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.
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.