Following an extremely difficult two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maldives is seeking to restore its tuna exports to their pre-pandemic levels, according to Maldives Fisheries Minister Hussain Rasheed Hassan. Hassan told SeafoodSource he is hoping for a post-COVID turnaround for his nation’s tuna industry and explained how his country’s government is working to implement stronger controls over Indian Ocean fishing fleets to ensure the sustainability of the ocean’s tuna species, including a move to transform the G16 group of coastal states in the Indian Ocean into a driver of sustainability-focused policy.
SeafoodSource: How has the Maldives’ seafood sector been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Hassan: Much of our economy relies on tourism, but tourist arrivals just dropped and finally stopped at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. At that time, there was no practical employment apart from the government sector. But our fishermen still went fishing, and the reason is tuna fishing is not just for exports in the Maldives, it's also the main source of protein for us. But for us, the challenge was to our fresh yellowfin export business, because we lost most of our flights in and out of the country during the pandemic and the cost of shipping by air and also by sea freight went up astronomically. The cost of shipping a container of frozen tuna rose two, three, even six times. So this was really a very challenging situation, but despite all of that, our fishermen continued to go fishing and bring in fish, and because the employment was so critical, the government helped the industry to buy the fish by providing financing. And the industry faced a challenge in having to do new things with all that product, whether it was freezing the fish or turning it into canned tuna.
SeafoodSource: Are you seeing any recovery in 2022?
Hassan: We are just coming out of the pandemic. Tourism has picked back up. Fortunately, our COVID numbers have really gone down and most of the measures that were implemented to counter the spread or stop the spread of COVID have taken off and are now accepted as normal. But still, freight rates remain very high. As a result, the fishery sector remains badly affected. And there are new challenges, such as the Ukraine-Russia war, but we have managed to cope with those challenges. This shows the resilience of the Maldivian economy and the fisheries sector, but we at the same time remain very vulnerable because of the nature of our industries.
SeafoodSource: At the beginning of the pandemic, demand for seafood, especially canned seafood, skyrocketed. Was the Maldives able to take advantage of that at all? Or could exporters not get product out of the country?
Hassan: Yes, there was a surge in demand for canned products during the pandemic. And we exported a lot more canned tuna. But the biggest problem for us is our ongoing struggles to access the European market because we face higher tariffs and because people are buying bulk products, cheaper products. We produce premium products and on top of that, there's a higher tariff charge on Maldivian products. So products coming from Mauritius and the Seychelles are cheaper and more readily available in Europe. That prohibited us from taking any big advantage from the surge, but still our exports increased.
Tuna in the Indian Ocean is primarily caught using purse-seining, and purse-seine-caught tuna is cheaper, because each purse-seine vessel employs maybe 50 people and they can catch as much as say 100,000 tons a year. But in the Maldives, we have 750 vessels and we employ 17,000 people who fish via pole-and-line methods, which means tuna is caught one-by-one by hand. When cheap fish is dumped into the market, of course it's going to have an effect on premium products like ours, especially when we are faced with duties from the European Union. It's sad to say that you know, of all the developing countries and small island developing states, the Maldives is the only country in the Indian Ocean that is faced with such heavy duties to the European Union. We pay 18, 20, 22 percent on some products, which effectively means our products are more expensive and puts our products at a disadvantage. Right now, it is only environmentally concerned and conservation-minded people who are buying the premium product we sell, and ultimately, the price is what matters for most people.
SeafoodSource: Are there ongoing negotiations with the E.U. to reduce the tariffs?
Hassan: We are working with the European Union and other countries to get better access to their markets, but unfortunately today what we see is access to market is also somewhat linked to access to the tuna resource. We do not license anybody to catch tuna with nets in our waters – it's actually prohibited to catch a fish using nets in our country by law. So we're catching tuna very sustainably as we have for a millennium, and we've been coexisting sustainably with the ocean and the fishery for this long history.
But now we are seeing Indian Ocean albacore stocks and yellowfin tuna stocks declining to dangerous levels. We believe if we collectively fail to take remedial conservation actions, even skipjack stocks will have the same fate. So we are very worried about this, but tunas are not managed by one country alone, but rather through collective management via the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. But we have seen IOTC by and large fail to preserve the tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean. We are doing what we can to rectify the problem to ensure that our tuna stocks remain healthy, but ultimately, it depends on all the other members of the IOTC to implement conservation measures as well.
SeafoodSource: How do you persuade other countries to do things better and to get to a consensus to make change that will make the fishery sustainable long-term?
Hassan: In a nutshell, the interests of the countries involved in the IOTC differ. Some people want really short-term gains. But I think the way we are implementing the IOTC resolutions by unanimous consent does not work, because it just takes a few countries to say no for any advance to fail. So reforming IOTC is hugely important. Without reforming the IOTC, I don't think we can actually bring about the meaningful change in the Indian Ocean and save the fate of the tuna stocks. In addition, it's also important the coastal countries in the Indian Ocean work as a group to understand each other's interests and to recognize our differences and develop management strategies that allow as many countries to have their interests met by our management options. Then, if countries take informed decisions based on that kind of assessment, I think we'll be in a better position. We are making a call to formalize the G16 of Like-Minded Coastal States of the Indian Ocean into a formal coastal country agency that will formulate policies assessment which will inform better decision-making, like the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency in the South Pacific.
SeafoodSource: How hopeful are you for the future of the Maldives’ tuna industry?
Hassan: As I said, the Maldives is built around tuna and tourism. If we don't have sustainable fish stocks, we won't have a fishing fleet and we won’t have an economy that works the way it does now. We have no other resources that we can rely on. That’s why we are putting in so much concerted effort on tuna management. We've got no other option. So our strategy is actually perseverance to bring about the change we need. I think the answer is we have no choice but to be optimistic.
As I said before, tunas are very, very important for food security purposes as well as trade. Tuna is a way of life as well for us. We eat it in the morning for breakfast. We have a tuna for lunch as well, and in a curry with for dinner as well. So for our lives and our employment, we're not going to give up. I don't think we are ever going to give up on our tuna fishery.
Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource