Fisheries ministry accepts need for regional collaboration in changing marketplace

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.”


Cabinet approves long line fishing for Maldivian vessels

The Cabinet has decided to open the opportunity for long line fishing of yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna for Maldivian vessels after discussing a paper submitted by the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture during their meeting last Tuesday.

Cabinet claimed allowing long line fishing will improve the fisheries sector, which has worsened significantly since 2006.

Senior Research Officer at the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, Hussein Sinan, said long line fishing is “far better for targeting yellowfin and bigeye tuna.”

Sinan said “there will be environmental impacts from any fishing method,” although there are “concerns for yellowfin stocks in the Indian Ocean.”

“There is a possibility the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission will introduce a quota system,” Sinan said, explaining that if they do implement a quota, the Maldives would have to regulate their catch more strictly.

He explained that the need to introduce long lining for yellowfin tuna was essential because it provides better income opportunities for fishermen.

“Look at the statistics. In 2005 the [Maldivian] fisheries industry caught 186,000 metric tonnes of fish. In 2008 it was 117,000 metric tonnes.”

Sinan added that long line fishing was “more sustainable” and it assured better quality of tuna for export.

“The pole-and-line process stresses the tuna, which causes them to produce lactic acid,” Sinan explained. “This makes it of lower quality.”

He said the Japanese market, one of the biggest fish consumers in the world, would only accept the highest quality tuna, and “for this reason long lining is better.”

“There are 22,000 fishermen in the Maldives,” Sinan said, “and the ministry wants more opportunities for them to catch fish. We need to protect their livelihoods.”

Sinan explained that larger vessels, those over 85 feet, “need to catch at least three metric tonnes a day, that is 3,000 kg of fish, otherwise their operation is working at a loss.”

He added that long line fishing vessels do not have to travel as far as pole and line vessels, lowering fuel costs.

Sinan said the government is planning a trial, which will decide whether or not long line fishing is beneficial for the Maldivian fisheries industry.

Environmental perspective

Minister for Housing, Transport and Environment, Mohamed Aslam, said long line fishing “is nothing new. It’s been going on for over ten years.”

He said “what’s happening now is the government has decided to terminate licenses for foreigners this April,” and only Maldivians on registered Maldivian vessels will be able to use long lining.

Allowing only Maldivians to use this method will make it “easier to regulate where they fish,” Aslam said, explaining that the vessels would be equipped with transponders and could be monitored and thus controlled.

He added that long line fishing would only be used to catch yellowfin and bigeye tuna, and traditional pole and line fishing would still be used for the country’s biggest tuna export, skipjack tuna.

Aslam said long lining for yellowfin tuna had been “sustainable so far” and “we only need to regulate it so stock doesn’t deplete.”

He noted that any banned by-catch, such as sharks, would “have to be thrown away. It will be wasted,” he said, adding that “every fishing method has potential of by-catch.”

Aslam thought the government’s initiative was “a good thing,” and noted that “long lining has never been prohibited for Maldivian fishermen. It has always been open,” but that most fishermen have not taken it up.

He noted that “in the current system, there are a lot of vessels that are losing money because there is not enough catch.”

Aslam said he hoped “the value of Maldivian fish will be raised” by international retailers such as Marks and Spencer in the UK, if it complies with sustainable methods.

“They buy fish from other fish-producing countries like Thailand, who don’t use pole and line fishing or dolphin friendly practices,” Aslam said.

Director of Environmental Protection and Research at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Ibrahim Naeem, said “it is obvious that long line fishing will definitely catch some un-targeted fishes, like sharks and turtles.”

He said although “Indian Ocean tuna stock is still in good shape,” there were both good and bad implications to long lining.

He said the EPA considered by-catch to be the biggest environmental impact of long line fishing.

“The good side is yellowfin tuna is not fished well in the Maldives. There are a lot of tuna just hanging around in our deep seas,” Naeem said, noting that long line fishing would increase the catch.

Naeem said the government had made this decision because the fishing industry is very poor right now, “and fishermen are idle on islands right now, so they want to explore other avenues.”

He didn’t think the initiative would have any negative impacts on the fishing industry as a whole, but thought that “fishermen will not go for long lining if there is fish near the surface.”

Fishing industry’s perspective

President of the Fishermen’s Union Ibrahim Manik said “fishermen don’t want to do long line fishing, but they have to do it to survive.”

He said one of the reasons many fishermen were against long line fishing was because many dolphins and sharks are affected.

“Since the 2004 tsunami, many deep ocean currents have changed and many sharks get caught in the lines,” Manik said, adding that the shifting currents also meant fishing boats had to travel longer distances to find fish.

“Most boats are doing 2-3 trips a month. And they have to travel far.”

“Some fishermen are doing long line fishing because they are not catching enough fish,” Manik said, but noted that most fishermen want to continue using the traditional pole-and-line fishing.

Manik said about 70 percent of fishermen rely on skipjack tuna, and the remaining 30 percent on yellowfin tuna, but “fishermen are financially short. They cannot survive these days.”

Because of the financial situation of the fishing industry, Manik said fishermen are starting to look at catching reef fish and bigeye tuna.

He mentioned fishing vessels as another problem. “We have good vessels here in Maldives,” he said, “but many of them are not using the technology. Boats with new technology have the advantage.”

Manik said a change to long line fishing would even bring a problem with marketing. “Everything is labelled as pole and line-caught tuna, and now government is advertising long line fishing,” which will bring problems from export partners, many of whom only want to buy sustainably-caught tuna.

He also said financing was a major issue. “Fishermen are getting 70 percent leases from the bank [for their vessels], but they are not getting enough fish and not paying the bank back. There is no development bank and also a very high interest rate.”

Manik said the Fishermen’s Union had asked the government to extend the period to pay back the money to the bank to ten years, but their request was rejected.

“Our economy is down and living standards are going down day by day.”

“In Himandhoo side some dhonis are only catching three yellowfin tuna a day. Fishermen are just trying to do something to get money.”

He said although they understand the government is trying to do something beneficial for the fishing industry,“the government is spending so much on other things like sport, but they are not spending anything on fishermen.”

“We have to wait. We are waiting for the day the government will do something for fishermen.”

International market

Minivan News contacted Marks and Spencer (M&S) in the UK, which confirmed that Maldives is their main supplier of tuna.

A company spokesperson said M&S had “strict policies” on how the tuna it sells is caught, and would be looking into the issue.

A recent story published in the UK Telegraph newspaper on M&S’s tuna imports from the Maldives revealed how much emphasis the company places on pole-and-line fishing methods, which it considers to be more ‘eco-friendly’.


Cabinet briefed on Hanimaadhoo international airport

Cabinet has been briefed briefed by the Privatisation Committee on additional proposals submitted by GMR Group of India to develop Hanimaadhoo airport as an international airport.

Chairman of the Privatisation Committee and Minister of Civil Aviation and Communication Mahmood Razee briefed the Cabinet on the issue.

Razee informed the Cabinet that GMR has proposed to develop the airport in two phases; the first phase overseeing the construction of a 2.8 km runway. The second phase would be started when there is sufficient air traffic.

Razzee said the international airport at Hanimadhoo could see 2.5 million passengers by 2025, provided that 12,000 beds in the tourism industry are operated in the region.