Why fishers poach Marine Protected Areas in Seychelles

Louisa Wood of University of British Columbia, Canada, worked with Nature Seychelles to study what motivates illegal fishing in Marine Protected Areas, to try to identify ways to improve the level of compliance with the law.

Marine protected areas provide a vital sanctuary in which marine life can reproduce, replenishing fish populations in the wider ocean. Illegal fishing threatens this © Big Blue Divers

Lobster © Big Blue Divers

'In well protected MPAs like Cousin's, fish have been shown to grow larger, and occur in higher numbers'
© D. Richardson

Marine resources in Seychelles are subjected to many human pressures. People need fish to eat; fishers need to catch fish to make a living, Seychellois and foreign tourists love to see beautiful coral reefs and the amazing creatures and plants that live there. Seychelles people depend upon, and value, the ocean. While it is vast, the sea is also a fragile environment that is very sensitive to human activities. As population and tourism pressures grow, so does the intensity of the human activities - and their impacts - occurring in the sea.

Human activities are restricted in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). MPAs provide a refuge for many species, habitats and ecological processes to recover from the pressures imposed on them elsewhere. There are currently eight MPAs in the Seychelles' Inner Islands: Sainte Anne, Port Launay, Baie Ternay, Silhouette, Curieuse, and Ile Cocos Marine National Parks, and Aride Island and Cousin Island Special Nature Reserves. None of them legally allow fishing. All of them except Cousin are regularly fished.

In well protected MPAs like Cousin's, where little fishing occurs, fish have been shown to grow larger and occur in higher numbers. More mature fish produce more offspring, which means that protecting fish inside MPAs can help to maintain healthy fish populations outside their boundaries, for us to see, fish and eat. Sometimes the fish from inside MPAs move into unprotected areas, becoming available to be fished and thereby helping to maintain a productive and valuable fishery. MPAs also help to protect the entire marine ecosystem from the long-term impacts of human pressure, and perhaps also climate change. These benefits apply not only to fish, but all species within the MPA, such as sea cucumbers, lobsters, corals, seagrass and seaweed. The ability of MPAs to provide these benefits is thought to be heavily dependent on the absence of human activities inside them, particularly commercial fishing, but also other activities such as dredging, coastal development, sea filling (land reclamation) and recreational fishing.

In 2002 I interviewed over 40 fishermen in Seychelles about their needs, and how MPAs affected them. From statistical analysis of my interview data, I was able to identify two groups of fishers - those who regularly poach, and those who occasionally (if ever) poach. The following attitudes allocated fishers to one of these groups with 94% accuracy:

In more general terms, the decision to poach seems to be based on these over-arching issues:

1.Location: fishers who regularly poach live closer to MPAs than those who occasionally poach. More poachers (57%) than non-poachers (33%) feel that they lose fishing grounds to MPAs all the time, but particularly during the south-east monsoon, when it is harder to travel further away from the MPAs to fish.

2.Economics: 94% of fishers (poachers and non-poachers) feel that it is harder for them to catch enough fish now than when they began fishing. 75% of fishers said they would poach if the price of fuel increased. 10% of poachers, compared to 23% of non-poachers, looked for other work during the south-east monsoon. While this could be because poachers were making enough money from poaching and didn't need to look for other work, they may have had no choice: only 8% of poachers (compared to 27% of non-poachers) were educated to above secondary level  so finding other work may have been more difficult, if not impossible. In addition, the largest MPA in the inner islands of Seychelles, Sainte Anne Marine National Park, faces the poorest part of Mahé, and much of the reef and seagrass between Mahé
and the MPA has recently been reclaimed, further reducing the area of legal fishing grounds available to fishers. These fishers may have been left with no choice but to poach, in order to make enough money.

3.Socio-political environment: Many fishers (both poachers and non-poachers) feel that the regulations in MPAs are not enforced fairly, which reduced their willingness to comply with them. Examples provided were the small efforts made to control illegal recreational fishing, and that, due to some form of favouritism or corruption, some might not be punished as hard as others. In the case of Sainte Anne, other permitted damaging activities such as the dredging of a navigation channel, the development of a five-star hotel inside the MPA, and the nearby land reclamation, further reduced the legitimacy of the fishing ban among fishers.

This research highlighted that the spatial distribution of MPAs in relation to human wealth and other (potentially damaging) human activities can heavily influence the level of compliance with MPA regulations. A lack of trust between fishers and management authorities was also identified. Successful management of MPAs in Seychelles appears to hinge on the development of a trusting relationship between managers and fishers. This implicitly requires an improvement in the transparency of the MPA management process, including more equitable enforcement, both within the fishing sector and across sectors.

Attitudes of fishers to MPAs

Attitude % Poachers % Non-poachers
Certain to catch enough fish 42 9
Fish should be protected 20 50
MPAs yield benefits 27 57
MPAs are a good management tool 0 23
MPA size should be smaller 64 22
MPA location affects choice of fishing ground 67 27
Fishnear MPAs 83 23
Fishing ground are lost to MPAs 58 33
Poachers should be punished 50 95

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