after tourism. As one of the key players in the sector, the Seychelles Fishing Authority (SFA) plays an immense role in promoting sustainable and responsible fishing.

SNA met up with newly appointed chairperson of the Seychelles Fishing Authority's (SFA) board, Nirmal Jivan Shah, to see what plans he has for the authority.

Shah, who holds a bachelor's degree in business and economics, a master's in aquatic biology and a PhD in ecology, was appointed by President Danny Faure last month and took office on May 1.

How do you feel about being chosen to chair the SFA board?

It's a mammoth task but a great honour. The President has obviously taken a long and hard look at my career, my dedication to Seychelles as a patriot, and my personal and professional values and made this decision.

Fishing is the second top contributor to the country's economy and this makes SFA a key player. Are you up for the new challenge?

Only time will tell but I'm confident since I have a very extensive professional tool kit. I have 35 years of experience working in the parastatal, government, private and non-governmental organization (NGO) sectors as well as consulting for international organizations such as the World Bank, UNESCO, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

I worked for several years as the assistant director of research of SFA and as such led projects for the krab ziraf (giant crab), karang (jack fish), and other species as well as in mariculture. I've been on many fisheries and marine science expeditions and on artisanal fishing boats and even spent a month on a Purse Seiner. I can go on but suffice to say that I'm going to try my best.

Do you think the authority is discharging its role to the maximum?

I'm not an executive chair and thus I cannot get involved in the executive functioning of the SFA. We must trust the new chief executive [Ronny Renaud] to manage the authority properly. He and the staff must be empowered, and allowed, to do the job. Currently SFA seems to be unable to tackle some of its responsibilities. I have had personal experience of this recently and it has not been pleasant. This may be related to capacity as well as leadership but perhaps also an entrenched attitude among a few. These issues will be tackled urgently by the new CEO with the backing of the board. The CEO and I have also had a very fruitful meeting with the minister and his personal secretary and we have their full understanding and support.

What are your plans for the authority, now that Seychelles is facing challenges with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission's (IOTC) decision to use 2014 as the reference year to reduce yellowfin tuna catch by 15 percent?

It's not only yellowfin that is at risk because now we have learnt from Alain Fonteneau, one of the world's top tuna scientists and a colleague I have known since the 1980s, that skipjack stocks could collapse. At the end of the day we need to ensure that the long term interests of Seychelles and its people are secured.

As the new chair, how will you promote sustainable and responsible fishing?

This must be the central strategy of SFA. When there was plentiful fish there were no conflicts. Now the situation is different. SFA's scientists have been raising red flags for several years about the diminishing stock of some key species. As these fish species diminish their prices go up. In turn, businessmen believe they can make money and invest more in boats and other parts of the fishing industry leading to what fisheries economists call "over-capitalization."

Our artisanal and semi industrial fishery are what is termed open-access, that is any Seychellois individual or company can enter it irrespective of their experience or quality of their vessels which is the current problem. There are various ways and means to tackle these problems with tried and tested measures and SFA has to take some very hard, and perhaps not very popular, decisions quickly.

The government is planning to start a pilot mariculture project, what is your stance on it?

The path chosen is high risk, high investment and possible high environmental costs. When I tried to meet with the foreign consultants conducting the Environment and Social Impact Assessment for this project they point blank refused to meet with me as an expert and as the representative of an organization that has the largest marine farm in Seychelles. It took SFA two weeks to get back to me despite many requests but by then I had been forced to resort to the public meetings to have my views heard. Even then, I was completely ignored. I consider this whole episode a personal humiliation! When an organization doesn't bring national stakeholders on board and get buy-in, especially in such a small country, the risks of conflicts and problems further down the line are intensified.

Seychelles is classified by international organisations as a Fish Dependent Country. The fisheries sector is a key economic pillar and we also depend on fish for our primary sources of protein. But more than this, fish is an essential part of the fabric of our society.

Way back in 1990 in one of my papers published by the UN, I said that fisheries contribute significantly to the socio-economic stability of Seychelles. I wrote that the sustainable management of fisheries, the conservation of fish stocks and the protection of fish habitats are central to the continued prosperity of Seychelles. That was 27 years ago and now it has become so urgent we could be on the brink of the precipice if we continue as if it's business-as-usual.

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