Beau Vallon Beach, one of the most beautiful strips of ivory sand in the world, is a busy place at the crack of dawn. Here on the island of Mahé in the Seychelles, long before the honeymooners have installed themselves on their luxury loungers, a ragtag band of fishermen emerge from the takamaka trees to see what they can catch.
Rasta Joe, along with cousins Gilbert and Gary, use a chunk of a washed-up surfboard to paddle out to their boat, where they’ll fish using rods and a homemade trap. Mostly they’ll eat what they catch; any extras they’ll sell by the roadside. A little further along the beach, Faisal and George have a much slicker operation. They are the last remaining beach seine fishers in the country and can spot mackerel schools just by the ripples on the water. Today they expertly wield their nets just metres into the dazzling turquoise ocean to haul in a few dozen mackerel, which flap hopelessly on the sand, destined for the local market.
On a map, the Seychelles is just a few dots in the Indian Ocean; in reality it’s an archipelago of 115 islands, some uninhabited, which lie east of Somalia and Kenya and some 4,000 miles west of Indonesia. It’s the perfect stop-off point for vessels that have spent long months at sea, and this has created a harmonious mashup of African, Indian and Moorish cultures mixed with that of its European colonisers. But it's the Creole language which shows where its heart lies, and we arrive on the largest island of Mahé to the collective boom of the bass from a carpark full of reggae sound systems. While mackerel may feed the locals, it’s tuna fish from the deep waters of the surrounding ocean, along with tourism, that prop up the entire economy.
As we celebrate World Oceans Day, we’ll no doubt be reminded of the precarious nature of our seas. Right now, one-third of our oceans are overfished, but global demand for sea food is set to double by 2050. Anyone who watched 2021’s Netflix documentary Seaspiracy will be only too aware of this. Never mind that director Ali Tabrizi was subsequently criticised for shoddy journalism; his thesis that our oceans will soon be empty if we don’t stop eating marine life altogether resonated globally.
I ask Kepa Echevarrìa who has six commercial vessels fishing for tuna in the Indian Ocean if he watched Seaspiracy. He says he turned it off because it wasn’t a true reflection of the industry he grew up in. Echevarrìa was just 26 when he took over Echebastar, the family fishing company, after his father died. It was his grandfather before that – an artisan fisher from Spain’s Basque region – who launched the company with one small wooden boat in the 60s.
We meet today on board the Jai Alai (Basque for “happy fiesta”), which is docked at Ile Du Port on the north-eastern side of Mahé to unload its catch. There’s nothing cutesy about this set-up; it’s a 90 metre long steel boat with a colossal mountain of a purse seine net, capable of plucking an entire school of tuna out of the sea in one go, folded on the deck.
“It was around 2005 when I decided I wanted to make our fishery a better fishery,” Echevarrìa says. “I want to do my best for the conservation of the ocean. I am the new generation; I had a different education to my father and grandfather. Tuna is my whole life. Of course I want to protect it. I want to be able to pass this on to my 10-year-old twin daughters.”
He started looking at ways he could fish more sustainably and came across the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an organisation set up by Unilever and conservationists from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to stop overfishing. If Seaspiracy sowed the seeds of confusion among those who want to try to eat sustainable fish, it also twisted the narrative to shift blame on to the ocean conservationists – the very NGOs working to save our seas. The MSC doesn’t work for the fishing industry at all, but is an independent non-profit that simply sets exacting, science-based standards – widely acknowledged to be the gold standard of sustainability – for fisheries to aspire to.
“You have to be very careful with eco labels,” says Echevarrìa. “Some are just a single stamp which you can literally buy with money on the table. I soon realised that MSC was the most serious and the most difficult one to get, especially for an industrial fishery like mine. It seemed literally impossible. I saw it as a challenge.”
The first time Echebastar was assessed for certification in 2015, it failed dismally. Echevarrìa admits he didn’t know what he was doing and went back to the drawing board. The first thing he did was reduce the size of the boats in his fleet. Then he appointed Jose Luis Jauregui, an old friend of his father’s also from the Basque region, as director of sustainability.
Jauregui, a charismatic Spaniard in his early sixties, is meant to be retired now, but doesn’t seem to know how to stop. He takes me on a tour of the Jai Alai. He shows me the deep freezers, wafting with fog and operated by deck hands wearing Chernobyl-level protection that can store the tuna at minus 60 degrees. Freezing it like this means the fish can be sent, usually back to Spain, and sold whole for a higher price, rather than stored in brine and sent for canning – enabling them to catch less fish and still bring in the same income.
On board we meet second-generation Senegalese deckhand Elhadji Thior, 25, whose father before him spent 35 years working on Echebastar boats, and Lamine El Hadji Faye, who supports four wives and 13 children with his salary as a boatswain. “Usually, we spend around four months at sea and then get to go back to Senegal for two,” he says. “This boat is more than a home to me.”
Jauregui takes me to the bridge – AKA the control hub – which has had a million-pound refit with underwater surveillance equipment that can help detect not just the type of species but also its size, so they can avoid catching juveniles. Down on the fishing deck he points out his pride and joy – a second-fast moving conveyor belt which deposits bycatch, still alive, back into the sea in less than a minute.
“We can now one hundred percent say if we accidentally catch turtles, manta rays and many other species, we can put them back in the sea alive,” says Jauregui. “We are now also completely transparent. We have independent observers and CCTV on all of our boats all of the time. All of our data is on our website. You can see how many fish we have caught and exactly what is the composition of our catch.”
Finally, after 12 long years, Echevarrìa gained the coveted blue tick for skipjack tuna. It was a game-changing moment. Echebastar is the first commercial fleet of its kind in the world to get certified. Now there are other industrial-scale fisheries in seas across the world looking to follow his example.
A far cry from the Jai Alai, and just a short drive up the road from Beau Vallon, is Glacis Beach, deeper and rockier, where fishers have been working for as long as anyone can remember. Nine mini Mahé boats line up on the sand and today Cyril, Ricky, Evan and Daryl, each gripping large silver jack fish by their tails, work in tandem to bring in today’s catch. It's possibly as close to the ultimate sustainable fishing operation you could find.
Some fish will be gutted in the back of their boats so they can be on the plates of local restaurants within moments of coming out of the sea. The rest is put on ice and sent to Victoria Market in Mahé’s capital. Jack fish is much bonier and less tasty than tuna and sells for a fraction of the cost. While schools of tuna swim much further out than their mini Mahé boats could ever get to, the perception of competition is there.
“We let Spanish, French and even Koreans come and take our tuna,” says Ricky. “Our economy is fishing, yet the Seychelles doesn’t even have its own vessel. It’s crazy.”
Right now, stocks of skipjack tuna are in good shape in the Indian Ocean. They are the smallest and cheapest of all the tuna species – making up 60 percent of the world’s catch – and Echevarrìa’s skipjack will likely end up in cans for Princes or John West. The fish migrates fast across huge swathes of ocean and grows quickly, reaching the size of a small terrier by the age of two when they start to breed. It’s not surprising they are abundant; skipjack enjoy a wildly rampant sex life – the females capable of releasing millions of eggs to be fertilised and breeding all year round.
Right next to Ile Du Port sits the Thai Union canning factory, the country’s biggest employer. No one has invented the tech yet to efficiently remove the flesh from a tuna fish, so row upon row of women (cleaning tuna is not considered to be man’s work) stand in plastic aprons nimbly pulling the steaks from the fish and separating the head and bones for animal feed. The skipjack are cooked first in immense walk-in ovens and the smell hangs heavy in the air, but it’s a slick production line from ocean to tin and absolutely nothing seems to goes to waste. Thai Union have committed to going fully sustainable in the next three years.
While skipjack stocks may be healthy, yellowfin and bigeye – the higher priced species which are sold for steaks and sushi – are both still overfished here. In May, the big wigs of the tuna industry, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), have descended on Mahé to discuss how to rebuild stocks, ensure catches remain within limits and future proof their ocean in a climate-changed world.
It's management such as this, that Steven Adolf, in his definitive book Tuna Wars, argues will protect stocks in the face of plunder from illegal Chinese fleets, devastating subsidies and black-market dealers. “I think it's very important to underline that it is possible to manage fishery stocks,” he tells VICE. “Millions of people depend on tuna for their food and their livelihood, it is naïve to think we are ever going to stop eating it.”
“At this moment,” he adds, “80 percent of our tuna stocks are in the green. But it is important to put this figure in to a context: There is a quick rise of endangered stocks and the pressure of fisheries is increasing. The organisations responsible for this, the Regional Fisheries Managment Organisations (RFMOs), are right now too slow at putting measures in place, but bluefin is an example that management can work. It is not too late, but we have to take action now.”
There was a moment when bluefin looked like they were on the edge of extinction, “the sickening feeling that the population was reaching a point of no return,” writes Adolf. Things got so bad in 2011 it was added to the list of crItically endangered species. But following a concerted global effort to manage quotas and reduce size limits, bluefin made a recovery that nobody expected. Recently, they’ve even been spotted in places they haven’t been seen for years, including just off the coast of Cornwall.
Some argue that MSC standards don’t go far enough and believe they need to be even more stringent. Detractors also say certification is inaccessible to smaller fisheries in less affluent parts of the world because it’s so expensive. “Where the line for sustainable fishing lies is hotly debated,” says Jo Miller of the MSC. “We’re walking a tightrope between the conservationists who would like our standards to be higher and setting an achievable standard which fishers aspire to.” Currently, she says, they are in the process of a rigorous review of existing standards.
During any MSC certification process, there is a grace period during which conservationists’ objections can be raised. Sharkproject and the International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) both raised concerns, triggering an objection process. The independent Conformity Assessment Body (CAB) for Echebastar responded to every one of these objections and Sharkproject and IPNLF withdrew their concerns just prior to adjudication.
“We approached them many times, to work together instead of objecting to the process,” says Jauregui. “I say to Sharkproject, IPLF, the WWF and any other NGO: If you’re not happy let’s work to improve standards even more. We will not only meet them but encourage other fleets to follow, too.”
“The MSC has got its limitations certainly,” says Ruth Wescott, campaign coordinator at the environmental alliance Sustain. “It exists within the power structures that have led to the problems in the first place – it’s not trying to tackle that power dynamic, but also that’s not its job. We are not seeing leadership from government in any respect. All the power rests in the hands of the big supermarkets. The MSC is the only show in town that is actually trying to do something.”
As Wescott points out, everything we eat has an environmental impact of some sort. “There is no perfect choice,” she says. “But fish don’t leave a huge carbon footprint, they don’t produce the methane that farm animals do, nor are there pesticides involved in the growing of their feed. Currently, there is a massive global shortage of grain. The IPCC is more worried about food than ever before. In many ways humanity is on a highway to crisis, but if you look at the environmental impact, fish stack up really well.”
And in a country like the Seychelles, where fish is its lifeblood – as well as 95 percent of its exports – it’s hard to see other options. Even before COVID decimated the tourist industry, 25 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Inflation here shot up recently and locals must still live amongst the astronomical five-star tourist prices. In one supermarket, a pack of butter cost £10.
Ten minutes south of Beau Vallon lies Bel Ombre, a workaday fishers’ jetty, bustling with Seychellois catching and filleting their dinner. Here we meet 32-year-old Sharin Vidot, a dive master who used to work for Ocean Dream Divers on Beau Vallon. She has been diving since secondary school but got tired of the demands of tourists and bored of doing the same underwater routes. Now she dives to catch octopus with her bare hands instead.
“It can be dangerous, they fight back hard,” she says. “Sometimes they try and remove the regulator from my mouth so I can’t breathe. Or they try and rip the mask from off my face. I’ve worked out the trick is to keep them at arm’s length and wear a wet suit to stop them biting me. But I love being down under the sea. It’s like being in another world.”
The octopus season runs from February to April and during this time Vidot goes out for days at a time on her boat, often ending up half way to the island of Praslin, 24 nautical miles away. Some of the octopus weigh up to eight kilos and the fiercer the fight, the faster her oxygen runs out. Still, Vidot brings them in one by one – each octopus the fruits of a hard-won underwater battle. It’s the ultimate simple, sustainable fishing that has changed little since ancient times and comes from a place of respect for the sea.
“I think 15 years ago we hit peak pessimism,” concludes Canadian professor of marine conservation biology Boris Worm, whose 2006 paper was misinterpreted by Seaspiracy to claim our oceans could be empty by 2048. “I personally feel that the tide has shifted and at the core of this shift is our altered perception that the ocean is no longer there to endlessly supply what we want and need – instead the ocean needs us to care. Now many scientists do believe that we have a fighting chance to leave an ocean to our children that is more abundant, more productive and more resilient than the one we inherited.”