Sustainable fisheries consultants MacAlister Elliott & Partners have trained and appointed a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) auditor in the Maldives.
Seema Ali will specialise in MSC assessment programmes, awarding sustainable fisheries certification to local companies in a move aimed to support employment in the Maldives.
“It is great to have someone based in the Maldives who can take on new MSC assessment programmes and also manage existing ones, for example through surveillance audits,” said Kat Collinson of MacAlister Elliott.
The Maldives’ skipjack tuna fishery is the first Indian Ocean tuna fishery to receive the MSC certification in 2012 for its low-impact technique where each wild fish is caught individually to reduce by-catch.
“Seema has embraced the role with great enthusiasm and she will also be well placed to take on new and existing MSC assessments in other parts of the Indian Ocean such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia,” Collinson added.
Collinson undertook MSC Chain of Custody (CoC) surveillance audits of the Maldives skipjack tuna pole and line fishery while in the Maldives. CoC standards for seafood traceability ensures the MSC ecolabel is only displayed on seafood from sustainable sources, explained MacAlister Elliott.
Traditionally the Maldives’ primary industry, the fishing industry has declined in recent years, falling behind tourism and construction as the country’s third-largest industry.
The volume of fish catch in the country has been steadily declining for the past seven years. While approximately 185,000 tonnes of fish were caught in 2006, the number had dropped to about 70,000 tonnes in 2011.
During the past five years, the value of the nation’s fisheries industry declined from MVR489 million (US$31.7 million) to MVR321 million (US$20.8 million) with a corresponding fall of 3.3 percent of the economy to 1.1 percent in 2012.
Statistics released by the Maldives Monetary Authority this month showed that fish purchases declined by 44 percent to 2,124.7 metric tonnes between July 2013 and July 2014.
The move followed notification from the European Union that extension of the duty-free status of imported fish from the Maldives would be rejected due to he country’s failure to comply with international conventions concerning freedom of religion.
The Fisheries Ministry has launched a training programme to teach long line fishing to youth in collaboration with the Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO).
Briefing the press this morning aboard a vessel designed for long line fishing, Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee said it was important for local fishermen to be active in all areas of the country to prevent encroachment by foreign vessels as the coastguard could not patrol the entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
“That would also reduce the illegal fishing from our waters. I believe with the [programme] starting today, our fishermen will go out further at sea, [which would] reduce the share of foreigners in long line fishing at present as much as possible, increase our productivity and create lots of new jobs for youth,” he said.
Introducing long line fishing would lessen the dependency on one method of fishing, strengthen the industry’s resilience to external “shocks” and mitigate weakness of the fisheries industry, Dr Shainee said.
Long lining would also allow Maldivian fishermen to catch bigeye tuna, he added, which fetches a high price in the world market.
MIFCO Deputy Manager Ahmed Didi told reporters that the company’s target was to ensure that the youth who complete the training programme would have the capability to work in large yellowfin tuna fishing vessels “anywhere in the world”.
Ten fishermen from Haa Alif Hoarafushi were chosen for the first stage of the training programme, which was to be conducted by experts from MIFCO.
Dr Shainee also contended that long lining was the most environment-friendly method after the traditional pole and line fishing practiced in the country. The pole and line method has long made Maldivian tuna attractive to buyers from premium supermarkets in the UK and Europe.
Precautionary measures would be taken to reduce the impact on the environment, he added, explaining that new types of hooks were available to prevent by-catch of sharks and turtles.
In an interview with Minivan News last month, Dr Shainee noted that the fishing industry has felt the adverse effects of climate change caused by the rising temperature of 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,” he explained.
“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.”
The annual fish catch in the Maldives declined from approximately 185,000 tonnes of fish caught in 2006 to about 70,000 tonnes in 2011.
In early 2010, the steady decline prompted the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed to propose long lining as an alternative method.
Fishermen’s Union Chairman Ibrahim Manik told Minivan News at the time that “around 80 per cent of fishermen are against this new method, but the dire situation means there will be those who will adopt this.”
Manik said he expected Maldivian fishermen to be mindful of 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,” he said.
A dolphin with a puncture wound to the head was found dead and stranded on Hoadedhdhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll yesterday morning (July 17).
In the early morning hours of Tuesday a Hoadedhdhoo resident discovered the dead dolphin on the west side of the island – which faces away from the interior of the atoll towards the open sea.
The dolphin showed no signs of life, but had sustained a visible puncture wound which was bleeding onto the hard, flat coral that surrounds the island like a buffer.
“I think fishing boat people injured it because its head was bleeding. The dolphin looked like its head had a puncture from a fishing hook,” a Hoadedhdhoo government official told Minivan News today (July 17) on condition of anonymity.
This incident could be a potential issue for the Maldives’ fishing industry, which is known for its environmentally sustainable pole and line method, where no nets are allowed, preventing bycatch which makes it ‘dolphin safe’.
The source said he believed the dolphin must have died recently because there was no foul odor coming from the body at the time it was discovered.
A white object in the dolphin’s mouth was a piece of coral probably put there by small children that had been playing near the body, the source explained.
The source noted that “not a lot” of fishing boats are seen off the coast of Hoadedhdhoo. However, large pods of dolphins have been observed in the channel slightly north of Hoadedhdhoo.
About five or six years ago a small dolphin was found dead on the same side of the island, however it did not appear to have sustained any injuries, another Hoadedhdhoo resident told Minivan News on condition of anonymity.
Dolphins essential for Maldives’ ecosystem
Following the reported incident, Minivan News contacted the Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) to determine the species and age of the dead dolphin.
“From the characteristics of its body shape and erect dorsal fin, it appears to be a common spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris). They can be easily identified by a long slender beak with a black tip and black lips, while their bodies are mainly grey with three toned coloration,” MRC Assistant Research Officer Mariam Shidha told Minivan News today.
While it was difficult to determine the exact size of the deceased dolphin based on the photographs, it is “most likely to be an adult”, since adults range between 1.8 – 2.1 meters in size, while they mature at the size of 1.5 – 1.7 meters, explained Shidha.
“Dolphins are important to our ecosystem because they are apex (top level) predators which control the populations of fishes and squids to keep it all balanced,” Shidha emphasised.
She explained that stranding of cetacean species – a such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises – “do not happen that often” in Maldivian waters; at most two to three per year are reported.
“[Moreover,] in the Maldives its a very rare thing for a dolphin to be injured by a fishermen since they are not a bycatch of pole and line fisheries,” she said. “However, in the Pacific Ocean, fishermen sometimes purposefully catch dolphins as they use other [unsustainable] fishing methods in order to get to the yellowfin tunas that swim underneath dolphins.”
“The MRC has had no reports of such deliberate acts of abuse or harm to dolphins [in the Maldives],” said Shidha. However, any incidents of people harming dolphins or strandings should be reported to the MRC.
All dolphins and whales are protected under the Maldivian Law and almost all the species of dolphins found in Maldivian waters are listed in the IUCN’s red list of threatened species, noted Shidha.
The MRC is working to raise awareness about why dolphins are essential for the environment in the Maldives.
“We are educating the public on the importance of protecting these charismatic fauna which are so important for the functioning of the ecosystem,” emphasised Shidha. “Also we have held a Cetacean Symposium and outreach programs for school children.”
“When we find a [stranded] dolphin it’s important to know how it happened. However, I don’t know how we can investigate [in this case],” Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Ahmed Shafeeu told Minivan News today.
“The type of pole and line fishing we have [in the Maldives] is done in a way that doesn’t harm dolphins,” said Shafeeu. “We have not had reports of dolphins being caught, it’s very unlikely.”
“Although an accident or something can happen, in that case the dolphin should be released immediately,” he emphasised. “Catching dolphins in any way [intentional or unintentional] is not allowed by law.”
“Sometimes dolphins are found washed up on the shore [of an island]. In those cases the incident should be reported to the local island council,” explained Shafeeu. “[But] there is no specific regulation that requires island councils to report to national offices if an animal is found.”
“However, if there are concerns of malpractice or someone is known to be deliberately hurting an animal, then it should be reported [to the relevant authorities beyond the island level],” he added.
Environmentally-friendly, sustainable pole and line fishing allows Maldives’ tuna to be certified as ‘dolphin safe’, enabling it to be sold as a “premium” product for the European and US markets.
The ‘dolphin safe’ certification is provided by the Earth Island Institute (EII), an international non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Earlier this year EII Associate Director Mark Berman explained to Minivan News that EII’s ‘dolphin safe’ policy requires that “no tuna company will deal in sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales, or their products. All efforts to minimise bycatch of these species is mandatory”.
“That Dolphin Safe standard is respected all over the world”, Dolphin Safe program Associate Director Mark Berman told Minivan News at the time. “Major tuna importing nations will not buy tuna from governments that harm dolphins.”
According to the EII website, the companies licensed with the dolphin-safe label must meet the following criteria:
No intentional chasing, netting or encirclement of dolphins during an entire tuna fishing trip;
No use of drift gill nets to catch tuna;
No accidental killing or serious injury to any dolphins during net sets;
No mixing of dolphin-safe and dolphin-deadly tuna in individual boat wells (for accidental kill of dolphins), or in processing or storage facilities;
Each trip in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) by vessels 400 gross tons and above must have an independent observer on board attesting to the compliance with points (1) through (4) above
Improvements must be made to traditional pole-and-line fishing fisheries practices to ensure the fast-growing demand for this kind of tuna can be met sustainably, founding member of the International Pole & Line Foundation (IPNLF) Dr Shiham Adam has told global seafood industry website Fish Information & Services (FIS).
Also the Director General of the Marine Research Centre in the Maldives, Adam spoke at the INFOFISH World Tuna and Trade Conference in Bangkok this week. He highlighted that pole-and-line tuna fishing is vital to many disadvantaged rural areas because it alleviates poverty within fishing communities.
In the Maldives, 30,000 people – a large percentage of the working population – are employed by the tuna industry. The average monthly income is about US$900 compared to the country’s minimum wage of around US$250, he said.
“We will channel our resources to support pole-and-line fisheries to get market access, improve post harvest and quality control, and eventually increase environmental performance of these fisheries so that they may qualify to be sustainably and environmentally certified,” Adam said.
While the livelihood of many pole-and-line fishers is currently in jeopardy, IPNLF has identified that end markets can help, so the Foundation is encouraging buyers to put into practice long-term contracts, facilitate capacity building, knowledge and business literacy transfer.
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.”