Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


Management of the Seychelles sea cucumber fishery: status and prospects

Riaz Aumeeruddy and Rondolph Payet

Seychelles Fishing Authority, Victoria, Seychelles

Abstract

For a long period, the sea cucumber resources in Seychelles have been exploited by an open-access fishery with no management measures in place. Following its development in the 1950s, the fishery remained of minor importance until recent years, when a rapid development occurred due to the increase in demand for beche-de-mer on the international market. The lack of information on the fishery makes it difficult to ascertain its characteristics, as well as the stocks of sea cucumbers. Six species are currently exploited, mainly for the export market: Holothuria nobilis, H. fuscogilva, H. scabra, Thelenota ananas, Actinopyga mauritiana and A. lecanora. The fishery is located on the Mahé Plateau surrounding the main granitic islands of the Seychelles and further south on the Amirantes Plateau. Around 33 000 kg of beche-de-mer were exported in 2002.

Signs of stock reduction have become evident during the past four years, as fishers have had to dive deeper sometimes using SCUBA. In order to avoid further depletion of the stocks, a precautionary approach was taken by the Seychelles Fishing Authority. Some management measures were introduced in 1999 to regulate access to the fishery. A license for fishing and processing sea cucumbers was introduced, but the licensees failed to provide adequate and timely catch data. The main constraints in controlling the fishery are the lack of human and financial resources. Fishery dependent data based on catch reports lack accuracy and catch is often underreported. This led to more stringent regulations whereby catch and effort reporting became mandatory and a more conservative limit was imposed on the number of fishing licenses. Despite these measures, signs of localised overexploitation were still apparent and the Seychelles Fishing Authority was charged to conduct a stock assessment and produce a rational management plan for the sea cucumber fishery.

Due to the lack of in-house expertise, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was approached to fund a stock assessment and management programme. The project, expected to start in late 2003, comprises two major outputs and associated capacity building. The first output is expected to produce a comprehensive and sustainable programme to assess the sea cucumber resources and monitor the development of the fishery. The second output comprises the development and implementation of a management plan with a revised and improved licensing, reporting and enforcement mechanism, a framework for improved fishers’ and stakeholders’ participation in the management of the holothurian resource and a strong link between the scientific assessment of the resources and the regulation of the fishery. The participation of the fishers in the drafting of the management plan is designed to impart an enhanced sense of responsibility towards the fishery. As a long-term strategy, the project will also look at the potential of sea cucumber culture for restocking purposes.

Keywords: Beche-de-mer, stock assessment, management plan, stakeholder participation

Introduction

Seychelles is an archipelago in the western Indian Ocean comprised of 115 islands lying between latitudes 4 °S to 10 °S, and longitudes 53 °E to 55 °E. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Seychelles is around 1.4 million km2 whilst the land mass is only 455 km2. The fisheries sector in the Seychelles plays a very important economic role, as it accounts for around 52 % of the foreign exchange revenues of the country. It can be separated into an artisanal fishery, a semi-industrial fishery targeting mainly swordfish and tuna and, an industrial fishery targeting tuna. Whilst the industrial fishery is the most important in economic terms, the artisanal fishery is the most complex, as it comprises a multi-species resource base targeted by a diverse array of boat-gear combinations.

The sea cucumber fishery in the Seychelles is classified as part of the artisanal sector and has for a long time been a relatively unimportant fishery. It is a collector-type fishery, whereby some fishermen are harvesting sea cucumbers either by foot in shallow areas or by using SCUBA/snorkel apparatus. Once dried by local processors, sea cucumbers are then exported to the Southeast Asian markets. Because of the low importance attributed to the fishery, it was unregulated with open access, and no data on harvests were collected.

In recent years, with the increased demand of beche-de-mer on the international market and higher prices offered for the product, there has been an incentive to develop the fishery. More fishers entered the fishery and by 1999 there were already signs of stock depletion. The national fisheries authority (Seychelles Fishing Authority - SFA) implemented limited management measures in 1999, but due to a lack of data and low financial and human resources it was not feasible to attempt stock assessments that would produce a more comprehensive management plan.

In recognition of the data deficiencies for this fishery and the strong incentives for rapid over-exploitation, the SFA has gained support from FAO for a research and management programme directed at the sea cucumber resources in Seychelles. The project, to start in late 2003, will give the local authorities the necessary tools to prepare and implement a management plan with the participation of all stakeholders.

Status of the fishery

Legislative Framework

The Fisheries Act (1986) regulates the whole of the fishing sector in Seychelles. It is the core piece of legislation that makes provision for the Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources to regulate the fisheries. The Fisheries Act does not specifically address the sea cucumber fishery. This, in effect, reduces it to an open-access fishery without any control or limitations on catch, gear, fishing zones or reporting of catches.

With the rapid development of the fishery over the past few years, it was considered necessary to develop regulatory measures. This was achieved through the Fisheries (Amendment) Regulations (1999). This regulation makes provision for the licensing of fishing and processing of sea cucumbers, and for the holder of a license to provide such information relating to fishing or processing carried out under the license as the competent authority (SFA) may require. The SFA is a parastatal body, whose parent ministry is the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources. SFA is the executive arm of the Government in all fisheries related matters: research, development and management.

Overview of the fishery

Traditionally sea cucumbers have been harvested by a small number of fishers. The fishing grounds were located close to shore around the main granitic islands of the archipelago and sea cucumbers were caught in shallow waters using snorkelling gear or by handpicking on the reef flats. Of all the species of sea cucumbers found in local waters, only six are commercially exploited, namely Holothuria nobilis, H. fuscogilva, H. scabra, Thelenota ananas, Actinopyga mauritiana and A. lecanora.

The fresh sea cucumbers are usually bought by middlemen who process them into beche-de-mer. Although a very small amount is sold locally to the Chinese community, the bulk of the production of beche-de-mer is exported to Southeast Asian markets, namely Singapore and Hong-Kong SAR (China), and to a lesser extent to Malaysia.

Due to the low number of fishers involved, and the low biomass removed, the fishery remained uncontrolled and unmanaged until 1999. Catch and effort data were not collected. SFA did not have the necessary human and financial resources for the monitoring of the sea cucumber fishery preferring to concentrate its efforts on more important commercial fisheries. Exports of beche-de-mer were not individually accounted for but were grouped with dried shark fins by the customs officials. This situation made it impossible to estimate catches and exports before 1999. Exports have increased significantly over the last 3 years (Table 1) with around 33 000 kg of beche-de-mer exported in 2002 (SFA Annual Report 2002, in print).

Table 1. Quantity and value of beche-de-mer exported (Source: Seychelles Customs).


2001

2002

2003(1)

Qty (kg)

Value (SR)(2)

Qty (kg)

Value (SR)

Qty (kg)

Value (SR)

Hong Kong

4 662

144 125

22 805

869 656

30 446

878 445

Singapore

1729

26 456

2 170

114820

1 075

61 136

Malaysia

2387

76 813

8 995

394 071

13 085

540 764

Unknown

-

-

2 625

113617

-

-

Total

8 778

247 394

36 595

1 492 164

44 606

1 480 345

(1): Data valid up to June 2003.
(2): SR: Seychelles Rupees. 1 US$ = 5.6 SR.

It is interesting to note that the amount of beche-de-mer exported to Hong Kong SAR (China) in 2001 (4 662 kg) differs from the amount reported to have been imported into this autonomous region by the Hong Kong SAR statistics authorities (7 120 kg) (Bruckner et al., 2003). This discrepancy implies that accurate reporting is a problem in trade and that caution should be exercised when using published estimates.

Over the last six years, the trade in beche-de-mer has changed dramatically. Demand for beche-de-mer has been increasing on the traditional markets, while production has severely declined in most of the countries where sea cucumbers are harvested. This situation has led to a sharp increase in prices, which has renewed interest in the fishery in Seychelles. New fishers have entered the fishery and the fishing power has also increased with the use of equipment like SCUBA. Some of the fishers and processors have recently invested in new equipment (boats, SCUBA gear, air compressors, and drying facilities) for their operations.

Management issues

Introduction of management measures

Signs of stock reduction have been apparent during the past four years and fishers have found it necessary to dive deeper to find sea cucumbers in viable numbers, with some resorting to the use of SCUBA equipment. The SFA has thus found it necessary to put in place some management measures regarding this fishery. Some management measures were introduced in 1999 to regulate access to the fishery as proposed by Mees et al. (1998).

The Fisheries Act (1986) was amended through Statutory Instrument 25 (1999), where it became illegal to fish, catch or process sea cucumbers without a license. This makes sea cucumbers only the third marine group, after turtles and lobsters, to become a licensable fishing activity. Fishers and processors were expected, as part of the license conditions, to report their fishing and processing data to the SFA. However, anecdotal reports indicated that in spite of these measures, the level of illegal and licensed fishing of this resource continued to increase. Due to fears of overexploitation, the Government imposed a temporary ban on sea cucumber fishing in May 2001. This was, however, reconsidered in June 2001, when the Government made the following recommendations:

As a result of these recommendations, by November 2001, 22 licensees had either stopped fishing or their licenses expired out of the original 31 licensees. This left the remaining nine licensees to operate. At this time a request was made to the FAO for assistance in conducting an assessment of the sea cucumber resource in the Seychelles.

Following protests by the fishers and processors who had made substantial investments, the Government reconsidered its decision and a new set of recommendations were made at the end of November 2001:

As a result of these recommendations, catch reporting by license holders increased by almost a hundred percent compared to the period prior to November 2001. On average 95 % of licensees report their catch, providing useful data for future fishery based stock assessment. As of October 2003, there are 12 fishing licenses and 3 processing licenses that have been issued (Table 2). Each fishing license gives the right to the licensee to use a maximum of 4 fishers. License holders are now required to report to the SFA on a monthly basis.

Table 2. Number of licenses issued for fishing, processing and fishing & processing sea cucumbers.

Year

Fishing (only)

Processing (only)

Fishing & Processing

Total

1999

10

2

2

14

2000

14

1

10

25

2001

12

-

3

15

2002

18

3

-

21

2003

12

3

-

15

The SFA also monitors the amount of beche-de-mer exported through data provided by the Ministry of Finance (Import and Export Section).

Concerns were also raised regarding an increase in diving accidents related to the fishery. Of all the fishers engaged in diving with compressed air, only a handful has a valid or recognized diving certificate. As a precautionary measure, the SFA proposed a series of recommendations with respect to diver safety.

However, these recommendations were not fully implemented due to the high costs involved in training divers and procuring safety equipment and diving operations within the fishery continue without complete control. It is to be noted that the fishing operators have made an effort in training their divers to a minimum acceptable certification in diving and today all the divers registered on the licenses have at least the PADI Open Water Diver certification. No new licenses are issued if divers do not have a PADI Open Water Diver Certificate.

Management constraints

One of the main constraints in implementing the management measures is the lack of the necessary financial and human resources. SFA is totally reliant on the fishery dependent data supplied by the licensees, both for catch, catch per unit effort (CPUE) or processing data. SFA does not currently have the means to post technicians at landing sites or to have observers on board fishing vessels to check on the accuracy of the data supplied. As a result there is uncertainty regarding the accuracy of the data and catches may be underreported. The problem of poaching also compromises management efforts. Even if poaching is not conducted on a large scale, the amount of sea cucumbers illegally harvested will have an impact on the stocks, making it difficult to assess whether or not the management measures put in place are having a positive impact on the fishery.

Some alleviation in the fishery can be expected, at least for the outer islands, once the Fisheries (Reserves) Regulation comes into force. This regulation proposes to create fisheries reserves around 16 of the outer islands whereby access to certain habitats will be controlled. Fishers will need a specific license to enter the reserves, will have to inform the island manager whenever they enter or leave the reserve and will be required to comply with reporting procedures. Poaching will therefore be more easily controlled.

With respect to those measures implemented since 1999, in particular the fact that catches reporting is a condition of the fishing license, the amount of data collected on the fishery has increased considerably. However, it is felt that there are still too many gaps in the data to use it to conduct a reliable stock assessment of the fishery. It was thus proposed to conduct a field survey of the resource in order to complement the data and produce a more comprehensive stock assessment.

FAO project

As mentioned earlier, the FAO was approached to fund a stock assessment and management programme. The programme was approved at the end of September 2003 and fieldwork is expected to begin in November 2003.

The 20-month long project will provide capacity building in the resource assessment and management of the Seychelles sea cucumber fishery in keeping with the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF). The project has several objectives, in the short, medium and long term.

Objectives of the project

The immediate objectives are:

The medium term objective is to create a sustainable basis for the operation of a management system for the holothurian fishery that will contribute to the optimum utilisation of the resources.

The long term objective is to contribute to the maintenance of the Seychelles income generating holothurian fishery through sustainable and responsible fisheries management.

Outputs of the project

The project is expected to have two major outputs with associated capacity building.

The first output is a comprehensive and sustainable model to assess the holothurian resources and monitor the development of the fishery. It will comprise the following:

The second output is the development and implementation of a management plan for the holothurian fishery, which will include the following:

Capacity building

The project will produce a trained core of SFA officers and research assistants that are capable of undertaking resource assessments of benthic marine animals and, in particular, holothurians. The national Fishing Authority will have the in-house skills to analyse and present this data in reports or resource maps and will be in a position also to produce specialized statistical and GIS-mediated analyses of the resource.

The project will provide, through example and experience, the capacity for resource managers to set up a management plan with stakeholder participation and to implement annual adjustments to the plan in response to scientific data on the resource. A model of a formal process of providing scientific advice to management with the advice of a committee (or other representation) of stakeholders will be established. This model will provide a structure upon which the management of other fisheries can be formalised.

Culture of sea cucumbers

Another long term objective of the project is to assess whether it would be feasible to culture sea cucumbers for restocking purposes. The necessity for restocking will depend on the results of the stock assessment. However, since holothurians are easily overexploited, it is suspected that stocks have already been heavily impacted during the last few years. Experience in other countries shows that, in the longer term, the fishery may need to be supported by reseeding of juvenile sea cucumbers.

Since there is a lack of expertise in the Seychelles in sea cucumber culture, the project has provided for one or more study tours to countries where sea cucumbers are cultured in order to gain experience and facilitate transfer of technology to Seychelles.

The outcomes of this project will make it possible to produce a comprehensive management plan for the holothurian fishery, involving the participation of all stakeholders.

Conclusion

The sea cucumber fishery in the Seychelles was, for long periods, an unimportant fishery in terms of catch and economic value. Only a few individuals were involved in the fishery, harvesting sea cucumbers in shallow waters and mainly using snorkelling equipment. Most of the beche-de-mer produced was exported to Southeast Asian countries. The fishery remained unregulated and uncontrolled due to its unimportance and limited financial and human resources and scarcity of fishery data.

This fishery has seen a rapid development since 1998 due to higher prices for beche-de-mer on the international market and dwindling stocks in many producing countries. In the Seychelles, there was an influx of entrants into the fishery and by 1999 there were already signs of stock depletion. Using a precautionary approach, the national fisheries authority implemented limited management measures, in particular with regards to the licensing of the activity, both for fishing and processing. These measures had to be adjusted several times in order to make the operators comply with the measures. Today there is a limit on the number of licenses (25) that can be allocated and it has become mandatory for all licensees to supply their catch and processing data to the fisheries authority.

Fishery-related data is still too scarce to help the fisheries authority assess the stocks of sea cucumbers and to prepare a management plan. Lacking the in-house expertise to carry out this task, the FAO was approached to assist in this exercise. A project to build capacity in the resource assessment and management of the Seychelles holothurian fishery was designed and recently approved for funding by the FAO. The main objectives of this project are to improve the licensing and reporting mechanisms, to carry-out surveys to estimate the extent of the holothurian resource and to assess the impact of fishery catches on the abundance of holothurians in selected fishing areas, and to develop and implement a management plan for the holothurian fishery.

A participatory approach will be taken to develop the management plan with the involvement of all stakeholders, and it is expected that the plan will be reviewed annually so that the resource can be exploited on a sustainable level.

Acknowledgement

The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution of the staff of the Resource Section and the Principal Economist of the SFA who provided data and information for the preparation of this report. Our sincere thanks to the management of the SFA for allowing the principal author to attend the ASCAM Workshop and to the FAO who provided the funds for this trip.

References

Bruckner A.W., Johnson, K.A. & Field, J.D. 2003. Conservation strategies for sea cucumbers. Can a CITES Appendix II listing promote sustainable international trade? SPC Beche-de-mer Information Bulletin, 18:24-33.

Mees, C.C., Shotton, R. & Marguerite, M. 1998. An inshore fisheries management strategy for Seychelles, Final Report of Project No. FAO/TCP/Seychelles/6713(A), May 1998. Seychelles Fishing Authority, Victoria and Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome. 257pp.

Seychelles Fishing Authority. 2002. Annual Report. 58pp. (in print).


Previous Page Top of Page Next Page