Sea turtle killing threatening Maldives’ dolphin-safe tuna certification

The Maldives is at risk of losing its dolphin safe tuna certification, while fishing vessels will be banned from delivering tuna for export if they participate in sea turtle killing.

A recent report by Minivan News found that the practice of slaughtering sea turtles is widespread throughout the Maldives due to lack of enforcement and poor awareness, and prevailing attitudes that the practice is acceptable.

A marine biologist and former civil servant with knowledge of the matter told Minivan News that the killing of endangered sea turtles was a nationwide problem.

“I know for a fact there are still specific island communities that harvest and consume green turtle meat. For example, in Laamu Atoll there are good nesting sites. Sea turtle meat is sold for a high price because it is marketed as a substitute for beef,” he said.

The marine biologist stated that the vessel in a photo published by Minivan News showing a large number of slaughtered sea turtles was “very obviously a diving dhoni”.

This, he said, raised the possibility that Maldivians were supplying resorts and/or safari boats with sea turtle meat for the consumption of guests.

The large number of slaughtered turtles on the boat also indicated that they were taken from a special nesting beach with a high nesting intensity.

“If it is nesting season there are many female turtles in the water and on the beach, and they can be easily caught,” the marine biologist stated.

Meanwhile, a safari boat operator who contacted Minivan News forwarded a photo showing half a dozen dead sea turtles, including one being ridden by a small Maldivian child. The source informed Minivan News that the photo was taken during a picnic last year on Thulhaadhoo in Baa Atoll, inside the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Dolphin safe certification threatened

The international non-governmental organisation (NGO) that provides the Maldives with its ‘dolphin safe’ tuna certification, the Earth Island Institute (EII), has expressed alarm over the reports of mass turtle slaughter in the Maldives.

“No dhoni (boat) that fishes tuna for export can be allowed to be involved in sea turtle kills. Any tuna dhoni that also kills sea turtles will automatically be banned from delivering tuna to any Maldives processor for tuna export,” Earth Island Institute Associate Director Mark Berman told Minivan News.

He explained the EII’s dolphin safe policy requires that “no tuna company will deal in sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales, or their products. All efforts to minimise bycatch of these species is mandatory”.

“Each company in the Maldives, including those owned by the government, are signatories to the policy, therefore the government must do its best to stop this slaughter,” Berman stated.

Maldivian tuna is a “premium” product for the European and US markets because it is pole and line caught (no nets are allowed), there is no bycatch, and because it is dolphin safe and sustainable.

Berman emphasised that the EII will work with the Maldivian government and tuna industry to help stop the practice of turtle killing.

“I am very concerned and surprised this sea turtle [slaughter] problem has grown.

“The EII is not at all blaming the tuna industry or the government for this issue. We want to help solve it,” said Berman. “Earth Island has been a partner of the Maldivian tuna industry, friend of the government, and has campaigned for sustainable dolphin safe tuna exports for over 20 years.”

“However, other NGOs will see this issue and then attach it to any products exported [from the Maldives]. Then consumers in the US or Europe may tie the two together,” he warned.

Berman said the Fisheries Ministry need to alert fishing boat owners, while the EII would inform tuna companies.

“The government should do everything possible to educate the fishing folks that this is a serious problem both for fisheries and tourism. Also, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) could weigh in on the situation,” said Berman.

However the marine biologist told Minivan News that EII was not genuinely concerned with dolphin-friendly advocacy, and instead “have their own political agenda which is very business related and selfish”.

“Some countries are much worse than the Maldives but EII still gives them dolphin-safe certification,” he said.

EII has been working with the Maldivian government as well as fishing and processing companies since 1992. The Maldives was the second nation to sign onto EII’s dolphin safe policy.

“No direct linkages with turtle capture and the fishing industry”: Fisheries Ministry

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Ahmed Shafeeu told Minivan News the Ministry had launched an investigation based on the recent report of mass sea turtle slaughter.

“It is very unlikely it is a tuna fishing boat. There are no direct linkages with turtle capture and the fishing industry,” Shafeeu stated. “Based on the photo it appears to be a normal ferry boat, which looks like it may once upon a time have been used as a dive or safari boat.”

“Just because a group of people have done something [illegal], the entire fishing industry can’t be blamed for breaking the law and committing a crime,” he added.

Shafeeu said the Fisheries Ministry is working the the Maldives’ Marine Research Center (MRC) to stop sea turtle slaughter.

“The MRC Director General Dr Shiham Adam is engaging directly with island councils to investigate.

“Also, Shiham and I are discussing how to fill the legal gaps, such as banning collection of sea turtle eggs. The current regulations are vague and do not apply nationwide – collecting eggs is prohibited only on specific islands,” said Shafeeu.

The Fisheries Ministry is also coordinating with the Environment Ministry to “determine how to start an [awareness] campaign”.

Monitoring fishing vessels directly was very difficult, but fishing boats did require registration and licensing in order to sell tuna.

Given that monitoring is such a challenge, the government needs Maldivian citizens to report any unlawful actions, Shafeeu said.

“We expect that when sea turtle killing occurs, someone will report it to us or directly to the police so it can be investigated,” he said.

“Even with the councils, they just keep a blind eye, so these things continue. People need to know we are serious and won’t just let go of this issue, it is our responsibility to take action,” he declared.

The marine biologist meanwhile explained that environmental law in the Maldives provides an umbrella framework, but only on paper.

“There has been a total ban on killing and catching sea turtles since 2006. However, as environmental crime is not appreciated in the Maldives, enforcement needs to be strengthened,” he emphasised.