Updated: Jan 21
By April Burt, a 4th year PhD Student at the University of Oxford. April has been working in island ecosystem conservation in Seychelles for the past 10 years and is part of the 'Reken Sesel' team. April is supervised by Dr Nancy Bunbury (Seychelles Islands Foundation).
In early 2021, a news item hit the evening news in Seychelles with footage of large sharks being landed on Grande Anse beach on the island of Praslin. The headline described the sharks as “Bull sharks” and “deadly killers” and went on to say that these sharks needed to be removed for the safety of all those who go into the water there. This was false information on many levels; the sharks were nurse sharks which are reef-dwelling sharks that only have rows of tiny teeth for munching mostly on invertebrates. In fact, these docile and harmless sharks gather every year in the shallow lagoon waters around islands to breed and could be a fantastic opportunity to develop shark tourism in the area.
This blatant misinformation by the mainstream media which helped to perpetuate the well-established misconceptions of sharks was unacceptable to a group of mostly Seychellois marine/conservation scientists who together decided it was time to try and set the record straight. The team was led by Seychellois marine scientist Sheena Talma. After obtaining a small Greenpeace storytelling grant we spent several months developing a storyboard, conducting interviews, gathering footage, and editing to finally present a 25-minute documentary called ‘Reken Sesel’ which was aired in Seychelles on 12th January and is now available to watch on youtube.
Created by Reken Sesel team: Sheena Talma, Ella Nancy, Dillys Pouponeau, Jessica Constance, Sophie Morel, Jake Letori, Travis Boniface, April Burt.
Sheena says: "The documentary aims to provide a balanced overview of the role and perceptions of sharks in Seychelles. We hoped to highlight just how valuable sharks are alive to the Seychelles and its economy. We also want to promote a more respectful and informed relationship between people and sharks and promote their protection, with due consideration about their cultural value as a food source."
1. The current situation with sharks in Seychelles
The global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by 71% owing to an 18-fold increase in relative fishing pressure (Pacoureau et al. 2021). The Seychelles is no exception, although there are no exact calculations on how much shark numbers have declined in Seychelles. Sharks were once so abundant in Seychelles that catching and filling your boat with sharks was easy; you just have to read the book “Sharks for Sale” by William Travis to see this. The book describes his crew’s adventures when shark fishing in the 1950s. It was that era, says Sheena, “that cleared out the stocks of resident large specimens on the Mahé Plateau”. These declines have been observed by many fishermen, one fisherman we asked who has been in the business for decades says “they are diminishing a lot, especially those species on the reef”.
More than 20,000 sharks are recorded to have entered the Seychelles market within the last 5 years, with more than 26 species recorded in the catch. But it is probable that most sharks killed are not recorded so this number is likely to be far higher. The global average of sharks killed per year is around 100 million . Catch records show that in Seychelles sharks used to comprise around 15% of total artisanal (non-targeted) catch in the early 1900s. Today, that is down to around 1.1%, a reduction of an order of magnitude.
Nurse Sharks: Photo from Video by Jake Letori
2. Sharks consumption and by-catch
Mrs Nancy, a Seychelles citizen, told us that, “Eating shark is part of my culture. I have been eating shark since I was a toddler, for example, shark chutney or curry, but I would rather buy it if I knew it was fished sustainably”. Despite the consumption of shark, the biggest impact on shark numbers is via by-catch, when they are caught without being targeted. Although some sharks are caught as by-catch in local artisanal fisheries, the vast majority are caught by the industrial tuna fisheries who use purse seine or long-line methods.
An estimated 500,000 to 1 million silky sharks are estimated to be killed every year in the Indian Ocean as a result of drifting Fish Aggregation Devices used in the Tuna Purse Seine Industry (Filmalter et al, 2013).
3. Sharks and tourism
Sharks are still often seen as bad for tourism when in fact the rise in ecotourism is placing a financial value on the presence of sharks. As marine scientist Dr Karine Rasool put it, “You can only kill and sell a shark once but, in a tourism context, that one shark that lives on the reef can be seen hundreds of times by tourists”.
Sharks can actually generate substantial income from being left alive! It is estimated that shark tourism generates more than US$ 314 million per year creating more than 10,000 jobs globally (Cisneros-Montemayor et al. 2013). For example, just in The Bahamas the dive industry contributes approximately $113.8 million USD annually to the Bahamian economy and specifically shark/ray tourism generated 99% of the total revenue. An evaluation of shark tourism in Seychelles has not yet been done; however, it is assumed that it will be significant and higher than the value of a dead shark which is around SCR 25/ kg (£1.40) on the market in Victoria.
Sabrina Dodin, a dive instructor on Mahé who also saw the news item describing nurse sharks incorrectly told us: “Nurse sharks are my favourite, they are fascinating, they are just there minding their own business; their colour and shape of their tail, you can see that they are vulnerable and this has stopped me eating sharks”.
4. The role of sharks in the ecosystem
There are many reasons why it is important to keep shark populations healthy, and most of them are because we need them to perform key roles. As Dr Nirmal Shah, a conservation champion in Seychelles so succinctly put it, “Removing sharks can create a tsunami down the food web”.
The sharks vulnerable to local artisanal fisheries are the species associated with the coral reef and those that come into shallow water to breed and pup. You can see these sharks at the market and they form part of the diet for many Seychellois. We want to ensure these species can recover and that Seychellois can continue to sustainably catch these to sell at market. To do this requires a number of things to happen, all of which include better understanding sharks and their biology.
Afterall, the Seychelles has been inhabited by humans for less than 500 years, but sharks have been living in these waters for 400 million years! If sharks are an important part of our culture then we don’t want to see them go extinct!
The Reken Sesel team believe that…
The media should not portray sharks as monsters and killers, they are marine animals, just like tuna, dolphins, octopus, and others that play an essential part in the marine ecosystem.
Sharks should be celebrated in Seychelles as iconic species. Like the coco de mer, giant tortoises or black parrots, sharks are part of Seychelles heritage and should be part of our future.
Sharks can still provide a food source to those who wish to eat shark meat in Seychelles but the needless killing of sharks as by-catch or through illegal or destructive fishing practices must be stopped through implementing and enforcing specific laws.
Seychelles could promote more sustainable fishing practices that prevent by-catch of sharks and other marine species such as turtles and dolphins.
Seychelles should build an economy around shark tourism that could play a huge role in the country’s recovery to Covid-19. Imagine charging 50 euro per person to take snorkellers to see nurse sharks off the coast of Praslin, a guaranteed shark experience that is 100% safe!