As the world grapples with the climate emergency, Seychelles is leading the way in marine conservation - ten years ahead of United Nations deadlines. A marine expedition into its deep waters has analysed a huge swathe of unchartered Indian Ocean territory, providing invaluable research.
"The Seychelles are a beacon for ocean conservation, ocean science and ocean management. They've really taken the lead where others are catching up," says Oliver Steeds, founder and mission director of Nekton, the research foundation that carried out deep ocean explorations in the Seychelles in March/April.
The Seychelles archipelago is the first instalment of Nekton's work towards a State of the Indian Ocean summit in October 2022. Nekton's First Descent expeditions into the Indian Ocean will next move to the Maldives this year.
The third island where the last expedition is to take place is not known yet but Oliver Steeds hopes it will be one linked to France, because its "influence in the Indian Ocean is really important, namely in such places like Reunion and Mayotte".
"We very much hope that France is going to be a key actor in helping to galvanise sustainable blue economy and the conservation priorities in the Indian Ocean," he adds.
The Indian Ocean, the third largest ocean in the world, is also known to scientists as the forlorn ocean, because there is so little known about it.
Seychelles President Danny Faure, in his address to the world in a submersible 124 metres below sea, said "we have better maps of Planet Mars than we do of the Indian Ocean floor".
"To support our conservation efforts, it is vital that we have more data, more information," Faure added.
To conduct its field research, Nekton Mission and the 16 scientists on board the Ocean Zephyr spent 48 days exploring the waters of the Seychelles in 75 manned submersibles descents, mapping 30,000 square metres of seabed in 3D, collecting 20 terabytes of marine data and gathering over 1,200 samples.
"This expedition is historic for Seychelles. We've never had similar expeditions in the past," says Alain de Comarmond, the principal secretary at the Seychelles ministry of environment, energy and climate change.
"In the past, we had gone to do research as deep as 30 meters. That's it. This expedition gave us a good coverage of bio-diversity across our 115 islands."
Nekton's mandate is to work for and on behalf of the host nations. The partnership involves ongoing capacity building and training of Seychellois scientists.
Steeds said all the data and biological samples collected by Nekton will be owned and vested by the government of the Seychelles.
"We want to demonstrate a case study, an economic, political, environmental one for marine spatial planning and identifying where those areas of protection need to be.
We want to help Seychelles develop a sustainable Blue Economy. If Seychelles can't do it, it's going to be very hard for others to follow," Steeds declares.
Protection of Seychelles' ocean
Seychelles has committed 30 percent of its 1.35 million sq km of waters to marine protection by 2020, ten years ahead of the United Nations 2030 target for Sustainable Development Goal no. 14, known as the Life Below Water goal. Most of the work has already been accomplished, with only some four percent left for Seychelles to reach its deadline.
The island nation developed a marine spatial plan since 2014 that covers its entire marine territory and holds a large mandate from marine protection to sustainable economic growth. A 2016 financing scheme which consisted in swapping part of its debt for climate change adaptation programmes was crucial for the island's marine conservation strategies.
The team working on this Marine Spatial Plan for the Seychelles - which has identified marine areas falling under varying degrees of protection - worked closely with the Nekton team in selecting priority sites for the explorations. The descents took place in the waters around the islands of Aldabra, Astove, Alphonse, Des Roches, Poivre and D'Arros.
"The Nekton Mission will help in confirming whether the information we have been using is correct," explains Helena Sims, the Seychelles Marine Spatial Plan project manager for The Nature Conservancy.
"If there is any new information that we do not currently have, it can input either in identifying new areas or in revising the marine spatial plan in the next revision stage as we currently need more data."
Marine Spatial Plan
Seychelles has identified three zones under its marine spatial plan. Two of them are designated for marine protection and covers 30 percent of its oceans.
The Marine Protected Area with high biodiversity protection covers 177,000 sq km around the Aldabra Atoll, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This zone is known as the Aldabra Group Marine National Park and is home to rare, endangered or endemic species, like the dugong or giant tortoises.
The second Marine Protected Area is under medium marine protection and is open to sustainable economic activities as it is closer to where the Seychellois live. It covers a 173,000 sq km area between Amirantes Isles and Fortune Bank.
"The Seychelles is a small island developing state or a large oceanic state. Although our areas are relatively pristine, we would like to keep it that way because at the end of the day, everything in Seychelles is connected to the ocean," Sims explains.
Zone 3 represents the remaining 70 percent, identified for various uses and economic activities. Fisheries and marine tourism are the pillars of Seychelles' economy. While it is important that those activities continue along with sand mining and oil exploration in order to support the livelihoods of the Seychellois, it is also important that they are carried out in a sustainable way.
"It's not purely about conservation, it's also balancing the social, the economic and the ecological objectives," Sims adds.
The extensive and detailed explorations carried out by Nekton help inform Seychelles in devising its marine conservation plans. They are also fed by ongoing consultations with stakeholders.
The wealth of data and samples collected by the Nekton mission is currently being analysed by a team of 15 different scientists across the world. The process should be completed in two years but research on what has been collected may continue for decades.
The scientists started work in May and, even though it is still early stages, a few findings emerged. One of them is evidence of a so-called rariphotic or twilight zone located between 130 and 300 metres deep. It is one of the largest new ecosystems, which is found in the Atlantic and Caribbean, but never previously in the Indian Ocean.
Dr Lucy Woodall, the principal scientist at Nekton, said that they also discovered far more fish around the Aldabra Atoll than they did at any other sites.
"This is very important as it shows that the protection that was afforded to Aldabra for 40 years is working," she adds.
Shallow coral reefs around the globe are dying through bleaching because the sea is getting warmer. However, in Seychelles, the scientists did not find dying coral in the locations they explored.
"There is no evidence of this bleaching, even currently or in the past. This is very important for us to understand why there are really healthy corals and also to monitor and to protect them over time," Woodall says.
The Nekton First Descent Expedition in the Seychelles cost 1.5 million US dollars in marine operations, supported by cutting-edge tools and 21 different research technology, including manned submersibles, remotely operated vehicles, live-streaming to the world.
15 different camera systems also enabled scientists to create the first 3D maps of newly discovered deep sea ecosystems.
"The most iconic are the submersibles which are really powerful scientific tools that we have to use in the area of complex topography," Steeds explains.
"We operate on the sides of cliffs, atolls and islands, we have strong currents coming in. You don't want to put a robot on a tether down there, you're asking for trouble."
Laws for high seas
The government of Seychelles intends to be a strong advocate for marine protection around the world. President Faure said he is "100 percent committed" to support the ongoing work by the United Nations in developing a legally binding framework to protect the oceans in areas beyond national borders.
The high seas outside any nation's exclusive economic zone belong to nobody and are poorly protected by a series of treaties.
"Who owns the biodiversity of the high seas?" asks Steeds. "People are going in there, fishing, trawling, doing things illegally... Under the UN law of the sea, the high seas belong to you and I, the people of the planet."
Faure believes that stronger laws are "the only way forward".
"A healthy ocean is important for more than just economic growth, it is crucial for the survival of humanity. We are running out of excuses to not take action and running out of time," Faure declared, 124 metres below the surface of the Indian Ocean.