High Level Side Event on Securing a Future for Our Oceans: Leveraging Sustainable Fisheries and the Conservation of Marine Resources
(co-organised by the Maldives and Palau in partnership with FAO)
Conference Room 6, United Nations
23 September 2017
Maldives - the country that I belong to, and have the honor of serving as the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, is a nation composed of about 1200 coral reef islands. Elevated merely 1m above sea level, the total land area of these 1200 small islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean adds up to less the 0.1% of the total area of the Maldives with an EEZ of about one million sqkm. Due to this, the Maldives is highly reliant on the marine environment and the oceans as the main resource for our everyday needs such as food, employment, and income. The economy of the Maldives is completely dependent on two main sectors; the tourism and fishing industry; both of which are closely tied to the oceans.
Historical evidence suggests that fishing has been practiced in the Maldives for centuries, going as far back as 1153 AD. This tradition has remained equally as important to the Maldives despite the recent rapid surge in the tourism industry. Initially, fishing was conducted in close vicinity of the islands using row boats and/or sail boats. Throughout the years, the industry has gone through tremendous changes, with the introduction of mechanized boats with engines in mid-1970s. Maldives at one point in time was responsible for more the 70% of the total skipjack tuna landings in the Indian Ocean, demonstrating the magnitude of fisheries sector to the Maldives.
Despite the rapid developments that Maldives has seen over the years, one thing has remained intact in our fisheries. That is; our commitment to sustainable fishing methods and the conservation of marine resources. Today, Maldives is one of the few nations that has a strict policy on banning of all forms of net fishing, and a commitment to sustain the one-by-one fishing methods that we have become renowned for.
Now, one might be tempted to ask, why the insistence on one-by-one fishing methods? What is different, and what do we achieve by using only one-by-one fishing methods? What is the significance of such fishing methods to the marine environment and fish stocks?
The benefits are far and wide ranging. One-by-one fishing methods such as pole and line, handline and trolling are highly selective forms of fishing. Contrary to many other forms of tuna fishing, these do not result in any discards or bycatch. Therefore there are no detrimental impacts on protected, endangered or vulnerable marine organisms such as dolphins, turtles, rays and sharks. This low-impact form of fishing thus protects and conserves the wider marine ecosystem and vulnerable marine life. Notably, such one-by-one fishing methods are also crucial for sustaining livelihoods of artisanal fishers in the smaller islands of the Maldives. It provides the only source of jobs and income for majority of the more remote islands, whilst ensuring that wealth is distributed among the 20,000 people employed by the industry; roughly 20% of the total workforce of the Maldives.
It is indeed with pride that I state that all the skipjack tuna harvested through pole and line fishing in Maldivian waters is triple certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, as Fairtrade and also as Dolphin Friendly. It is also one of the cleanest and greenest fishing methods in the world.
In addition to the restrictions on detrimental forms of fishing in Maldives, we have also gone a step further to ensure that charismatic megafauna and keystone species are protected and conserved in Maldivian waters. The list of protected marine species in Maldives include; all species of sharks and rays, whales, dolphins, turtles, napoleon wrasse and in-berry lobsters. The most recent addition to the list are all species of shark.
Shark fisheries targeting oceanic and reef sharks existed in Maldives for decades. The fishery, even though sporadic, was an important economic activity in some island economies with several islanders making a living from the fishery. Despite the associated historical and cultural connotations, the Maldivian Government recognized that this had to be balanced with the ecological and environmental concerns, as well as impacts on other industries central to the economy, such as tourism.
To address these concerns, the Government of the Maldives implemented several phases of measures to regulate shark fisheries commencing in 1981; such as the use of marine protected areas and soft management regulations, which culminated in a total ban on shark fishing in Maldivian waters in 2010. The decision was based on the figures which revealed that live sharks generated more than USD 2.3 million from the tourism diving industry, while a single shark contributed a merely USD 32 to the fishing industry.
These measures did however come at a socio-economic cost. Roughly 100 families had to be moved on to other economic activities and compensated heavily for their loss of income in the short term. The process of listing other marine species as protected was similar, yet these hard decisions were made to conserve the nature for the future generations.
Recently, in 2012 a Grouper fisheries management plan was also formulated to address the growing concerns about the decline in the numbers and size of groupers caught in Maldives. The fishery which was already highly selective due to the nature of fishing; fishing in the water using snorkeling gear, was found to still result in overfishing and tough decisions were made again to impose size restrictions and protect grouper spawning aggregations. It is my pleasure to note here that the results of the decision has already proved to be the right decision as some grouper species have shown an improvement in size and growth.
As I have highlighted before, the economy of the Maldives is very much reliant on tourism in addition to fisheries. This is also an industry which indirectly contributes to the conservation of marine resources in the Maldives: the lagoon and the house reefs surrounding tourist resorts in the Maldives are Marine Protected Areas by law. At present there are more than 105 tourist resorts in operation with another 120 properties in construction phase. This means that the surrounding house reefs of about 220 islands are MPAs in nature, ensuring that no form of fishing takes place in these areas. Again, the decision to protect these areas have been difficult, as many such house reefs were important bait fishing grounds for the tuna fishermen of the Maldives.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. The point I am trying to make here is that many of the fisheries management decisions that we have taken in the Maldives are difficult decisions, that were taken merely to protect the future of our marine resources, keeping in mind that there will be long term gains from such decisions. Recently we have also teamed up with environmental NGOS such as Parley to initiate an "avoid an intercept" program for all forms of plastics used and discarded by the fishing industry, both by the fishing vessels and fish processing facilities to ensure that our oceans are kept free of ocean plastics. Yet, it is deeply concerning that despite best efforts mainly by coastal communities and island states, the exact opposite is being done by some distant water fishing nations.
In the context of the Indian Ocean, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission – IOTC, we have struggled to put in place a fisheries management structure that would protect us – coastal communities and small island states. Regardless of our best efforts to protect the tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean, yellowfin tuna stocks are now in red; i.e. have been overfished at unsustainable rates. Recently, the Maldives along with South Africa tabled a proposal on rebuilding yellowfin tuna stocks that was met with a lot of opposition by large scale industrial tuna fishing nations before it was adopted with grave consequences on various small island communities and coastal communities. We have also championed through IOTC, a resolution on Harvest Control Rule for Skipjack tuna after being faced with various difficulties. Notably the adoption of the resolution on Harvest Control Rule for Skipjack tuna, which was the first instance where such a management measure has been adopted by an RFMO before the stocks have been depleted to dangerous levels. This is an achievement that we are quite proud of. The recent most contribution from the Maldives would be our proposal on allocation of fishing opportunities in the Indian Ocean, which was deferred at the Commission meeting this year.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.
In conclusion, a wish to highlight the key message and objective of our event: Leveraging sustainable fisheries and the conversation of marine resources to secure a future for our oceans is crucial at this point in time. Our fish stocks are under heavy pressure from unsustainable fishing methods and the consequences of such forms of fishing are serious, as evident by the situation in the Indian Ocean. Sustainable fishing can contribute immensely to the conservation of marine resources as proven by our case, and if countries such as Maldives that are dependent on marine resources for our bread and butter can take the lead in enforcing such stringent measures, it is definitely possible for other countries to follow the same route. This is necessary for the implementation of the goal to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development for the benefit of our future generations.