Following a feature article on the status of the fisheries industry – in which Minivan News spoke to local fishermen about their various concerns, an additional interview was conducted with the concerned cabinet minister about these issues.
Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Mohamed Shainee spoke to Minivan News about his political career, and the policies and plans of his ministry.
Shainee was appointed to his position on November 19, 2013 – two days after the new administration came to office. This is his first appointment to a cabinet position.
Mariyath Mohamed: With agriculture and fisheries being such a major component of our economy, what are the main achievements you seek to fulfill in this five year term as a minister overseeing these sectors?
Mohamed Shainee: I believe, as you rightly pointed out that fisheries and agriculture are a major part of the economy. But at this moment, I don’t believe it is well-represented in the economy as a vibrant sector. So, in these five years, what I would like to achieve is incorporating the fisheries and agriculture sector into the very vibrant economy of the Maldives. What I mean to say is that the fisheries and agriculture sectors should both be able to stand alone on its feet, without injecting any subsidies into them. It will be quite an achievement if I am able to do this. Five years is a very short time to change the way we’ve been doing things in these two sectors for a very long time. So I believe it will be a very good achievement if I can complete at least part of it in these five years.
MM: This being you first time serving in a cabinet, what are the main challenges you face?
MS: As a cabinet member, I don’t think there are any challenges. But the country has gone through many phases of instability and that is still present in the social fabric of the country. So I think it will be a challenge to get people’s trust built in the government, because we have passed through five years of lots of instability in the government or country. So it will be very difficult for the people to believe that the government will do something that is good and more solid for the people. So I believe that it will be a massive challenge to assure the public that we will really, sincerely do what we have promised to the public. So I guess, as a cabinet problem, there will not be a challenge.
And from what we have seen so far, I believe that the opposition is also willing to give the government, to prove whether we can or cannot do the promises in our manifesto. So I believe that we are now at a stage where we have a healthy government and a healthy opposition, which really is necessary for a country to move forward.
I don’t think there are any challenges within the cabinet, as all the cabinet ministers are well-educated and have the background, the knowledge, and the drive to pursue fulfillment of the manifesto we have put forward for the people.
MM: The government’s pledges include providing an allowance of MVR10,000 a month to fishermen during lean months. How will the government implement this and when?
MS: I have already announced that in the first quarter of this year I will reveal guidelines of how this will be done. It’s very simple: the system is an insurance scheme. If you take a look at PPM’s manifesto, you will see that the first pledge in the fisheries section is to provide fishermen with an installment or some form of payment in the lean months. And then after policy number two, we have policy number three. This is where we talk of introducing new people to the profession and increasing productivity of fisheries. There we talk about our aims and visions, one of which is that there won’t be a single perceived fisherman – I mean, when we talk about fishermen, there is skipjack fishery and yellowfin fishery, so not all fishermen – but on average, every fisherman will get about MVR 10,000 per month for their wages. This is where both of these combine together and becomes the slogan “10,000 regardless of catch”. In fact, we have already put together the forms to open up a registry for this particular scheme. We already know how many fishermen there are in this country, but for this particular insurance scheme we need to open up a new register.
It’s very simple. If you look at the skipjack fishing statistics for last year, you will see three or four months which are very difficult for the fishermen. The real goal of this is sustainability.
So the aim of the government is to ensure that even during these difficult months fishermen stay in the industry. For that reason, during those few months we want to give a payment so that they can do their basic necessities, so they can fulfill their daily obligations towards their family.
The MVR10,000 scheme is a top-up system. We actually do not want to inject subsidies into the industry. That is what I said in response to your first question – that I want the industry to work on its own in a vibrant, active manner. If we start giving subsidies, we will always remain dependent on subsidies. As you well know, subsidies are an injection of capital into an area where things have gone a little out of the ordinary. So, we needed that kind of subsidy from 2004 onwards as the catch amounts had gone down. So yes, in those days we needed a subsidy to make fishermen remain in the industry.
But it is slowly catching up. In 2013 we have seen productivity increasing. So now we need to make the industry stand alone and be more vibrant and shock-proof to absorb these shocks. We need to devise a way to get people’s minds set on the idea that they can work in the industry.
The real reason is the sustainability of the fishermen in the industry to keep them in the field during this low season. This is because what we don’t want is for fishermen to turn to other sectors in these difficult months because we need the fishing industry to run as it does now and get further developed. That is the main idea behind this.
MM: President Yameen has announced that the ministry is compiling a register of existing fishermen. According to your statistics of 2012, there were 10,264 registered fishermen at the time of the report. What is the need for a completely new register, and how much time do you estimate it will take for the completion of this register?
MS: We do have a register, but we are not sure they are inclusive of all the fishermen. This is because always a registry is maintained for a service. And we have the subsidy for which they are automatically registered, so we know exactly how many fishermen there are.
But for this specific purpose, we need to build a new registry. We need a new registry for the insurance scheme as this will be done by a second party.
We are considering for this purpose the government fund management agency NSPA, for example, to deliver this service to fishermen.
MM: Many fishermen I have interviewed have raised concerns about the decreasing price of fish. Does the ministry have any plans to address this?
MS: Yes, that is true. Every year in this time when the supply increases, the demand goes down and so prices go down. But one thing we did not say in the manifesto this time is that we will give a set price to the fishermen. But for the same reasons I said before – that we want an economically viable system to be in place – what we have said is we will give the best price to the fishermen.
And to assure that, what we have done is we have put in clauses or actions in the manifesto to make it transparent – to let fishermen know that the price they are getting is exactly the best maximum price that they can get.
So for that reason, in the first few months of the government we have made a Fisheries Promotion Board to diversify our business to various markets. Insha Allah, I have gotten four countries interested – I’m looking into the arab markets, the Russian markets, the Chinese market and the Pakistani market, who are also very interested in diversifying.
So in fact, there is a lot of work being done in all these fronts to diversify markets, because what we cannot do is to rely on one specific market – which is the European market. I mean, the European market still is the largest and the biggest and the most important market for the country. But still, if we rely on one single market, any shock to that market will be felt very badly in the country here. So we are trying to diversify, that is one action.
The other thing is in this promotion board, for the first time, we have a fisherman in the board. This is to show to other fishermen that we are working on their behalf and that the price that they are getting really is the best price they can get. On top of that, even in the ministry website, we are now publishing the yearly rates of skipjack in the market. This, as well, is for the reason that we want fishermen to know they are getting the best price. So that when they go to any buyer, they can’t fool the fishermen now.
MM: You have said there is a fisherman on the Fisheries Promotion Council itself. How was he appointed?
MS: Yes. What we are trying to advocate from the ministry is for the formation of associations or co-operatives to voice for other fishermen, or vessel owners, or other sectors – to voice out through one body.
If I listen to one individual, and go to another island and listen to another fisherman, it will be totally different. Even in the same island, there will be different views. One way of doing it is for the vehicle to make the co-operatives.
At this time, in this country we have only one running organisation, which is the Fishermen’s Association. So we requested them to give us a candidate from the fisheries who is an active fisherman to be on the board. So so far we have only one that is functioning, and that is where we selected the fisherman from.
The fisherman on the board is from Alif Dhaalu Atoll, I believe. He is a skipjack fisherman and has sat in the past three or four sittings of the board.
MM: Another concern of numerous fishermen is the rising cost of fuel and ice, which in turn raises their overhead fees and brings down the profit they earn. While you have already said that the government wants to cut down on subsidies, what other plans does the state have to assist fishermen facing this issue?
MS: Yes, of course we are increasing the number of ice plants. In fact, one of the ice plants which has been idle for a few years now will be up and running in a few months time when we [open bidding on] this plant located in Thaa [Atoll] Guraidhoo. Insha allah, this will be done in the next few months.
And the other ice plant which, again, has been idle for the past three or four months is in Haa Alif [Atoll] Ihavandhoo. This will probably be starting from January 22 onwards. There are certain areas where we can reduce the price and one of the ways is by increasing the number of ice plants. Three ice plants will come in operation, insha Allah, this year.
What it actually does is it allows the fishermen to sell the fish at a higher price.
And unfortunately – I have to say unfortunately – the culture of the fishermen is they are very passionate about what they are doing. So if one of the fishermen builds a boat, the next one wants to build a bigger and nicer boat. So that has been an issue. We have been advocating that the increasing of fishing vessels to over a certain limit is not economically feasible. And already the fishermen have realised that ‘yes, we have a 35 tonne fishing boat, but how many days in a year does a fisherman actually catch 35 tonnes of fish?’
I think people will realise in time that we cannot keep increasing the size of the vessel and that we need an economic size. And we have shown through our ministry’s research that 85 feet is a manageable and economical size.
But now the real issue is that fuel prices have gone up and it will be difficult for us to stop that. But indirectly, the government is also working to get fuel at a cheaper price. In fact, the President His Excellency Abdulla Yameen has in his last visit had some negotiations with the Indian government to get fuel at a cheaper price. We are looking at other ways to land projects in the Maldives which will help us get fuel, diesel at better prices.
I am also on this committee in the government which has already started to explore for oil in the Maldives. So, these are long term, but indirectly we are trying to bring down the consumption or price of fuel in the country.
MM: The Malé City Council has announced that fishermen will have to take a special licence to sell their catch in stalls at the fishmarket. Which institution holds the mandate for this and does the Fisheries Ministry have any involvement in this?
MS: Like yourself, I am also confused in this area. We have a sort of tug of war going on between the council and the ministry and other institutions. But recently – about two or three weeks back – the council met with the ministry asking for our help in managing the fishmarket.
The truth is that until then we did not know what was happening on the other side. But now, after the new government came into place the council met with us and we are giving colloboration to the government.
In fact, I think it is today or next week we are planning to have training for the council members so that they know what the hygiene standards should be, what the methods are… And so we have requested them to give us the plan for the fishmarket so that we can give them the technical backing and advise them on how to build a market so that it is more hygienic.
So, I think it is a collaborative effort between the council and the ministry. We have a bigger role to ascertain that the public is safe and getting the right fish, so that everything goes smoothly. On the other hand, the council has the municipal right over the market. I think we can do this hand in hand. I believe this will happen now much better as things are happening much better now than a few months before.
MM: Are you supportive of the council’s initiative to lease stalls at the fishmarket?
MS: What I heard from the council, which is the truth, is that there a lot of issues in the fishmarket. And one way of always managing is through licenses or some mechanism where you have power over whom you allow and whom you don’t allow. So that might be a good idea.
But I don’t think it should be at a rate which is difficult for the fishermen. It should be a nominal fee just for the registration. It should just be a management fee, and not for business purposes. I think the idea – I don’t know, I haven’t heard from the council – but I believe the idea is to create a managed system rather than an open system. I think it should be that way. So that it is well-managed and not just anyone can go and do unhygienic practices there.
MM: What are the main countries that fish are exported to, via the state enterprise MIFCO and otherwise? What are the challenges faced in exportation of fisheries products in recent days?
MS: The EU is by far the biggest market, especially for yellowfin tuna. But apart from that, the industry also exports to the US, as well as some to Canada, to Japan, and other markets as well. I don’t have all the details of it at the moment but the EU is the biggest market, as well as the US then. And Japan is also another market to which we export certain type and grade of fish.
On the other hand, skipjack tuna is mainly exported to Bangkok. But if they are value-added, processed, then the can again goes to Europe, so that remains our main market.
MM: The president has appealed to the British high commissioner to impress upon the EU the importance of extending GSP plus facilities to the Maldives again. What do you think the chances of this happening are?
MS: I think it can be done, because I think in the past EU and Maldives have had a good relationship as countries. So I don’t think it is impossible for this to happen. It’s just more about bilateral relations and understanding.
I mean, looking at one side, the European market or consumer will be affected from this as well. There will a lot of pressure from the consumer’s side, as when prices of fish go up, it’s not just us carrying the burden, but also the consumers. So I think there will be a lot of pressure.
I think there will be a lot of pressure because when you look at Europe, people are more educated and want these kinds of niche products.
Maldives is the only country that doesn’t catch by-catch fish. We are dolphin free. We are catching one by one. We are the most green fisheries industry in the world, in fact. So I am sure the consumers in the European market would like to get something from this side of the world which is more green and environmental friendly.
There is no reason why it can’t be done. I think as an Islamic country – a Muslim country – we have worked together well in the past. There’s no reason why we can’t.
MM: Being a low lying island state, the Maldives is vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change. What do you see as the threats of climate change to the fishing industry? Is the ministry taking any steps to counter them?
MS: I think what we have felt in the past is actually part of this changing of the climate. And for us, it would be the change in the temperature of the surface water. Because we are very environmentally friendly fishermen who catch fish from the surface waters.
If the surface water gets a bit hot, then the fish swims deeper. So we need to penetrate through that layer of the ocean to get access to the fish. That is why we have already introduced long line fishing. That is to diversify from just one way of fishing.
Again, we will be very vulnerable if we commit to just one form of fishery. It is a good sign that in terms of income, we are meeting expectations by value in yellowfin and skipjack fishery. So we already have diversified into two forms of fishing. This is one of the ideas.
Another idea or another front we are working on is mariculture and aquaculture, which also is a way to minimise the impacts on the natural fishery that we have. This is because, from what we have seen, it is more seasonal, – about a ten year cycle. But even in those times, to reduce the impact of climate related issues, we need to diversify fisheries. That is what they policy is.
MM: What are the main challenges besides environmental, faced by the fishing industry, as well as the ministry, and what are the state’s plans to deal with them?
MS: The biggest challenge is actually the budget. As you know, over the years, the government has acquired a lot of debt. And that is a challenge for the government and one of our pledges is that by the third year we will get rid of the debt.
So during these two years, it will be harder to fund any of the projects from the government’s side, so we have to find innovative ways to do so. And that we are already doing. I mean, the ministry’s plan has not decreased because we don’t have sufficient funds. But there are ways we can do this. And that’s why the government’s plan is to enable the industry to become a more vibrant industry rather than the government doing business.
So we have already given up on a lot of the businesses that we do, and we are promoting that the private partners should come and invest, and we will give them concessions so that we work in hand in hand to get what is required.
So the biggest challenge, I think, for the ministry, the government and the whole country, is the cash flow issue and the tightness of the budget.