One of the most influential and pioneering shark and marine conservation organisations, Bite Back, has said a UK boycott of long line tuna from the Maldives is a real possibility unless the Maldivian government disallows long line fishing in Maldivian waters.
Bite Back, which works to promote sustainable fishing and halt the trade and consumption of vulnerable fish species to protect ocean habitats, has expressed alarm at the proposed long line fishing in Maldives.
Graham Buckingham, campaign director of Bite Back, says that seafood is a hot ecological topic, with consumers demanding that fish are caught sustainably and with the minimum of by-catch.
“As such, a UK boycott on long line-caught tuna from the Maldives is a real possibility that, of course, could be avoided by the government outlawing longline fishing in Maldivian waters in the first place,” he said.
Marks & Spencer, a global retail giant, and one of the major buyers of Maldivian tuna, announced last year it would no longer buy tuna that is not caught by pole and line.
Talking to the press last year, an M&S spokeswoman said: “As all of our food is own-brand, it means there will be absolutely no products in our stores that use tuna which isn’t pole or line caught.”
Minivan News has learnt that M&S buyers visited the Maldives recently and held talks with local environmentalists to ensure that all tuna in the Maldives were caught using pole and line.
The steady decline in fish catch has lead the Maldivian government in proposing long line as an alternative method of fishing alongside the more traditional and environmentally friendly pole and line.
President Mohamed Nasheed in his opening address to the Majlis appealed to fishermen to find new methods of fishing saying “Those massive fishing vessels that we built yesterday, that are now anchored in the lagoons as they are not suitable for pole and line fishing, are causing us immense loss.”
Nasheed went on to say that it’s not feasible to burn fuel and engage in pole and line fishing in big vessels, and experts had advised him it would be more profitable to use those vessels for group long-line fishing.
The Ministry of Fisheries is now poised to provide financial and technical support to fishermen to adopt this new method. The president urged the fishermen “to take to the seas again.”
The president also announced that licenses for foreign boats that had been catching fish using long line and net in the Maldives would be cancelled in April and Maldivian boats would take their place.
Ibrahim Manik, chairman of the fishermen’s union says “around 80 per cent of fishermen are against this new method, but the dire situation means there will be those who will adopt this.”
He says at least Maldivian fishermen will be more careful about the ecological impact.
“Even now our fishermen will release any sharks they catch by mistake, so if our people do long lining they will be more careful.”
Interestingly enough in 2008 the same union sent a letter urging the then fisheries minister to stop boats using long line methods in Maldives waters on ecological grounds.
“Even now we are saying don’t give permission for long lining, but on the other hand the fact that fishermen can’t make ends meet anymore means that there will be those who will do this for the money.
He admits that longline has negative effects on dolphin and sharks and says readily that ‘the reputation we had built over the years will be destroyed.”
Organisations like Green Peace which had urged last year for people to buy Maldivian fish would no longer be doing that, says Ibrahim.
“Money is the big factor here. A fishing boat used to earn around 10,000 Rf to 20,000 Rf per trip before, and now we have exporters also who are encouraging this.”
But even private exporters like Big Fish are worried. The company’s director Ali Riza says “long line is completely contradictory to how we fish now; Maldives Seafood Processor and Exporters Association (MSPEA) are even now debating the pros and cons of it.”
According to Ali, UK supermarkets are supposed to have certified sustainable products on their shelf in the year 2010, and this complicates everything.
“Europe is our biggest market right now and we are even now planning to participate and promote our product as one caught by sustainable fisheries in the biggest fish export fair in Belgium this year.
However he says the fact that ‘a lot of companies are now on the verge of bankruptcy’, which is also cause for concern.
Ali says right now one can only hypothize about how European consumers will react but says he finds all the talk a bit hypocritical also.
“it’s not us that overfished the waters, but now that it’s done, we are being told not to do what western countries had been doing.”
And like Ibrahim who evoked the idea of foreign boats doing long lining, Ali says “we obviously can’t seal off our waters – fish are migratory. If we don’t do it others will overfish around us, so we might as well be the ones doing it.”
He expresses hope that there will be minimal negative impact, as they are not targeting sharks and other species, and says there will not be a “significant amount” of by-catch.
Activists like Graham say long lining causes the unintentional death of 80,000 turtles a year along with countless sharks, dolphins, sailfish and seabirds worldwide, calling it one of the most indiscriminate methods of fishing.
Major exporters like MIFCO who last year exported 115,580 cases of canned tuna, 21,008 tons of frozen tuna and 312 tons of fresh yellow fin seem to think that the shift in fishing methods would not cause a major problem.
“We will also apply for long line license when they start giving it,” says Ali Faiz, Managing director of MIFCO. He says as the customers are different for long line and canned tuna, it would not have much of an impact.
“With long lining we mostly export raw fish.”
He also scoffs at the environmental concerns, saying a lot of the time environmentalists are controlled by big businesses. “All these days’ foreign boats were doing it, and having an advantage over us. Now it will be more difficult for boats to come here and steal from us.”
He is confident that there will always be buyers for Maldivian fish.
Ali says those who support the environment friendly method of fishing in Maldives, do not give any incentive for it to be continued. “We have an entire country that is fishing with pole and line, but do we get any special concessions, any benefits because we do it?”