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03 July

Today in Seychelles: The Big Interview with Dr. Nirmal Shah “We will basically be pirates in our own waters”

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Dr. Shah sounds the alarm on distant water fishing nations attempting, what some have called, a new form of colonisation by claiming that 85 per cent of all future tuna catch in our exclusive economic zone should be theirs based on their history of fishing in our waters. He led the Seychelles delegation, which included private sector representatives, to the 22nd Indian Ocean Tuna Commission session last month, and has been fighting hard ever since. “The government has taken the right, and brave, stand, in my opinion, but I would also like the Seychelles public to understand the dire situation here,” he stresses in this interview.

by S. Marivel

You were in Bangkok for the infamous 22nd annual IOTC session where you were restricted from posting outcomes of what you called “tough negotiations” on social media. What took place which was so secretive?

We must understand what the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission is. It’s a body formed under the UNFAO - so it’s a United Nations body. The decisions are binding so you can’t pull what India did last year where some of their vessels were declared illegal and unreported and they didn’t attend the committee to sort it out. You still have to because you are bound as a state.

The IOTC is a complicated mechanism because it has various committees that do certain work that feed into the work of the commission; there’s a scientific committee, there’s the compliance committee, the allocation criteria committee… they meet with these experts and they make recommendations which are either taken on board or not. It is all very complex and if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss details and be in trouble, like we did 2016 in this business of the 16/01 proposal for yellowfin tuna, which would have used the baseline year as 2014 – the Seychelles delegation for some reason did not pay attention to this. It was adopted, then Seychelles realised that 2014 was a piracy year and many of our vessels were not fishing. Then the country had to go back to fight for it and they refused because you can’t once a resolution is adopted.

However, last year there was a new team so we adopted a clever strategy and we got our way. This year there have been several proposals made but we want to push for IOTC to look at socio-economic indicators or parameters of the tuna fisheries. Unbelievably it’s never been done so because it’s always been looking at the state of the stocks. We have said two things - firstly we’re always talking about the importance of the tuna fisheries to nations but we’ve never quantified it, and secondly, what are the impacts of any resolution on a country?

If you put certain quotas like what happened with yellowfin which was needed to preserve the stock, what impacts would that have on the economies of those countries? What are the impacts on people and other communities involved in fishing, like Indonesia, Maldives, and so forth?

Now, there are the EU and other ‘distant water fishing nations’ on one side, and the coastal states on the other side. ‘Distant water fishing nation’ is an official term adopted by the IOTC. I personally don’t like that term because it hides a lot of stuff that is going on in the background.

What are they trying to hide?

The fact that the EU is accepted as a block that comes in to negotiate but at the same time, France is there because it’s got La Réunion, and UK is there because it’s got Chagos, which is always contested by Mauritius. If you look at the EU, more than 90 per cent of tuna fished under the EU flag globally is by Spain and France. So less than 10 per cent is caught by other nations like Italy. So even if they are saying they are EU, it’s actually those two countries. That’s the first smokescreen that they put up. The second smokescreen is that they’re officially called Distant Water Fishing Nations…that’s wrong! These are distant water fishing companies. More and more in the world now we have to scrutinise the activities of these multinationals – like Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Food and so forth. So this is what it really is - fishing companies from France and Spain that are trying to call the shots. What I am saying all along is that these distant water fishing companies are trying to preserve their rights to present and future profits. We - Seychelles and other coastal nations - are trying to preserve the rights of present and future generations. There’s a difference. We are not pushing the rights of any particular companies, although the Indian Ocean Tuna company is very important for our entire economy. We are pushing for the rights to sustainable manage our tuna by present and future generations of Seychellois. We may choose not to fish, we may choose to fish, or to let other people fish as we are doing now, but this is what we are fighting for - that right. Because now the problem of allocation is this; the IOTC has decided that all countries have to have an allocation for tuna. How do you calculate this allocation? It’s been decided that a fair system will look at each country’s historical catch of tuna, and calculate it on that. Sounds fair, except most coastal states including Seychelles don’t have historical catch because we haven’t historically caught tuna except for the Maldives and maybe Indonesia. So we have, through access agreements, allowed other nations to fish in our exclusive economic zone for 40 to 50 years. The EU and Japan are using that to say, “Fine, we will give you all our catch statistics from the Seychelles EEZ and all future rights - 85 per cent of the future rights to fish - will belong to us based on the amount of fish we’ve caught and we will give you 15% because we are generous.” That is basically almost all the fish. This is an incredible and unacceptable situation.

There was an apt metaphor presented during the meeting by the Australian head of delegation, which states that just because we allow someone to pick apples from a tree on our property does not mean they eventually own the tree itself. Why is it then that we are still negotiating with these countries? If the fish is ours and found in our EEZ, why can’t we call the shots? Does it have something to do with financial and technical assistance we’ve received from them?

Part of it is the strength of the EU and Japan. It is also how the IOTC is set up - it is an unequal power play, just like the UN and others like it. It was set up by these nations. They try not to put things to a vote but rather consensus. Also, for countries like Seychelles, we are walking a very tight rope with them because on one hand they are our partners - through financial assistance, but more importantly they give us access to their markets in the EU. The coastal nations, even the likes of Comoros, Mozambique and even Somalia, have now said, “What you are fishing in our waters is ours because we give you permission to fish there, what you’ve fished in the past was always ours through access agreements which are basically lease agreements. We are selling you access to our EEZ. It’s a lease agreement which is time bound. ”

A big fallout from this could be that the EU will demand lower access fees because they will own almost all the rights to fish anyway. It is like I’m renting you a house for a period of time, and then you say that I have to rent it to you forever, and part of the house also belongs to you so the rent will have to be reduced. It doesn’t make sense.

What would happen if we decided to put our foot down and restrict access to our EEZ, and to our tuna?

At this point in time, it would affect our economy. If you look at official statistics, the GDP for fisheries is significant. On the other hand, we, like all countries, measure wealth by GDP which is not very effective. Everybody knows we import everything we need even much of the foodstuffs you and I eat. If we don’t export canned tuna, which is about 90% of exports, even for three months of the year, we will have empty containers from the imports sitting on the ports. The cost of shipping containers out has never been calculated and we also need to know - is someone willing to export those empty containers? Sending empty containers out and bringing full containers in may significantly increase the cost of living in Seychelles. Therefore, just the logistics of the tuna industry is of significance to the Seychelles, apart from all the revenues to do with licence fees, transshipment fees, ship chandlering, stevedoring, harbour dues, transport, etc.

If we go back to the EU and other distant water fishing companies, as I call them, it’s a delicate situation. This is why someone from the outside will say it’s logical to put our foot down because the fish is ours and they can’t say that 85 per cent of future fishing is theirs because they’ve been fishing for the past 40 years. But from our perspective, we are trying to make everyone understand the illogical and unfair argument... They are obviously trying to stop us. One way they are trying to achieve this is by saying that the Seychellois cannot fish these fish anyway because it doesn’t have the vessels, so they might as well fish it.

Are those points valid at all?

Who are they to tell us what to do with do with our country? We can decide to conserve tuna for the future, for example. Who are they to gaze into a crystal ball and tell us that what our Blue Economy will be in the future? How do they know that by 2020 or 2030 we won’t have transformed our fishing industry into something else. For example, South Africa charters foreign fishing vessels along with crew and puts South African flags on these vessels. Nobody has purchased an expensive purse seiner, they’ve leased it like a car. We could do the same. I find it deceptive to argue, like they do,that because we are not fishing for those tuna at the moment that they should get all the tuna in the future.

Now let me present you a scenario which is very scary and which I have discussed with the EU delegation. At the moment we have 13 Seychellois flagged vessels. Let us say that there are more Seychellois entrepreneurs who want to enter this business using new business models as I have explained previously. Let us say we have 20 or more. The allocation that we get may not be sufficient for our entrepreneurs who wish to do business. A worst case scenario could be that by September or October of a year, these vessels will have to tie up. Meanwhile, they see EU vessels still fishing in our own EEZ. What do you think will happen? Some Seychellois flagged vessels may still go out to fish. They will be declared illegal (IUU) so they will basically be pirates in our own waters. Who will stop them? Will the Seychelles Coast Guard stop them? Will the EU who have forces here to combat piracy stop them? The EU demand is going to create a Somali type situation in this country and probably in other neighbouring states. People will become xenophobic and rage against the Europeans. This scenario is very scary and may destabilise the Indian Ocean region. Or, another scenario is that since we are a civilised country, we will keep our people in order and go and have to buy the allocation for our own fish from the EU and Japan! That would be so unbelievable.

This is a new form of colonisation…

Well, many people are now saying this is neo-colonialism. In fact the former director for the Maldives Fisheries just called it that on Twitter and in a blog in the Indian Ocean Observatory. He bluntly says it is colonialism and imperialism.

What can we do to put equal pressure on them without compromising our position?

Through the media, is one way. We don’t need sensational stuff, just news coverage based on evidence. We also need a constant stream of it. I post a lot on LinkedIn - there’s a whole network of European professionals there. I use Twitter as well. We also must not buckle under this pressure that the EU bears on us, because the development aid that they give us is time limited anyway. Seychelles has graduated to a high income country. I know for sure that some influential countries in the EU have said Seychelles should not be getting EU development aid. They don’t mind helping with targeted assistance like for climate change or gender or civil society. So at some point in time, these people’s leverage is going to disappear. We must ensure that once that disappears, our tuna does not disappear with it.

This seems to be a subject that affects everyone, yet people don’t understand the magnitude of the problem and what’s at stake…

No, people may not understand the magnitude of it and the work involved. On one hand we have to explain the complexity to our own politicians and to the public, and on the other we have pressures of our own because we are a small country with limited capacity. For example, this is not my job – I am volunteering my time and expertise. The SFA needs far more human capacity and more resources.

Once the Seychelles delegation left Bangkok, what was the situation and where did you leave things in terms of negotiations?

Some resolutions have been adopted, like our socio-economic proposal to look for these indicators. This was unprecedented because the EU was saying that the IOTC doesn't have the funds for it. The observers who were there, from various NGOS, said they would fund the work. We got WWF, the International Pole and Line Foundation and others. It was unprecedented. Then there were some proposals that were defeated, like the manta ray proposal. For me the most important one is allocation, which is divided in two separate Proposals - one by the EU with Japan, and another by the coastal states. They are trying now to do simulations to know what would happen if certain resolutions are in place. But we know what could happen. They may use very limited data and those that are important only to them. I would like the Seychelles public to understand the dire situation here. We would like more public and corporate support. Government provided us with our brief to the IOTC. Therefore, the government approved the stand we are taking as regards the allocation principle. The moment we give up this, we give up everything. Tomorrow it will be oil and gas, or some rare sponge that cures cancer and HIV. It will never stop. We have a great team at IOTC with members from SFA, the Ministry of Fisheries and also this time from the Dept. of Foreign Affairs. But we need far more expertise here as an incredible amount of work has to be done throughout the year.

Copyright Today in Seychelles. Published online on Tuesday 19 June 2018

Read 448 times Last modified on Tuesday, 03 July 2018 12:41
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