In seafood circles, the Maldives is heralded as one of the world’s most-important tuna-fishing nations, an acknowledgement proudly welcomed by Maldivians. But what isn’t so apparent to most non-natives is just how vital tuna is to the island nation. Its 2,000-year history is literally built on catching these universally-prized fish. Moreover, it’s been doing this in pretty much the same way down through the centuries – one-by-one. Essentially, one fisher, using one fishing line, catching one fish at a time.
Its fisheries laws prohibit purse-seining, gillnets, trawl nets, or any other form of commercial fishing that uses a net. At the same time, the country’s exclusive economic zone isn’t leased to other nations and it has a strict policy of not licensing foreign fishing vessels.
Furthermore, as has always been the custom in the country, each local fisherman receives an equal share of the total catch first-sale value. Even the “dhonis” (fishing boats) are built on the same design principles as they were by the forefathers of today’s fishermen, although the traditional raw materials of coconut palms have been replaced with fiberglass.
“Tuna fishing was our mainstay until tourism came to the Maldives in the late 1970s. Until then, it was literally our sustenance. And so today, whole island communities continue to revolve around fishing, because we remain fishing communities at heart,” the Maldives High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Farah Faizal told SeafoodSource.
Now though, and through no fault of the sector, Maldivian tuna is probably facing the most challenging period in its rich history, she said. One of the main reasons for this is that while it continues to try and go about its business in the most responsible manner possible, it’s not seeing these inherent values acknowledged in the market, let alone rewarded. In fact, it might easily be argued that its principles have put it at a distinct disadvantage.
The Maldives’ tuna catching methods of pole-and-line for skipjack and handline for yellowfin are considered highly responsible and sustainable – resulting in very little bycatch, and inflicting minimal detrimental impact on marine ecosystems. It’s also generally accepted that the same can’t be said for some of the purse-seiners and longliners that are being operated by neighboring states and distant-water fleets on the same resource. Also, Maldivians frequently hear that consumers in many markets around the world are highly engaged with the food products they are buying, and want assurances that everything is in order within supply chains.
Nevertheless, they’ve found there still doesn’t seem to be the same level of scrutiny when it comes to tuna, according to Faizal.
“Only pole-and-line and handline are one-by-one; longline isn’t. And now companies are using the term ‘hook and line,’ which isn’t one-by-one either. But shoppers see it as the same sustainable way,” Faizal said.
In the Maldives, fishers are not realizing the benefits of the care they are taking with their one-by-one fishing techniques. Some are pushing for the government to permit alternative methods of fishing. For the government, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify a one-by-one only approach, Faizal said.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, they wouldn’t know what the other countries were doing or how they were selling their fish, but in this connected age, everyone knows what others are doing,” she said. “Our fishers know they are doing the right thing. That’s because in the Maldives, all children at [the] secondary education level are taught marine science, focusing on protection of the oceans, marine stewardship, etcetera, but if they’re providing for families, such frustrations are understandable.”
Nonetheless, such a shift would go against the longstanding fishing culture of the island nation, Faizal said.
“This is a culture that’s existed for 2,000 years, so it would be a shame if people were to say, ‘one-by-one fishing isn’t profitable, let’s do something else,’” she said. “It would mean losing part of our heritage.”
Making matters worse, the Maldives’ tuna industry now finds itself being let down by the government of one of its key markets – the United Kingdom. Following Britain’s departure from the European Union, which was finalized on 31 December, 2020, Maldivian exporters found themselves imposed with a tariff of 20 percent in the U.K. market.
For a nation with six different words for the sea, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, Faizal said.
“It’s is something we have been fighting to get rid of ever since,” Faizal said, stressing that it poses a “significant barrier” for Maldivian tuna.
The Maldives rejoined the U.K. Commonwealth in February 2020. It also co-champions the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group on Sustainable Coastal Fisheries. But it is the only small island development state (SIDS) on which the United Kingdom imposes an import tariff. All the other Commonwealth SIDS have zero tariffs on their tuna exports on the basis that they are either part of a trading bloc or they have a specific economic partnership agreements (EPAs) with the United Kingdom, Faizal said.
“The main reason for the tax, and I do empathize with the U.K., is it just rolled over the deals that it had through the E.U. And because we are a small country, and not part of a big trading bloc like CARIFORUM, we got ignored. It’s as simple as that,” she said. “When I raised the issue with the U.K. government and other decision-makers, I was told by almost every person that I spoke with that it was an anomaly; that it shouldn’t have happened.”
Faizal said the Maldives is hoping the U.K. correct the problem soon.
“Let’s be clear, we’re not asking for something special; we are simply asking to be treated the same as the other small island states in the Commonwealth,” she said. “As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, it’s time to walk the talk. Trade Minister Lord Grimstone of Boscabel recently said in the House of Lords that the U.K. is going to source from sustainable producers in its trade. And here is one of the most sustainable products that you can think of and they are still slapping a 20 percent tax on it. Countries that produce sustainable products shouldn’t be penalized; they should be supported. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening at the moment – they are penalizing us for fishing sustainably, while fishers from other countries, using less-sustainable methods, are not being taxed. That’s certainly what it looks like from the perspective of the Maldives, and especially Maldivian fishermen.”
The timing of the tax couldn’t have been worse, Faizal aids. Like many countries, the Maldives imposed a strict lockdown to help deal with the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. While necessary, the move, and the closure of its borders between March and July 2020, brought an immediate stop to the nation’s booming tourism industry.
“Lockdown saw us go very quickly from a middle-income country – doing very well on the tourism front – to an almost zero-income country,” she said.
From supporting the livelihoods of around 30 percent of the nation’s population, Maldives’ tuna immediately became the sole foreign exchange contributor to the economy.
“Things are picking up again now, but when our borders were closed, we realized that the only thing we had was our fish. We had probably been so dazzled by the success of our tourism that we lost sight of what had really been sustaining the Maldives for 2,000 years,” she said. “Also, when it comes to tourism, we are talking about international hotel groups, but when it comes to fishing, these are Maldivian communities and Maldivian people who are affected the most. Fishing is our lifeblood, not tourism. If the U.K. was to drop its tariffs tomorrow, it would reach the people that really need it – the Maldivian fishermen, whereas if the U.K. was to allow travel to the Maldives, it would only reach a few big companies.”
Unfortunately, the realization of tuna’s importance came at the same time as Europe’s restaurant and catering sectors were forced to close, Faizal said.
“This certainly didn’t help,” Faizal said. “We saw the fresh fish market disappear almost overnight, with just M&S, Waitrose, and a few other retailers left stocking our fresh tuna. It was clear that we had to do something; we had to act. And that was about the time that the United Kingdom imposed the taxes on us. Whatever could go wrong, went wrong.”
Reversing yellowfin decline
While the lobbying of the U.K. government to address the tariff continues, with some support coming from the U.K.’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), the Maldives also has a vested interest in the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) meeting, taking place on from 7 to 11 June.
The plight of overfished Indian Ocean yellowfin is a huge concern for the country, Faizal said. Despite a rebuilding plan having being in place since 2016, overall catches in the region have continued to rise. The Maldives has been advocating for the implementation of new catch reductions, saying that they are essential to rebuilding the stock to a sustainable level.
“Indian Ocean yellowfin is a massive issue for all coastal states, and the Maldives take this responsibility to rebuild the stock very seriously. For the last five years, we have underfished our quota amid concerns about its vulnerability,” Faizal said. “In March this year, we took a proposal to reduce the catch by 14 percent to the table, but the IOTC also comprises some very large and powerful distant-water fishing fleets that take a lot of the fish, and so we didn’t reach an agreement.”
The E.U., which takes the most yellowfin from the region – some 70,000 metric tons (MT) – was proposing a reduction of just 6 percent. Meanwhile, the Global Tuna Alliance (GTA) is calling for a 20 percent cut.
“This time around, we’ve got the support of Greenpeace and other NGOs who are also concerned about the tuna stocks, and so I believe there may be another chance of negotiating the agreement,” Faizal said.
Photo courtesy of Farah Faizal