Environment Minister Dr Mariyam Shakeela has announced plans to develop a cooling system at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) that will make use of seawater to reduce reliance on fossil fuels at the site, according to local media.
“We can try to create energy with seawater and use it to cool places. We are looking to cool the entire airport using water taken from around 1,000 metres below the surface of the sea in the near future,” she was quoted as saying by local newspaper Haveeru during a ceremony held yesterday (July 23).
Speaking at the event, Dr Shakeela reportedly highlighted the importance of enhancing the use of renewable energy in the Maldives, while also identifying a lack of “positive response” from state institutions in curbing use of fossil fuels or adopting alternative technologies like solar and wind energy.
The announcement was made after participants in attendance at the Maldives International Renewable Energy Investors Conference last month claimed political instability was presently a major concern hampering foreign investment in the sector.
The two day event, which concluded on June 17, aimed to facilitate long-term partnerships between international investors, project developers, energy companies and utilities groups in order to enable successful renewable energy projects throughout the Maldives.
As the Maldives moves ahead with plans to transform itself into the world’s largest marine reserve by 2017, the country’s first Marine National Park (MNP) in Noonu Atoll has yet to receive land the government agreed would be set aside for the project back in 2011.
The Edu Faru MNP was established during the previous government through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Environment Ministry back in 2011 in order to protect nine islets in Noonu Atoll that would be kept in a “pristine” state and undeveloped for future research.
However, almost two years since the Maldives agreed to establish the MNP and a non-profit foundation to run the site, a private partner on the project has raised concerns that both the present and former administrations were yet to move ahead on the MNP.
Mohamed Hameed, Promoter of the non-profit Edu Faru MNP project, has said that despite receiving vocal support of both President Dr Mohamed Waheed and former President Mohamed Nasheed, both their administrations has so far failed to approve vital paperwork on the project.
Hameed, who conceived the MNP based around international models of marine reserves such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or the Kosterhavet National Park in Sweden, said he had continued to struggle to obtain approval for the foundation charged with running the park.
“[The] government is a major stakeholder in the foundation that will run the Marine National Park (MNP) as a non-profit organisation… but it is yet to approve the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the foundation. The foundation has not been registered,” he explained.
“Following the registration of the foundation, government is to hand over the entire site of the MNP, including its surrounding waters, to the foundation under an agreement.”
Hameed said that although the present and former governments had received all the required paperwork and files, he did not believe that any decision or progress would be made on approving the foundation to run the MNP before the presidential election scheduled for September this year.
By the end of the current year, the management of the MNP, which presently works on a voluntary basis, has targeted reaching an agreement with the state on the park’s boundaries. Under guidelines set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the park requires an area of land of at least 1,000 hectares.
With these boundaries in place, the MNP’s management has said it will then aim to secure grants from groups like the world bank as well as international donors, NGOs and the country’s tourism ministry to try and establish research centres and an underwater observatory for both the public and scientists to study at.
Aside from the opportunities for research, Hameed said that strictly regulated fishing and tourism expeditions would also be allowed in the area, although travel in the park would have to be conducted on non-motorised, traditional dhoni vessels.
Money raised through these ventures would be used to help run the park and provide research and training programmes.
Despite the restrictions on the use of the proposed MNP site, Hameed said both the public and Noonu Atoll Council had lent support to the project.
He added that while there was a local understanding of the need for national conservation through projects like the MNP, it remained important to educate and create awareness among the public, as well as the international community about the sensitive nature of the Maldives environment.
Hameed therefore said he welcomed the government’s wider commitments in trying to transform the Maldives into a national biosphere reserve.
Despite welcoming the idea of the project, Hameed has expressed some reservations about the state’s ability to plan and execute such an ambitious conservation strategy. He raised particular concerns about what he claims was the lack of a holistic legal framework outlining environmental protection in the nation.
A number of stakeholders working in the environmental sector last month expressed concern about a perceived lack of enforcement and legislative framework to protect biodiversity and conservation areas nationally.
Ali Rilwan, Executive Director for local NGO BluePeace, claimed at the time that a lack of national enforcement mechanisms continued to setback and limit the effectiveness of national parks and biosphere projects in the country.
He claimed that without such regulation, marine reserves and other conservation zones currently established in the country were operating more as “paper parks” than designated protected areas.
State conservation commitments
The Environment Ministry earlier in June announced the formation of an Environmental Police Unit that would see 22 trained officers with the aim of investigating and punish violations of laws relating to biodiversity and littering.
As well as establishing the Environmental Police Unit, the ministry has continued to call for expressions of interest from atolls wishing to be part of its national marine reserve transformation plan set for 2017.
Muhusina Abdul Rahman, an analyst for the Ministry of Environment and Energy, told Minivan News that authorities were seeking 10 atolls to be unveiled in 2017 as being part of its national marine reserve.
Within each of these ten atolls, the government has pledged to designate three different types of zones that would be exclusively separated into conservation, buffers areas and “transition” land free to be developed for industrial and other commercial purposes.
Rahman said that the ministry was now moving ahead with feasibility studies in the nominated atolls to see conduct a detailed assessment of communities best suited to being included in the reserve.
She claimed that the ministry hoped to identify the first two atolls that will make up the national biosphere reserve by year end, but said these areas would not be unveiled until all ten were officially announced in 2017.
Rahman mantained that the Edu Faru MNP would compliment the state’s biosphere reserve scheme along aside other high-profile conservation areas such as Baa Atoll, which was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2011.
One resort general manager based in Baa Atoll said earlier this year that the despite the area being classified as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, there had been no changes on its operations, despite claims from authorities about the significant marketing potential.
“There are a lot of conservation organisations here with opinions on how to manage the site, but it’s taking a long time to reach agreements. I have myself expressed concerns that it is taking too long to devise how the areas should be used,” the resort head said back in January.
The government will “not completely” reverse the former government’s carbon neutral policies outlined by President Mohamed Nasheed during his three years in office, the President’s Office has said.
President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza told Minivan News the government was this week expecting to unveil details of a new environmental strategy for the nation. Riza claimed this strategy would seek to play up national debate about sustainable practices at both an island and national level.
Riza’s comments were made as the government this month launches a number of environment-themed events to coincide with the Rio+20 sustainable development summit that is taking place in Brazil between June 20 and June 22.
Meanwhile, former President Mohamed Nasheed, who maintains he was removed from office in February under a “coup d’etat”, claimed it would be “impossible” for the present government to outline sustainable development strategies unless it had the stability of a democratic mandate.
Abbas however maintained that President Waheed would “not totally reverse” Nasheed’s environmental commitments towards carbon neutral policies.
“In the next 24 hours or so we will hope to be unveil more details of our new strategy. We will not be enacting a 180 degree change in direction to the previous government’s zero carbon strategy,” he claimed. “What we are aiming to do is to elaborate more on individual sustainable issues and subject them to national debate. Previously, these discussions on sustainability were not subjected to a national debate, such as through parliament.”
The former government conducted a number of high-profile exercises in a bid to raise the profile of its efforts to secure funding and assistance to make the country carbon neutral by 2020, such as the now internationally famous underwater cabinet meeting.
Riza added that the government was looking to establish new laws and regulations to safeguard nationwide sustainable commitments. There had been “very little” debate on environmental policy in parliament during Nasheed’s presidency, Riza said.
The Rio +20 Conference taking place later this month aims to bring together world leaders, NGOs and private sector representatives to outline new directions for political commitments on overcoming the challenges setting back sustainable development.
According to the Maldives government, the conference will focus on bolstering green economies to relieve poverty, as well as improving coordination between various international bodies and national authorities.
In the lead up to the event, the Maldives has launched a new social media service on Facebook, the Future of Maldives Sustainable Development, which details work presently being conducted by authorities towards eco-friendly commitments.
In the next few weeks, a number of sustainability themed events will be held around the country. These include a no-vehicle day in Male’, which will see non-emergency traffic banned from the capital’s roads for several hours next Tuesday (June 12), a renewable energy exchange at schools, and the launch of a Climate Change Trust Fund.
During his inaugural address in March, President Waheed claimed that like former President Nasheed, he would remain an internationally outspoken proponent on the plight of small nations facing the destructive impacts of climate change.
“The government will encourage the voice of small island nations to be heard in the global arena with regard to climate change,” stated the president. “The Maldives will always participate in voicing the concerns of small island nations.”
The president was heckled on multiple occasions whilst trying to give his constitutionally mandated address to parliament by MPs of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which continues challenge the legitimacy of Dr Waheed’s government and demand early elections.
Waheed eventually delivered a truncated speech in April during a rescheduled Majlis session, amid loud protests in the parliament chamber and violent clashes between civilians and police in the capital.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed has meanwhile remained an outspoken advocate for the Maldives’ efforts to adopt wide-scale carbon neutral practices.
In an interview prior to the screening of the Island President at the Hay Festival in the UK, the former president said the lack of a stable government in the Maldives would set back efforts to promote its sustainable policies and interests internationally.
“It is going to be very difficult for us to adapt to climate change if we do not have a solid and secure democratic government,” Nasheed told the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper.
In the months following his controversial resignation, Nasheed visited the US to raise awareness on the current political upheaval in the country, as well the documentary film, “The Island President” in a tour that saw him appearing on prime time TV and at talks across the country.
The documentary film chronicles his government’s ambitious pledge to become a carbon neutral nation by 2020, and has received increased global coverage since Nasheed was removed from office.
Speaking to Conde Nast Traveler to promote the film at the time, Nasheed expressed hope that the country would continue to work towards becoming carbon neutral, even as he challenged the legitimacy of Dr Waheed’s government.
“We were making real progress. I hope the government will continue our policies. But you can’t have good policies without democracy. And you won’t address the climate change crisis without good policies,” Nasheed told journalist Dorinda Elliott. “All democratic movements must talk about both climate change and human rights.”
In March, local environmental NGO Bluepeace claimed that ongoing political uncertainty in the country and questions over the legitimacy of the current government had set back the country’s commitments to sustainable development.
Bluepeace Director Ahmed Ikram said discussions on domestic environmental commitments were being sidelined by increasingly partisan political thinking throughout the country.
Ikram claimed that the national media was also not providing much coverage or promotion to climate change adoption in the Maldives. He alleged this was in part due to sections of the media favouring the former president’s political opponents, reflecting the politicisation of environmental commitments.
“We support [former] President Nasheed. Yes there are times when we may have disagreed with his policies, but we still supported him as our president,” said Ikram. “What we are experiencing today – with Maldivian businesses making use of solar panels – are the benefits of Nasheed’s work on the environment.”
Despite his personal criticisms of the current government and the long-term prospects for democracy in the country, Ikram said Bluepeace fully supported the present government’s role in supporting projects such as the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Earth Hour initiative.
Asked if he felt that Maldivians were committed to long-term conservation beyond one-off annual events such as Earth Hour, Ikram said the Maldivian public were generally committed in adapting to climate change.
“I believe that the Maldivian people are the ones who will serve as climate change champions in the end,” he said.
Despite Nasheed’s high-profile climate activism, Greenpeace in 2010 told Minivan News that the Maldives acted more “as a symbol than a practical demonstration” of how national development and fighting climate change can be mutually exclusive.
“The Maldives can become a strong proponent of a paradigm shift in the World Bank and in developing countries whereby it is recognised that fighting climate change and promoting development go hand in hand,” said Wendel Trio, Climate Policy and Global Deal Coordinator for Greenpeace International.
The Maldives has pledged to attract 10,000 Malaysian visitors annually by 2014 through focusing on the potential of initiatives like sustainable tourism, according to local media.
Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal told Malaysian media during the 2012 World Islamic Tourism Mart based in the country, that as the Maldives continued to try and address climate change issues at island level, local resort operators had been pursuing more eco-friendly operations.
Maleeh told Malaysia-based newspaper the Sun Daily that when considering the potential partnerships between the two destinations for sustainable tourism, some 6,555 Malaysian holidaymakers already visited the Maldives over the course of last year. He added that 1,700 visitors from the country had arrived during the first four months of 2012.
Maleeh claimed that with a growing importance attached to Asian visitors coming to the Maldives, local people working in the travel industry had also begun to better acquaint themselves with Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages and cultural practices.
“The number of Chinese tourists, including Malaysian Chinese, to the Maldives is expected to set a new high in 2012. We see them as an important market,” he told the newspaper.
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.
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.”