The Tuna Ques­tion

Since the tuna fish is key to the econ­omy of the Mal­dives, fish­ing meth­ods need to be ra­tio­nal­ized to main­tain a work­able bal­ance.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Am­ber An­war The writer holds a B.A. in Mar­ket­ing. She cov­ers topics of rel­e­vant pro­fes­sional in­ter­est.

The de­plet­ing stock of tuna fish is a mat­ter of grave con­cern for the Mal­dive peo­ple.

Tuna steaks, tuna sal­ads or ready-to-eat canned tuna – what­ever your choice is, tuna is scrump­tious in all forms and car­ries a high nutritional value. No doubt it tops the list of the world’s fa­vorite sea food. But its high con­sump­tion rate begs a ques­tion: for how long will the peo­ple be able to in­clude tuna in their meals?

Spread over a part of the In­dian Ocean, the Mal­dives is sur­rounded by in­cred­i­ble ma­rine life and is home to all kinds of tuna species – Skip­jack, Yel­lowfin, Big­eye, Al­ba­core and Bluefin, to name a few. The Skip­jack and Yel­lowfin are found in great quan­ti­ties in the ocean sur­round­ing the atolls. Tuna fish­ing is the lifeblood of the coun­try with around 70 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion em­ployed in the fish­ing in­dus­try. Sec­ond to tourism, fish­ing is the largest in­dus­try in the Mal­dives that ben­e­fits the cit­i­zens and the coun­try as a whole.

For many gen­er­a­tions now, the Mal­di­vians have counted on life be­neath the ocean for earn­ing their liveli­hood. The three ma­jor tuna pro­cess­ing plants set up on the sandy is­lands pro­vide em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties to many lo­cals. Tuna is the na­tion’s pri­mary ex­port that con­trib­utes sig­nif­i­cantly to the coun­try’s eco­nomic sta­bil­ity and growth.

Since tuna fish­ing is the ma­jor – and in some cases the only – source of sus­te­nance for many, the de­creas­ing num­bers of the salt­wa­ter fish that was once found in abun­dance is a mat­ter of grave con­cern.

For cen­turies, the peo­ple of the Mal­dives have used the tra­di­tional pole-and-line method for catch­ing tuna. The method is quite sim­ple: a hooked bait is used to at­tract fish which are then caught one by one. Once a fish is hooked, the fish­er­man pulls the line to swing the fish on the deck. It is con­sid­ered the most en­vi­ron­ment­friendly means of fish­ing that en­sures sus­tain­abil­ity of the tuna fish for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

How­ever, this method is no longer prac­ticed by many fish­er­men. Dan­ger­ous fish­ing tech­niques that in­clude us­ing fish ag­gre­ga­tion de­vices (FADs) are used to har­vest more and more fish. They are the pri­mary rea­son for the de­cline in tuna stocks. Th­ese de­vices at­tract not just tuna but other crea­tures such as dol­phins, sharks, whales, rays, tur­tles, sea birds, etc. as well, thereby caus­ing much de­struc­tion

to ma­rine life in the area.

Just around the Mal­dives Ex­clu­sive Eco­nomic Zone (EEZ), another method – purse sein­ing – is used to catch tuna. In this method, en­tire schools of fish are caught through large nets called purse seines. Th­ese nets catch what­ever comes their way, re­sult­ing in an am­ple by-catch. This is yet another cause for a no­tice­able de­cline in tuna stocks in the ocean.

Over­fish­ing with the help of FADs and purse sein­ing meth­ods to meet the grow­ing de­mand of tuna is re­duc­ing the num­ber of tuna fish in and around the Mal­dives. The en­tire ecosys­tem is also at stake due to over­ex­ploita­tion that is caus­ing a to­tal chaos in the tropic chain. Due to the rise in tem­per­a­ture of the ocean’s sur­face, fish are mov­ing deeper in the ocean, away from the reach of the tra­di­tional fish­er­men whose meth­ods are not de­signed to catch fish in the depth of the ocean.

While to catch tuna in the In­dian Ocean is be­com­ing harder for the or­di­nary fish­er­men, many coun­tries are us­ing the new meth­ods to catch tons of tu­nas ev­ery day. Since this is cer­tainly not some­thing that can be ac­com­plished through the cen­turies old pole-and-line method, the peo­ple of the Mal­dives are fac­ing tough com­pe­ti­tion which is giv­ing their econ­omy a hard time.

Al­most 70 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in the Mal­dives is as­so­ci­ated with the fish­ing in­dus­try and it is cer­tainly go­ing to be dif­fi­cult for them to sur­vive if tuna ceases to ex­ist in the sur­round­ing sea waters. The di­rect and in­di­rect em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties pro­vided by the fish­ing in­dus­try will also be ad­versely af­fected. The coun­try’s GDP would face a high loss if fish ex­ports de­clined. Apart from the fi­nan­cial as­pect, the peo­ple who rely on pro­tein nu­tri­tion from tuna would be de­prived of a rich source of nu­tri­tion if fish is not caught and sup­plied at the cur­rent rate.

Since fish­ing is the ba­sic oc­cu­pa­tion and a pri­mary source of in­come for a large num­ber of peo­ple in the Mal­dives, some­thing must be done to save the econ­omy from col­lapse. If over­fish­ing con­tin­ues through the use of ad­vanced de­vices, it may be­come dif­fi­cult for the Mal­di­vian na­tion and ma­rine life in the In­dian Ocean to sur­vive.

Harm­ful fish­ing tech­niques need to be re­placed by the tra­di­tional pole-and-line method. If this can­not be done, then the rate of fish­ing should be low­ered so that the fish pop­u­la­tion in­creases be­fore another huge net catches them. Steps should be taken to re­duce by-catch­ing to pro­tect ma­rine life.

Al­though sus­tain­able fish­ing meth­ods are used by most of the Mal­di­vian fish­er­men, who dis­play a re­spon­si­ble at­ti­tude to­wards ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment, if the same ap­proach is also shown by fish­er­men of other coun­tries, it could re­sult in a bright fu­ture both for the Mal­dives and the tuna fish.

The world’s ap­petite for tuna seems to be grow­ing with time. But this fish can only stay on our plates if sus­tain­able fish­ing meth­ods are used around the world.

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