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The health of the fishery industry is critical for food security of the nation

Ahmed Shafiu

This article is published in and is part of our Vol 1. Issue 4 Journal with a special focus on Food Security - Editors

Fishing is the life blood of the Maldives from times past where our forefathers travelled the seas using thatched coconut palms as sails. Until the advent of the tourism industry, dried and preserved fish were the main export item that earned the foreign currency to purchase basic staples, medicine and other essentials. During the late 70’s with assistance from the Japanese government, local boats were mechanised opening up greater horizons for fishermen to explore.

Maldivians used to live and thrive almost exclusively on protein from fishery landings in the past, and even though there are imported protein sources today, fishery landings are still the main source of protein for close to 400,000 Maldivians 200,000, expatriates and 1.7 million tourists who visited us last year.

Even while the tourism industry that started in the early 1970s has gained in importance and is the main employer and the biggest GDP contributor today, there are even today more than 700 fishing vessels providing the livelihood of more than 17,000 fishermen and their families.

As tourism, including local tourism with guest houses has expanded into all atolls, with the number of beds in the guest house segment increasing sharply, it is a worrying sign that, slowly the number of fishing vessels and the number of fisherfolk seem to be declining.

Harvesting effort

The effort required to harvest fishery landings are becoming increasingly more expensive and more time consuming. While we know that fisherfolk of yesterday returned home daily with their catch, even while sailing with wind power alone, today the fish schools are farther afield, and fishing has become a more complex and more expensive process.

1. Time taken: A day’s travel or more is now essential to seek a good skipjack school and only the fish aggregating devices allow for daily landings of skipjack. Yellow-fin tuna fishermen now take journeys lasting close to a week before they have a substantial harvest to sell.

2. Ice as an obligatory item: Today it is not only the yellow fin fishery that require ice before they can sail out in search of harvest, but the skipjack processors too, demand that fish be kept in ice. Therefore, the search and purchase of ice has become a pre-requirement and an additional cost and effort for the fishery industry as a whole.

3. Availability of bait: Bait which used to be plentiful has become really scarce in most atolls and seasonally available. Use of large powerful lights to attract bait, has resulted in unsustainable bait capture methods that damage the tiniest micro hatchlings thereby destroying the potential of future bait capture from the area. Additionally, in some seasons fishermen have had to take multi-day voyages across the length of the country to access bait before they can depart for fishing, making the exercise exorbitantly more expensive.

4. Other fishery varieties like reef fishes, sea cucumbers have also been unsustainably harvested and fishermen are having to spend more time, effort and extra expenses to harvest time.

5. The nature of Maldivian geography, groups of islands clustered into atolls, has always meant that travel between islands and across atolls have been expensive and time consuming. The need today to travel for ice, travel for bait and travel to sell to processing sites have, as a measure by itself, also increased costs, increased time away from families and made fishing a more complex affair.

Fishery industry and COVID-19

With the onslaught of COVID-19, the fishery effort has been one of the hardest hit. The close-down of European restaurants resulted in severe curtailing of demand volumes, unfortunately during a good fishing season. The close-down of airports and suspension of flights meant that the small amounts being ordered too, could not be exported.

While the government organised funds to enable buyers to continue purchasing, fishermen had to queue up for days to enable processors to make space in their processing plants to enable additional purchases.

Areas of concern

Competitive pressure, limitations in purchasing and other factors that have come into play over the last decade and more have resulted in larger dhonis with bigger engines which of course result in higher expenses.

At the same time, many smaller dhonis have left the industry and have been decommissioned or converted to be used in the tourism industry for diving and safari use.

Yet, with the limitations on the major processors on volumes they can purchase, today’s dhonis with bigger engines are finding it unfeasible to make the trip to sell lesser volumes.

While fish is the essential item for each local household and no menu item is complete without inclusion of fish, the prices at which the fish required for home consumption are naturally lower.

Also, there are smaller island-based processing plants processing dried fish and other varieties including the famous rihaakuru. Yet the total buying power on any one island or a couple of islands combined is limited and they also offer a lower price for their purchases.

Therefore, without the larger purchasing capacity of the major processors, fishermen are finding it difficult to meet the daily expenses of the trip.

Therefore, it is a welcome sign that fishermen by themselves are slowly starting to use smaller vessels, to go fishing. Fishermen from islands who were at the forefront of increasing dhoni sizes, are today increasingly preferring to go on smaller, less expensive vessels. Instead of plying the high seas on search of larger schools, they target the fish aggregating devices and return at sunset. This means that the fishery effort is less expensive and therefore reach breakeven easier with the lower fish prices available in the islands.

Fishery and food security

Fish is an essential item and the major protein source in the Maldivian diet. Year-round availability of fish is critical for the Maldivian way of life, and hence it is an essential item in the list of items that constitute food security for the Maldivians.

Therefore, in order to design a viable food security model for the Maldives, it must take into account a method and modality to allow fishermen to continue to go fishing and land their harvest on islands. For without fishery landings, the major protein source on the Maldivian dinner table will be lost.

About the author

Ahmed Shafiu is the President and Founder of Dhivehi Masverin (Maldives Fishermen), registered in February 2018 as a non-government organisation in the Maldives with its major aim to promote pole and line fishing and other sustainable and related fishery activities in the Maldives. The Association works to create awareness in the community and especially encourage youth to be a part of the industry for sustainable pole and line fishery. Dhivehi Masverin also works to educate fishermen of the latest technology to increase their productivity.

Shafiu completed a Master of Educational Leadership Skills and Management course and served as a teacher from 2013-2017. Since 2018 he has been a full time fishermen while simultaneously working to promote Dhivehi Masverin and doing research in the various facets of the industry.

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