Philippa Ehrlich spoke to Dr Rolph Payet, former Seychelles’ Minister of Environment and Energy, about the country’s proposed marine protected area at D’Arros Island and St Joseph Atoll, and the processes that will be undertaken to ensure its success.
While growing up in the Seychelles, Dr Payet developed a deep connection with the natural world around him and it was this that motivated him to pursue a career dedicated to the environment. He was educated at various international institutions and received his PhD in environmental science from the Linnaeus University in Sweden. While his multidisciplinary research focused on sustainable tourism, his more recent work has concentrated on island issues, climate change and biodiversity, and has been widely recognised. In November 2007 he became the joint winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, in conjunction with Al Gore, for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr Payet was the Seychelles’ Minister of Environment and Energy from 2012 to September 2014, and he is the pro-chancellor of the University of Seychelles. In October 2014 he took up the position of the United Nations’ executive secretary of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions.
When did you first visit D’Arros Island?
I think it must have been in early 2005. I remember walking off the plane and getting the sense that I was in a truly wonderful and unique place. What you see on D’Arros is nature at its best – in balance and intact. I would love to undertake research there for a while, maybe when I retire from office. There is so much to study at D’Arros that could help me understand our islands better.
What makes D’Arros Island and St Joseph Atoll an appropriate site for a protected area?
Even during that first visit, I thought the D’Arros and St Joseph system would be an ideal site for a protected area. St Joseph Atoll especially has a significant population of seabirds and has been well documented as a very important seabird area. The lagoon is home to an abundance of shark, turtle and fish species and is vital for marine biodiversity as a nursery area and foraging ground. Even in the channel between D’Arros and St Joseph, it is amazing how much wildlife you can find. A lot of research still needs to be done, but the main thing is to be aware of this very critical habitat in the Outer Islands and the need for its protection.
What would the benefits of protecting D’Arros and St Joseph be?
I think the benefits would be enormous, for now and in the future. At the moment we are going through the process of identifying strategic biodiversity centres in the Outer Islands. As you can imagine, managing an area in the remote Outer Islands is very expensive – logistically, financially and in terms of human resources. Having D’Arros Island as one of those centres of biodiversity, with adequate financing and resources, would be of great comfort to me, as well as to others in conservation and in government. The only actively managed protected area in the Outer Islands of the Seychelles is Aldabra. Adding D’Arros would contribute to our ambition to develop a network of managed protected areas.
Furthermore, D’Arros, which is about midway between Mahé and Aldabra, would be ideal for strategic conservation purposes, as it would form an important biodiversity corridor. The Outer Islands are very important habitats for seabirds, so creating a corridor of protected areas in which the birds can nest and feed is essential.
Another benefit would be for fisheries. The Seychellois people are already catching fewer fish than they used to, so creating marine protected areas where fish can breed and grow helps the fishing industry by supporting the sustainable use of our resources.
It is also essential to recognise the terrestrial environment. By protecting and restoring it here we can ensure that, in addition to Mahé but relatively far away, we have a location where we can conserve important species. Just imagine, if all our endemics were in only one place they could very easily be wiped out, for example by disease.
How has the Seychellois government managed to achieve such incredible conservation success at Aldabra, and how would the situation compare with D’Arros and St Joseph?
Aldabra has been very successfully managed. I think it boils down to its incredibly remote location, combined with good science and good management. D’Arros is a bit more challenging. We established Aldabra 25 years ago but, if declared, D’Arros would be a new protected area in changed global circumstances. People have bigger boats now, fishing is more intensive and the needs of fishermen have changed, so gaining their acceptance is going to be more of a challenge.
The other issue, of course, is that D’Arros is privately owned. The owner has made it very clear that he wants the island to be set aside for conservation, but until this happens people will have their doubts about the motives behind the proclamation. In time, though, they will see that protecting the area is genuinely good for the Seychelles.
D’Arros has some advantages too. Aldabra is a massive atoll – the largest raised atoll in the world – and because it has such dense and rough terrain it has been difficult even to map it completely. In comparison, access to D’Arros and St Joseph is relatively easy, which means that scientific research becomes a lot more manageable. Was the Save Our Seas Foundation D’Arros Research Centre a critical factor in the decision to propose the reserve?
The SOSF D’Arros Research Centre has helped to create science in a very important location and I’m happy it is focused not only on marine science. I think it has helped us understand a lot more about island ecosystems, on the other coral islands as well as on D’Arros itself. We have to see the research centre for its benefits not only to D’Arros, but to the Amirantes Bank as a whole. It is important for every one of the Outer Islands, from African Banks all the way down to Alfonse and St Pierre.
A biological field station based on D’Arros Island in the Amirantes Group, Seychelles, the SOSF D’Arros Research Centre (SOSF–DRC) conducts research on the pristine D’Arros Island and St Joseph Atoll and the waters around them. In recognition of the islands’ outstanding natural values, the research centre was established in 2004 and tasked with becoming a regional centre of excellence for marine and tropical island conservation. Initially, collaborations were established with local and international institutions and baseline ecological surveys were conducted in the various habitats. Over the ensuing years an increasing number of research projects and monitoring programmes were implemented in response to questions raised by the baseline surveys and by visiting scientists. More recently, the centre expanded its activities to include ecosystem restoration and environmental education.
Today the SOSF–DRC boasts the longest-running nesting turtle monitoring programme in the Amirantes and the most detailed and technically advanced coral reef monitoring programme in the Seychelles, making use of techniques such as stereo-video photogrammetry, photoquadrats, remote underwater video systems (BRUVs) and visual census. The research centre also maintains the largest acoustic receiver array in the Seychelles, which monitors the local movements of sharks, manta rays, stingrays, turtles and fish. Since its inception in 2004, the centre has initiated no fewer than 36 research projects in collaboration with more than 26 conservation institutions. The projects have resulted in 10 peer-reviewed scientific papers, one PhD and one MSc dissertation, five conference presentations and 27 scientific reports.