The Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture has compiled procedures under which fishermen can apply for the government’s scheme for an allowance of MVR10,000 (USD 649) for fishermen during lean months.
Provision of MVR10,000 to fishermen ‘regardless of catch’ was a campaign pledge of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) during the 2013 presidential elections.
Speaking at a press conference held on Sunday, Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Mohamed Shainee stated that the scheme will commence from Tuesday, April 1.
“The objective of this scheme is to further aid the fisheries industry to become a main pillar in strengthening the country’s economy. We are trying to give support and assurance to fishermen that they can maintain their careers in fishing,” Shainee stated.
“More than a form of social protection, this scheme is more a means to further develop the fisheries industry economically. Through this scheme, we are assuring an income for the fishermen”.
The minister stated that only tuna and yellowfin tuna fishermen are eligible to participate in the scheme during its initial stages.
“However, we are at the moment unable to include other forms as we do not have the statistics on how much they generally earn. Nevertheless, other fishermen will also be able to participate in the scheme,” Shainee added.
Under the newly comprised procedures, the ministry categorised tuna and yellow fin tuna fishing vessels into three categories: vessels smaller than 45 feet in length, vessels between 45 and 65 feet in length, and vessels larger than 65 feet in length.
Under the scheme, fishermen working on vessels smaller than 45 feet in length are to get an allowance of MVR3500 (US$227) in return for a monthly premium of MVR350 (US$23) paid to the state.
Fishermen working on vessels between 45 and 65 feet in size are eligible to receive an allowance of MVR5000 (US$324), while needing to pay a monthly premium of MVR400 (US$26).
Those working on larger vessels – over 65 feet in length – will be given the full allowance of MVR10,000 (US$649), and are required to pay a premium of MVR500 (US$32).
The premium fees are to be paid up front for a year in order to participate in the scheme. The minister stated that the government is working to arrange the receipt of payments through island councils.
“As over 90 percent of Maldivian fishermen work in vessels of over 65 feet in size, we have targeted the full amount of MVR 10,000 for them,” Shainee told press today.
“However, this government has not neglected any fisherman. By this I mean that, although our pledge says MVR10,000 for fishermen on all lean months, we have made the scheme inclusive of even the remaining 10 percent of fishermen,” Shainee explained.
Minister Shainee expressed confidence that the scheme would encourage fishermen to engage in fishing even during the lean months.
It was further revealed that discussions are currently being held to hand over the management of the scheme to the National Social Protection Agency.
It was noted that 722 fishing vessels are currently in the state registry, while 11,894 fishermen are registered as working on these vessels – only 5 percent of them are listed as working on vessels less than 45 feet in length.
According to the ministry, over 80 percent of the registered fishermen work on vessels larger than 65 feet in length. In a previous interview with Minivan News, Dr Shainee had noted that encouraging fishermen to use for economically sized vessels would improve the industry’s profitability.
On Saturday, President Abdulla Yameen revealed at a political rally that application forms for the scheme will be available from April 1 onwards. He further stated that the allowance will be released to fishermen before the end of May.
Yameen further revealed that discussions are being held between the State Trading Organisation (STO) and the Indian government to arrange the supply of petroleum products at a lower price.
Switzerland’s retailing group Migros and the International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) have opened a training centre for Maldivian fishermen.
The fishing industry news source ‘Fish Site’ reported that the aim of the newly opened Fishermen’s Community and Training Centre (FCTC) was to provide long term support for the country’s pole and line fishing communities through fisheries training and education.
According the website, the FCTC will provide free training courses for active fishermen and school leavers.
The source quoted Chairman of the IPNLF John Burton, who described the training centre as “an important milestone for the Maldivian fishing industry, an industry we are all part of, an industry that is at the heart of Maldivian way of life.’’
Government records show that, in 2012, over 120,000 metric tons of fish were caught in the Maldives, with over 10,000 fishermen registered.
“The opening of this centre marks our collective and considerable efforts in building a stronger and commercially competitive pole and line fishing industry for this country, while directly supporting the local fishermen and their communities,’’ said Burton.
Also present at the ceremony, Maldives Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee sincerely thanked everyone supporting the program in the name of the ministry and local fishermen for partnering in the development of the fishing industry, keeping pole and line fishing a sustainable method as well as promoting it to other countries.
The FCTC is based in Gan in Laamu Atoll, and will be run by Maldives Fishermen Association.
In November 2013, The European Union 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.
However, in an interview with Minivan News, Fisheries Minister Dr Shainee stated that this issue could be solved through bilateral relations between the countries in EU.
“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,’’ he told Minivan News.
Shainee noted that there would be a lot of pressure from the consumers in Europe, with the minister suggesting that people were more educated and wanted these types 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,’’ he added.
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.”
The opposition parliamentary group has announced that it will reject the appointment of Dr Ibrahim Didi as Fisheries Minister and Tholhath Ibrahim as Defense Minister.
Spokesperson for the group, MP Ahmed Mahlouf of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP)’s Z-faction, has confirmed the decision.
DRP MP Abdulla Mausoon said the faction of the party loyal to leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali had decided to accept Tholhath but reject Dr Didi.
“Our parliamentary group found that it does not make much sense appointing someone who has been already dismissed by us,” Dr Mausoom said. “Our leader MP Ahmed Thasmeen Ali met with the press when they both were appointed by the President and revealed our stand.”
Dr Mausoom insisted that the same procedure had to be applied for everyone, recalling that when President Mohamed Nasheed reappointed Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad as the Attorney General after the parliament rejected him once, he was rejected a second time.
DRP MP Ahmed Mahlouf and DRP MP Ahmed Nihan did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.
Dr Didi is currently the President of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), but was reappointed as Fisheries Minister by President Nasheed on July 19.
Dr Didi resigned from his position as the Fisheries Minister along with the other cabinet members in protest to the opposition parliamentarians alleged obstruction of executive power in June last year. His subsequent reappointment was dismissed by the opposition-majority parliament, along with seven other ministers.