This article is part of Covid 19: Stimuli and Beyond edition of the Journal of the Maldives Economic Review, Volume 1, Issue 3, March 2020
COVID-19 is a global pandemic of unprecedented magnitude. Already most of the countries of the world have been affected. As of this writing the Maldives too has a few confirmed cases. In spite of the timely preventive measures taken by the government to avoid the spread of the virus in the country, the World Bank has already said that the Maldives will be one of the worst affected countries, economically.
The fisheries sector being one of the most important sectors of the Maldivian economy, and one of the highest foreign exchange earners of the country, this article proposes some ways in which the sector can be sustained at existing levels, until the world can overcome the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Maldives can resume normality.
The reality is that the robust global market for fishery products will no longer be there for some time, hence, the local fishery industry which has been relying very much on the said market will be badly affected. But, fish is good nutrition and everyone needs fish. So, this is the time to closely look at the development of the internal market for fishery products. Although, Maldives is famous for her fisheries, there are many islands in the country without a single fishing vessel, and fish is quite dear to the inhabitants of the islands.
Maldives has been relying heavily on imported poultry, beef and meat products for its daily nutrition needs. But soon these commodities will not be easily available in global markets and there will be difficulties to import them. Therefore to supplement the forecast shortage, government, fishery companies and retailers in the islands need to work together to introduce different fish products to the islands in different forms of packing. Perhaps, the retailers on the islands could be supported with different sizes of reefer containers to preserve their stock of fishery products. They could also be given cash flow support to buy fish, until such time the market stabilizes and begins to function profitably.
Already there is a fairly well developed and privately owned transport link carrying passengers and cargo mainly between Male and the Islands, and sometimes between islands. What needs to be done now is to find out how this link could be upgraded to carry fishery products between producers and markets, the inhabited islands and perhaps the tourist resorts of the country. Additional investments will be needed, and vessel owners need to be supported financially to make these investments.
An important issue that needs to be highlighted is the issue of fish waste. Wherever fish is purchased and processed, at this point in time, be it a local island, a fish market, or a fish factory, more than around fifty percent of the fish is thrown as waste. Even in normal times, this is a heavy economic loss, and it would be prudent at this crucial time, to equip all processing points with adequate equipment to process fish waste, to be used subsequently as fertilizer, chicken feed etc.
Steps should also be taken to maintain the fishing effort of the country at or near existing levels. Government has already announced a financial package amounting to MVR 100.00 million to support fishing companies to go on purchasing fish. This is one side of the story, and the fishing boat owners also need to be given financial support to do needed day to day repairs on their fishing vessels, pay for their fuel bills and purchase of fishing gear such as poles and fishing lines, hooks, etc.
In the past the fishing effort of the South has always been greater than that of the North mainly because the South has somehow been able to acquire more fishing vessels than the North. Perhaps this is the time for the government to support the building of a few more fishing vessels to ensure that the fishing effort of the North and South are balanced. This will lead to the establishment of more processing facilities, not necessarily high end, but even small-scale facilities to make dried fish in the North, and generally give a boost to the growth of an internal market for fisheries products.
Fisheries, and its sister industry agriculture have always stood firm in the country’s economic downturns, and come out stronger consequently. What needs to be done is build on this resilience, maintain fishing effort at existing levels, develop an internal market for fishery products, and plan to tap on the sector’s huge potential for sustainable growth, in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Abdullah Kamaludeen was in the administrative and political service of the country for the last 47 years, and served as Minister of Fisheries, Agriculture and Marine Resources among other cabinet portfolios