Maldivian authorities say they are ready to join the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) despite initial reluctance, as a changing agricultural situation within local waters requires a more active role in outlining possible quotas and regulations.
Hussain Rasheed Hassan, Minister of State for Fisheries and Agriculture told Minivan News that with the Maldives currently responsible for fishing between a quarter to a fifth of the Indian Ocean’s skipjack tuna catch, the country was now waiting for parliamentary approval to join the tuna commission, which serves as an intergovernmental agricultural organisation.
Having spent two years collaborating with the IOTC regarding possible membership into the group, Hassan claimed that the move was not in contradiction to planned aims of selling more sustainable fish supplies or outlawing harvesting species such as sharks. Instead he claimed it reflected wider aims to work under guidelines set out in an EU initiative to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).
“In the past, we have been very reluctant to become a member of the IOTC, I guess for a number of reasons,” he said. “One [reason] is that we were afraid that by becoming a member, the IOTC will dictate how much fish [the Maldives] can harvest.
As a major stakeholder in supplying skipjack tuna from the Indian Ocean, the state minister claimed that there had in the past been fears that becoming a full IOTC would allow other to enforce quotas on the size of the Maldives’ catch of the fish leading to some hesitation by government in acting in this way.
However, Hassan claimed that the situation has changed very much of late in regards to capturing Indian Ocean tuna, particularly in terms of species such as yellowfin that he said were considered to be at stake throughout the region.
“Our hand line fishermen are targeting these fish. But in the Indian Ocean as a whole, these species are considered overexploited. There was talk that we should have a fish quota for that and we want to be included in these discussions and decision making,” he said. “If we are outside this process we will not be able to say what we want and we will not be able to influence the decision making process of the IOTC. That is not a very good position for the Maldives.”
Hassan claimed that the obtaining membership to the IOTC was also a key requirement of meeting the European IUU regulations, which he said were being sought by major import markets for tuna like the EU and demand cooperation with regional fisheries management organisations.
“It is a market demand really. A lot of our buyers are telling us that we are a major player and should become a member of the IOTC,” he added. “They want us to ensure management measures are put in place and they want us to have a more proactive role in the organisation.”
Just last year, the Maldives government had courted threats from some conservation groups that the country’s fisheries faced being boycotted by certain major UK retailers over a decision to adopt long line fishing alongside the perceived environmentally friendly, yet lower yield, pole and line methods.
The use of the long line system has itself continued to divide opinion with groups like the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claiming last March that there were both “good and bad implications” to adopting the practice.
“It is obvious that long line fishing will definitely catch some un-targeted fishes, like sharks and turtles,” EPA director Ibrahim Naeem said at the time.
By the end of March last year, the Cabinet opted to allow long line fishing of yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna for Maldivian vessels after discussing a paper submitted by the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture claiming such a move would improve yields from the fisheries sector, which has worsened significantly since 2006.
Senior Research Officer at the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, Hussein Sinan, said at the time that long line fishing was “far better for targeting yellowfin and bigeye tuna.”
Hassan claimed that a key interest of the government in looking to long line methods was to try and ensure that the 15,000 to 16,000 people estimated to be employed directly within the fisheries sector remained employed. The state minister added that it was therefore vital to ensure that effective management was put in place around the region to ensure sustainable prospects for fishing.
“We have been a pole and line fishing nation for at least a thousand years, so we cannot afford to give up our interest in this fishing and our culture. So we have got to maintain this for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Unless we can provide alternative and better employment opportunities for people we must remain a significant fishing nation.”
In order to provide the best price from fishermen, Hassan said that adding value to fish being caught in the country was not just linked to processing, but also in the quality of the produce from the way it has been caught.
“There may be an environmental value that you can add to it. I believe that having a sustainable pole and line fishery we are adding value [to the sector],” he said. “There is a huge demand for pole and line fish in the European market, especially the UK. For canned tuna there is a huge demand for pole and line fish and the reason is that the UK buyers have seen how sustainable and environmentally friendly the way we are catching it is. It is small scale and has very insignificant impact on the environment.”
Hassan said that although the government was limited in the amount of financial support it could offer fishermen to help try and manage more sustainable and added value fishing, the Maldives was at the same time working to introduce long line fishing through licensing agreements.
According to the state minister, these agreements have already led to foreign long line fishing in the Maldives being stopped last April.
While Hassan said that there was after this point no legal foreign fishing using long line methods in the country, he added there had also been a loss of opportunity for local business, where fish was being caught on licence and then processed and exported.
“What we are trying to do – and it is in the government manifesto – is to try and encourage the private sector to establish a local long line fleet. So the government is not buying vessels and supplying them, but we are encouraging private parties to acquire oats and start a long line operation,” he said.
Foreigners would therefore continue to be allowed to work on fishing vessels in the country under contract, but the boats themselves would required to be Maldivian owned and managed.
As part of this wider long line pledge, Hassan claimed that authorities were calling on a number of measures to try and prevent creatures that are not allowed to be caught and harvested such as sharks being taken from the seas by accident.
The state minister said that long line fishermen were purposefully being made to aim below 60 metres under the water where sharks and other outlawed creatures were not so abundant and would ensure that the practices were being monitored as required under international standards.
“We are very confident that this will mitigate the by catch issues and we will change regulations if necisary based on the outcomes and results of our long line fishing,” he said. “we are a relatively resource poor country. There is a huge potential under the [60 metre] thermaclime, which is yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna that right now we are not targeting through hand and line fishing.”