The government-owned canneries Kooddoo Fisheries Complex and Felivaru Fisheries Complex have been brought back under the management of the Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO), reports local media.
The major business units or factories of MIFCO were separated from the company during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed and began operations as independent entities on June 1, 2010.
Privation Board Chairman Mohamed Nazeer told newspaper Haveeru yesterday that the separate entities would be dissolved and some of its board members have been appointed to a reconstituted MIFCO board of directors.
While former Felivaru Managing Director Hassan Rasheed has been appointed chairman of the board, former Kooddoo Managing Director Adhly Ismail has been appointed managing director at MIFCO.
Singapore has become the first country to accept the Maldives’ Halal certification, the Ministry of Islamic Affair has revealed.
Local media have reported the ministry’s announcement that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore has accepted the certification, currently used by three Maldivian fisheries firms.
“After the approval of the certificate by Singapore, the market is looking forward to an even bigger expansion,” Islamic Minister Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed told Haveeru.
The move to award Halal certification followed the EU’s decision to refuse the extension of duty-free status to Maldivian fish imports late last year due to the Maldives’ failure to adhere to international standards regarding freedom of religion.
The EU represents the single largest export partner for the Maldives.
The government promptly formed a Fisheries Promotion Board in order to target new markets, with Felivaru Fisheries, Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO), Horizon Fisheries all awarded Halal certificates in April.
Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs Dr Aishath Muneeza told Sun Online that the certification had been approved for three years by the Singapore authority, expressing confidence that the development would open up international markets.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs’ has claimed that the new halal certification program for local fish products is receiving “huge support” from local fish processing companies, the ministry has said yesterday.
Denying reports published in local news outlet Haveeru of a lack of support for the programme , the ministry said that issuing halal certificates for five different products from ‘Felivaru’ company is in it’s final stages.
The ministry also stated that “famous Maldivian fish processing companies such as MIFCO” are also in the process of submitting necessary documentation in order to acquire the halal certificate
Training of halal assurance officers to inspect factories has begun, and ministry teams have made visits to “successful” halal industry countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
The Haveeru article in question – published yesterday – quoted Permanent Secretary of the Islamic Ministry Mohamed Didi as saying that Felivaru was the only company to have shown an interest in acquiring the certification.
Didi was reported as saying that the reason for this could be that such a certificate is not important for their export markets.
According to the article, a team from the ministry had travelled to the Felivaru fish processing factory to check if the process and ingredients used are ‘halal’, with Didi saying that certification would open doors to export Maldivian fish products to middle-eastern markets and would increase the value of such products.
Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon at the time said the decision was connected to Maldives’ reservations towards freedom of religion and other conventions before noting that the Maldives is “not running out of friends in the international community”.
Since then, the government has said it is analysing new markets for such as middle-eastern and Malaysian markets for Maldives fish exports.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Ministry’s ‘Fiqh Academy’ issued a fatwa this week stating that kosher meals, while halal, are inadvisable in Shariah. The ruling suggested that the import of such goods would “introduce and spread such a religious slogan of the Jews into an Islamic country like the Maldives”.
Six companies have expressed interest in building an airport on Lhaviyani Atoll Felivaru, the Transport Ministry has said.
Regional Airports Director Sami Ageel said the six parties include three domestic companies and three companies from Kuwait, Sri Lanka, and the UK.
Transport Minister Ameen Ibrahim has previously said the government would allow the winning company to establish a resort on Lhaviyani Atoll Madivaru. The government wants a 1,800 meter runway at Felivaru, he said.
Local fish exporters have this week announced that they will be reducing the price paid to fisherman following a drop in global fish prices.
Horizon Fisheries, Koodoo Fisheries Maldives Ltd (KFML), Felivaru Fisheries and MIFCO have all reduced fish buying prices, telling local media that the price would increase along with global market prices.
Global fish prices are reported by local media to have dropped from US$2500 to US$1850, with Maldivian fishermen now receiving MVR18 per kg of fresh fish with ice, and MVR16 per kg without.
Ibrahim Manik of the Fisherman’s Union has suggested that leading government figures are amongst the country’s largest fish exporters.
“The senior officials of the PPM administration are fish exporters. Gasim’s Jumhooree Party and Yameen’s PPM’s [Progressive Party of Maldives] Zameer are fish exporters. As they make profits fishermen are facing a lot of damages.”
In the wake of the reduced prices, however, the government’s KFML announced it would be reducing ice and fuel charges in order to lessen the effects of the reduced fish prices.
The company reduced the selling price of diesel from MVR 17.25 to MVR 17, and the price of a ton of ice from MVR1050 to MVR 850, Sun Online revealed. The company also announced it would be reducing maintenance fees as well as attempting to penetrate new markets.
The newly appointed Minister of Fisheries Dr Mohamed Shainee told local television last week that he hoped the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives manifesto pledge to ensure all fishermen receive a basic income of MVR10,000 could be introduced next year.
“There is a lot of support for the policy from fishermen. This will incentivize the fishermen. They catch more than MVR 10,000 on good fishing days. But if the weather is bad or if the catch is low, there is a degree of despair. We are providing an incentive to overcome this despair to get ready for the next fishing season,” Shainee told Sun TV.
He revealed that the government would finance the scheme through the collection of MVR500 from each fisherman during the good months of fishing each year. It was also noted that the government planned to allocate MVR45 million from the MVR100 million allocated to subsidies fuel charges for fishing boats and hopes to designate a budget of MVR 90 million for the scheme.
While tourism is the Maldives’ largest economic sector, indirectly responsible for up to 70 percent of GDP and up to 90 percent of foreign exchange, fisheries is the country’s largest employer at over 40 percent.
The total fish catch has been declining each year since 2006 reaching 83.1 thousand metric tonnes in 2011, leading to fears about the impact of climate change and overfishing by better equipped fishing fleets on the borders of the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The European Union earlier this month declined to extend the duty-free status of imported fish from the Maldives, following the country’s failure to comply with international conventions concerning freedom of religion.
The Maldives exports 40 percent of its US$100 million fishing industry to the EU, its single largest export partner by value.
Before January 2014 those exports are duty-free under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) program, a non-reciprocal trade agreement extended to developing countries.
President Mohamed Nasheed recognised World Food Day this week by inaugurating the Coconut Planting Programme in Noonu Ken’dhikulhudhoo and diving for sea cucumbers off the island.
Recalling his 2009 underwater cabinet meeting, which drew international attention to the topic of climate change, the President’s dive honored an initiative for sustainable aquaculture in the Maldives.
For the past two years, a researcher known as Kandholhudhoo Dombe has harvested sea cucumbers in Ken’dhikulhudhoo lake and sold them on the international market, namely to Singapore and Hong Kong, MP for the area, Ahmed Easa, told Minivan News.
“Dombe did research on sea cucumbers 20 years back, and finally, over the last few years the research has become successful,” said Easa. “We are exporting quite a lot of these, and I believe that with the government’s support we have a good opportunity to develop agriculture in the Maldives.”
Sea cucumbers are bottom-dwelling animals enjoyed most commonly in Asian countries. The species is said to have nutritional and pharmaceutical values.
The government yesterday signed a contract establishing a formal cooperative relationship between Masmeeru Investments and the Noonu Ken’dhikulhudhoo island council. Under the agreement, the lake will be used for 20 years to harvest sea cucumbers, although the lease price will be re-negotiated with the community every five years.
The project comes at no cost to the community, and Dombe is responsible for any environmental or legal damages incurred. Dombe is also required to contribute a minimum of Rf 50,000 (US$3200) annually towards community projects on the island.
The contract has also opened up job opportunities. Easa said that new staffing needs will provide between 10 and 20 jobs for locals seeking employment.
“The government wants to do this properly. Currently, the community is receiving Rf 4-5 million (US$260,000-325,000) in profits annually from the project. It’s time to invest more, and we want to protect both sides,” Easa said.
Approximately 6 tons of Maldivian sea cucumbers with a value of US$12 million are exported annually. They are currently selling for between US$130-$150 per kilogram on the international market. Locally, one cucumber sells for Rf3.
All in the timing
Easa said the initiative comes at an important time for the Maldivain economy. Although leading economic contributor tourism is expanding, the Maldives’ most profitable export industry, fishing, is entering troubled waters.
In an interview with Minivan News, Felivaru’s Deputy General Manager Mohamed Waheed observed that the Maldivian tuna catch has fallen from “very high” figures in 2005-2006 “to now less than it was in 1995-1996.”
“The main thing is that the pattern of fishing changed,” Waheed said at the time. “May to August is the low season, but we can usually still catch fish in the southern waters of the country. But this season it did not happen – we had hardly any fish in the north, and very little in the south.”
Competition from the foreign market is also cutting into local fishing profits. While fresh local fish costs between Rf18-20, the same fish tinned abroad and imported back to the Maldives costs Rf11.
Noting the struggles of the fishing industry, Easa called agriculture the next big economic contributor.
“Tourism and fishing are declining, we need another way to provide income. Sea cucumbers have a bright future. All you have to do is drop the seeds in a lagoon or a lake and let them grow for eight to twelve months,” he said.
During the events on Ken’dhikulhudhoo, President Nasheed noted that the government plans to open the fisheries sector, especially the aquaculture and mari-culture fisheries, for investors. He observed that the Maldives was “wasteful by neglecting the potential use of various products of the palm tree,” and needed to capitalise on its natural and man-made resources to meet daily requirements and generate income-boosting activity.
The US State Department’s profile of the Maldives notes that agriculture makes up a mere two percent of the nation’s GDP, and that the soil has traditionally supported only subsistence crops such as coconut, banana, breadfruit, papayas, mangoes, taro, betel, chilies, sweet potatoes, and onions.
The report also observes that the 2004 tsunami contaminated many groundwater reserves with salt water. The U. S. government recently contributed US$7.1 million towards improving water systems in Lhaviyani Hinnavaru and Haa alif Dhihdhoo islands.
According to Easa, hydroponic methods may overcome these obstacles.
“The government is doing a good job of informing the community on how to grow products in different systems,” he said. “At yesterday’s festivities, there were stalls instructing locals on how to grow vegetables and fruits at home using these methods.”
Organic farming methods could also yield positive positive results. Island Organics Maldives Pvt. Ltd., which was founded in 2007, supports the Maldives’ first organic farm on Baa Maarikilu.
Company founder Shahida Zubair told Minivan News that the farm uses local resources to fertilise crops by composting shredded leaves, branches and coconut husk, manure from chicken, seaweed from Thulhaadhoo and Hithaadhoo, and kitchen waste.
“We have been trying over four years to fertilise our poor soil organically and now we are successful because the soil is beginning to be alive with micro-organisms and mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms,” she said. Zubair indicated that the soil results can be achieved elsewhere and will improve crop growth.
The President also attended celebrations in Thoddoo of Alifu Alifu Atoll, where he inaugurated the tele-medicine unit at the Thoddoo Health Centre, and helped lay the foundation for new classrooms at Alifu Alifu Thoddoo School.
President Mohamed Nasheed has relocated the Head Office of Northern Utilities Ltd. to Felivaru of Lhaviyani atoll.
The relocation of this and other utility head offices is meant to bring service providers closer to their clients, the people.
Under a current relocation plan, the government is moving head utility offices from their Male’ bases to the provinces they serve.
In his speech at Felivaru on Thursday, President Nasheed noted that the seven utility companies established in the country’s seven provinces had been successful, and thanked directors and board members of Northern Utilities Ltd. for their efforts.
The viability of the Maldivian tuna fishing industry is being threatened by the mass harvesting of fish stocks by foreign fishing vessels just outside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Minivan News has learned.
Fishing is the Maldives’ second largest industry after tourism, and the country’s largest employer. The sustainability of centuries-old ‘pole and line’ fishing methods is not only considered a source of national pride, but also attracts buyers from premium supermarkets in the UK and Europe.
“We have noticed a decline in skipjack tuna due to the operation of purse seniers, mainly French and Spanish, along our EEZ,” Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi tells Minivan News. “We have heard they are using FADS (Fish Aggregation Devices) across a very big area.”
Purse seining is a fishing method whereby a vessel deploys an enormous net to encircle and capture entire schools of fish at once. The method is very cost effective but indiscriminate, and generates a large amount of bycatch.
It is particularly efficient used in conjunction with FADs. Fish such as tuna are naturally attracted to the floating object, such as a buoy, typically fitted with a sonar device capable of determining the quantity of fish below, and a satellite uplink that communicates this to the nearby fishing vessel. The vessel’s net does not discriminate between the predators and scavengers attracted by the target fish population around the FAD.
“Nothing escapes,” says Solah Mohamed, Head of Production for the Maldives’ Felivaru fish cannery, which was opened in 1982 in collaboration with a Japanese company.
“Just outside the Maldivian EEZ are thousands of FADS, with sonar and live tracking systems. There are so many deployed that the natural migration of the skipjack is changing,” he says. “Fish that are supposed to migrate into Maldivian waters are being stopped because so many FADS are deployed.”
Solah claims the FADs are deployed by purse seines belonging “mainly to Spain, France and Japan, and also Iran.”
The Maldivian fishing fleet is simply unable to compete due to its reliance on pole and line fishing methods, says Solah, “one of the most sustainable methods of fishing.”
“The issue is that purse seines have become so efficient – and their sizes are becoming huge – as large as 100-400 tons. They say the sonar detects dolphins, but I don’t think it sounds very effective. Sharks, dolphins, turtles – they take everything. I doubt they can be bothered to sort it all out before pulling it on board.”
The under-resourced Maldivian coastguard is unable to monitor the vastness of the Maldivian EEZ, and local fishermen rarely go beyond the 100 nautical miles (the EEZ is 200 miles).
However the issue is not one of legality or of policing capacity. Many vessels at least in the EU fleet are fitted with vessel tracking devices ensuring they do not stray into Maldivian waters. But in international waters, almost anything goes – and seeking to hold foreign countries to account for over-exploitation is near impossible.
“We may as well be under siege,” a senior government source told Minivan News, of the ring of vessels surrounding the country.
Officially, the government is more diplomatic. “This is happening on the high seas and not in our EEZ, so there is very little we can do to raise our concerns,” says Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi.
“Purse seiners are operating without limitation in the Indian Ocean near our EEZ, and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) has not taken any measures against it.
“Since we became a full member of the IOTC we have tried to raise the issue and talk with neighbouring countries to take a joint stand. But the IOTC is dominated by European countries.”
Solah from Felivaru has observed the same problem: “We are just becoming a full member, but Japan, Spain and France are big players in the Commission. I have been to one of their conferences and I feel that their voices are heard more than those of the coastal islands. They have more expertise and they can put forward more resolutions, more numbers – we simply don’t have the expertise to beat them.”
Last gasps of the tuna catch
Meanwhile, the pole and line catch in the Maldives is in decline.
Felivaru’s Deputy General Manager Mohamed Waheed observes that the Maldivian tuna catch has fallen from “very high” figures in 2005-2006 “to now less than it was in 1995-1996.”
“The main thing is that the pattern of fishing changed. May to August is the low season, but we can usually still catch fish in the southern waters of the country. But this season it did not happen – we had hardly any fish in the north, and very little in the south.”
The foreign purse seines have not reported a declining catch, notes Solah.
“In commercial fishing we talk about ‘catch’ and ‘effort’,” he explains. “The Maldivian catch is going down but according to the IOTC, the purse seine catch is stable. This means the purse seines have hugely increased their effort.”
Value-adding means employment
Felivaru buys fish from local fishermen, canning, labelling and adding value to the commodity prior to export. The company has high demand for its product from upmarket UK supermarkets such as Waitrose, but has been forced to scale down its production lines because it just cannot buy enough fish.
“We are now processing 15 tonnes per day. We can go up to 50 tonnes if we can get the fish – but our cannery has had to scale down because we don’t get enough,” says Solah.
That has impacted employment: “At the beginning of 2008 we employed 1100 employees,” says Waheed. “Four years later we’re down to half that – 550 workers. And all these people are going to lose their jobs when the fisheries collapse.”
“Maybe tourism brings the most money to the country, but fisheries still provides most of the jobs. It accounts for more than half the employment of the entire country,” he explains.
A question of economics
Former head of the Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO), Adhil Saleem, now the country’s Transport Minister, attributes the decline in local fisheries to the industry’s struggle to meet global pressures and remain competitive.
He espouses a pragmatic, free market view. Marketing the Maldives’ pole and line fishing as a premium ‘eco’ brand pleases environmentalists and looks fine on paper, he explains, “But our gains in the market are eaten up by the supermarkets, because they are the only outlets marketing the product. ‘Maldivian fishermen saving the world’ does not fetch a premium, because as much as they talk about it, the world is not prepared to pay for eco-friendly fishing.”
Saleem contends that small rises in ocean surface temperatures due to climate change are driving fish deeper, further reducing the stocks within reach of the traditional pole and line method.
“Our method only works near the surface,” he says. “But with changes in weather and sea temperature, fish will not surface.”
“At the same time, look at the way we fish – most countries do multi-day trips, sticking with the same school of fish until it is fished out. Our fishermen fish for bait early in the morning, and then in the afternoon if they are lucky they find a school of tuna, fish it and then leave. The next day they make a wild guess as to where it has gone, and hope they get lucky.
“I also get the feeling that because of the high price we get, our fishermen are not putting in their best efforts. At Rf 25-30 (US$1.6-2) a kilogram, in the south it’s not uncommon for a fisherman to be on Rf 11,000 (US$720) a month. The mentality is: ‘I have enough for today, so I can relax. I don’t need to think about tomorrow.’”
Saleem believes the Maldives will eventually have no choice but to begin purse seining, augmenting traditional fishing know-how with technology such as aerial surveys to share with local fishermen sightings of birds circling the schools.
“The Maldives can certify pole and line fishing, while simultaneously conducting purse seining,” he says. “We need field officers to go on board and teach multi-day fishing techniques, such as using lights at night to catch squid and reef fish so that when they come back they have something to sell.”
Thailand tramples Maldives canning industry
As for Felivaru, the Maldives has to come to terms with the fact that it now competes in a global marketplace, and that maintaining such a level of industry is not economically competitive, Saleem suggests.
“If [Felivaru] is unable to compete in the global market it would be better to do something else. Do we ask why Airbus has not built a manufacturing plant in the Maldives? If [fish canning] is a matter of national pride, then so is having a nuclear plant.”
Based on an island in the north of the Maldives, Felivaru is faced with the high logistical costs of feeding and accommodating large numbers of staff, which other canneries in South Asia do not have to contend with.
“The main problem is that Felivaru is an old factory, and secondly the labour cost in the Maldives is very high compared to Sri Lanka or even Thailand,” adds the Fisheries Minister, Dr Didi.
“There is also a problem of quantity and [consistent supply]. If they are running a factory they require a certain amount of fish per day, which is not economic or feasible as the pole and line method means our fishing is seasonal. Felivaru has four production lines, but I doubt they have ever used more than 1-2 lines because not enough fish is available.”
Saleem adds that the Felivaru cannery “has expanded in the north, while the fish are in the south. It would be better for them to operate in Galle in Sri Lanka where they would not have pay the extra costs such as accommodation.”
The outsourced model has been embraced by Felivaru’s competitor, Kooddoo Fisheries, which now exports pole and line tuna caught in the Maldives to the Thai Union cannery in Thailand for processing and export to UK supermarkets such as Sainbury’s and Marks & Spencer (M&S). Kooddoo also buys cheaper purse seines-caught tuna, then processes and sells it to the Maldivian market at a cheaper price point, undercutting Felivaru. The company has recently opened a shop in Male’ and launched a marketing blitz.
“In Male’ we can buy fish caught one-by-one in an eco-friendly manner for Rf 18-19 (US$1.2). We can also buy an imported can of the same fish caught with purse seines for Rf 11 (US$0.70),” says Saleem.
“Instead we should eat the Rf 11 tin and export the Rf 19 tin to increase the amount of foreign currency available. The Maldives, Japan and India are not bothered about pole and line – it is only fashionable in Europe.”
Felivaru’s Solah complains that this approach forces the cannery to compete for the dwindling supply of fish with companies that are simply exporting the raw commodity without adding value.
“The government should be encouraging the fisheries industry to remain in the Maldives, because if the fish stay it means jobs and wealth stay in the country,” Solah argues.
“It is really sad to see the label on these cans that reads ‘Maldivian pole and line tuna’, complete with a picture of a Maldivian island, next to ‘Packed in Thailand’. Who is checking how much the Maldives supplies, compared to how many cans come out of Thailand? They can buy 1000 tons of Maldivian pole and line fish, and supply 2000 tons of Maldivian ‘pole and line fish’ to UK supermarkets. There is no regulatory board monitoring them.”
Saleem argues that Felivaru “cannot expect fish to be sold to it at a subsidised rate. Kooddoo is exporting because the price is better. The companies would not export if Felivaru was prepared to pay world market rates – they just wouldn’t, because of the increased cost of shipping.”
Solah concedes that the Thai Union cannery can afford to pay more for unprocessed fish, even including transport costs, because of the operation’s economies of scale, cheaper labour and lower overheads.
“People are willing to pay more for a premium pole and line product, but currently there is no disincentive to export unprocessed fish,” he says. “Government policy should be to add value while the fish is in the country, and to make sure there is enough fish available to run the factories inside the country at full capacity before exporting it.”
Sustainability sells, says Sainsbury’s
Minivan News contacted Sainsbury’s supermarket in the UK, which sells the Thai-processed product marketed as Maldivian pole and line tuna.
“The pole and line method is recognised as the most responsible fishing method for catching tuna mainly as a result of minimising bycatch in the fishery,” explained Sainsbury’s Aquaculture and Fisheries Manager, Ally Dingwall.
Media coverage around the issue of sustainability in fisheries meant it was “increasing in the public consciousness in the UK,” she said.
“The Maldives is associated with a pristine environment and clear, clean waters which deliver great quality tuna, and this is clearly attractive to consumers.”
The supermarket regularly audited its supply chain and was able to trace its products to the capture vessel via the batch code, she said.
“Sainsbury’s have had tuna products packed in the Maldives in the past but encountered logistical difficulties in supply. We are reviewing the situation at present with a view to recommencing an element of our supply from Maldivian canneries,” Dingwall explained. “Our suppliers of products such as sandwiches and sushi which contain tuna as an ingredient are already sourcing pouched, pole and line caught tuna from Maldivian processing establishments.”
Yet while the Maldivian fishing industry grapples with the pressures of climate change, globalisation and appeasing Big Grocery, the ring of foreign purse seines sieging the country’s EEZ are, according to the IOTC, scooping up tuna to the tune of US$2-3 billion a year.
“By catching fish one by one we are using a bucket to scoop from the well, while the rest of the world is pumping,” says Saleem. “It is going to finish – and we will not have got our share of the catch.”
On this, Solah agrees.
“If the Indian Ocean fisheries collapse, the European, Japanese, Chinese and Iranian vessels can go to other oceans. But what can we do? This is the only industry we know. We have to negotiate and beg other countries to please stop, because this is killing us.”