The past twelve months have brought good news and bad to those in the fishing industry.
The new administration of President Abdulla Yameen came to power with special pledges targeted for fishermen – but fishermen also harbour concerns that the Malé City Council is in the process of imposing regulations on the capital’s fish market, run up to now as local fishmongers have seen fit.
While, according to the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Mohamed Shainee, the average amount of catch has generally increased in the past year, fishermen worry that rising cost of ice, fuel, and even labour, are causing a rapid rise in the costs of managing a fishing vessel.
Minivan News has spoken to local fishermen and the authorities concerned in an attempt to better understand the challenges currently faced by the fishing industry – a major component of the Maldivian economy and society.
In 2012, government records show that over 120,000 metric tonnes of fish were caught in the Maldives, with over 10,000 fishermen registered.
Many fishermen expressed worry that the state was introducing new rules and regulations which challenged the old habits of those who frequent the fish market.
“I personally am scared by the suspicion that all these changes are to do more with political power struggles than any sincere wishes of good will for us fisherfolk,” said 52 year old seller Abdul Kareem.
Insurance or cash handout?
When campaigning for the 2013 presidential election, Yameen pledged to provide a monthly allowance of MVR10,000 (US$648) a month to every fisherman, regardless of catch.
He later revised the pledge with numerous conditions. It was soon announced that the allowance would be paid under an insurance scheme, in which fishermen must pay the state a guarantee fee on good months in order to be eligible for an allowance during the lean months. Provisions were also added concerning the type of fishing conducted, with not all fishermen qualifying for the sum.
While Fisheries Minister Shainee said in November that the guarantee fee would amount to MVR500 on ‘good’ months, Yameen stated in January that the monthly fee would be no larger than MVR80-90.
“I voted for Yameen specifically because of this pledge. I’ve lost faith in him now that he has gone back on his word,” said fisherman Ali Mahir, selling plankton outside of the fish market.
“It’s gone from an allowance to insurance. Next it will become a loan. How is this good for us?” Faheem, another fisherman, said.
Skipjack fisherman Easa Mahmood, however, felt that the insurance would prove beneficial in the long term.
“While there is so much confusion at the moment, I believe this will be good in the long run. With the changing seasons, there are months where we absolutely cannot make ends meet. There are thousands of fishermen. This is possibly the only feasible way for a poor government like ours to assist us,” Mahmood said.
The fisheries minister explained that the current government aimed to make the industry a self-sustaining one, which does not depend on subsidies in the long run.
“We will hopefully begin implementation of the insurance scheme by March. We need to make a unique register of all fishermen for this purpose and are currently in the process of doing so,” he stated.
Rising overhead costs
“The price of fish is going steadily down, and the cost of fuel and ice keeps increasing daily. I don’t know for how long I’ll be able to take my crew for fishing,” said Ahmed Fizan from Haa Dhaalu Atoll.
Many other fellow fishermen echoed Fizan’s concerns. One explained that he had built a larger boat to be able to better cater to growing demand from resorts, but was now worried that he may not be able to continue running the business owing to low buying prices and high cost of fuel and labour.
“It’s true that we are able to catch so much fish these days – the yield is high. But ice costs so much, how can we preserve them for sale? In the end, we end up selling them underpriced and at a loss. It’s ridiculous,” Kareem said.
While the minister, Shainee, assured that he was working towards resolving these issues – with plans to build additional ice plants – he argued that larger vessels may be unsustainable due to fluctuating prices of oil on global markets.
“However, even if indirectly, the state is trying to assist fishermen on the front of rising fuel prices too. Even in President Yameen’s recent official visit to India, he deliberated on ways to get easier access to fuel at cheaper rates,” Shainee said.
He stated that, though the government did not believe that provision of subsidies is a solution, it is exploring other forms of helping fishermen adapt to more sustainable models of business.
Meanwhile, the managing director of state-run Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO) rejected claims that the price of fish is decreasing.
“The price has remained constantly at about MVR18 to 20 per kilo. We do not decide on the prices unilaterally, rather it depends on the buying rate on the global market,” Dr Abdulla Shaheed explained.
“We have never had our own fleet of fishermen. All the fish we acquire for our products are bought directly from random local fishermen, based on availability. We always give them the best possible price,” he said.
The fisheries minister acknowledged that, while the country is facing difficulties with the EU market, the government was currently exploring new markets, including Arab countries.
Further changes to the industry come from the decision of Malé City Council – with municipal rights over the capital’s only fish market – to introduce licenses in order to use the premises for selling their catch.
While Shainee claimed that a nominal fee may be charged in releasing licenses, Malé Mayor ‘Maizan’ Ali Manik denied the new license would add to fishermen’s financial burden.
“This is something that we have been attempting to do for a while, and yet kept on getting delayed. We at the council finally decided that we must complete this task. We opened up for bids, and finally made a contract with a company called Ocean Emperor to develop the market,” said Manik.
“The fish is often kept on the floor to be sold, so numerous times we have installed benches there to be used for this purpose. However, the fishermen dislike change, and the benches end up being damaged and vandalised. I decided to do this at any cost. That even if the benches we have kept there most recently gets vandalized, I’ll just start over again,” he continued.
Indeed, one displeased fish seller described the new measures to Minivan News as unnecessarily complicating things.
“For decades, we have sold fish at this very market and there have been no complaints. Why does the government suddenly feel a need to interfere?” complained Gafoor.
“We’ve been coming here to sell fish all our lives. We are doing fine by ourselves. We don’t need police and authorities to get involved and tell us what to do. We can sort our own problems and co-habit here,” said another seller.
Mayor Manik also revealed that the World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Authority had expressed concerns about the low quality of fish being sold at the market.
Manik claimed that the regulations would bring an end to foreigners reselling fish at the market, as licenses will only be given to Maldivians. He further said that all fishmongers will be mandated to undergo a biannual health checkup.
He further claimed that new regulations for fishmongers have been drafted – together with penalties for those who breach them – and that it will be effect tentatively from February 6. City Council staff will be then be monitoring the market with the assistance of police.
“I want citizens to be able to buy good quality fish. I will try to do so as long as there is life in me.”