Bowermaster’s Adventures — Fishing in the Maldives

Mohammed Jarrad and his four-man crew left the dock in their slow-chugging dhoni at five this morning. When I meet them unloading the day’s catch just as they sun disappears it means they’ve been at it for fourteen hours, a typical day for a Maldivian fishermen. The haul? About 150 kilos (330 pounds). Not bad, he says, about average. “Though sometimes we have days when we catch 500 kilos … but those are fewer and fewer.”

As he and his team hand the fish up onto the dock from the back of the flat-decked boat they fill plastic crate after plastic crate with dorado, blue and yellow fin tuna, skipjack and one sizable barracuda. By law, every fish caught in Maldivian waters has to be caught by “pole and line.” No net fishing, no bottom trawling no seining. Which is a good thing for the health of the fishing grounds, which extend 200 miles off the edges of the Maldives 26 atolls. Yet there are still problems.

Sharks, which used to be prolific here, are largely gone due to over fishing (thanks, as in so many parts of the world, to China’s demand for shark fins). Sea cucumber numbers are quickly declining and the government stopped issuing export licenses for fishing for giant clams to prevent serious exhaustion and possible extinction. Tuna and the other popular edibles, while still abundant, have all diminished for a simple reason: Demand. The permanent population of the Maldives has boomed in the past decade, to nearly 400,000. Add to that the 600,000 tourists now coming every year and the pressure mounts.
“Unfortunately we see the pressure on the fish,” says marine biologist Anke Hofmeister, citing the lobster haul as example. “Sometimes the fishermen will bring in female lobsters with the eggs scraped off, hoping we won’t notice (taking female lobsters is illegal), and often they are smaller than the law permits. But the demand is high from the resorts, so too often some buyers are looking the other way.”

As a percentage of the country’s business, fishing has slipped as tourism has boomed. In the 1970s fishing provided thirty percent of the nation’s revenues; in the 1990s, fifteen percent, in 2000, just six percent. By comparison, tourism now provides over forty percent of the country’s GDP.

Watching these tuna fisherman do their job is one of the wildest fishing scenes I’ve ever seen. A commercial fishing boat here is rudimentary in comparison to much of the rest of the world. Twenty to twenty five feet long, wooden, with a long, flat deck interrupted only by a small, three-sided cabin, which is used mostly for shade during the long, hot days at sea. A long rudder, usually manipulated by the captain’s foot, does the steering.

Eight to ten fishermen (always men, never women) bait long poles and cast off the deck simultaneously, and have been known to reel in more than one thousand tuna in an hour. Boats with automated poles can be even more “productive.”

Half the catch in the Maldives is for local use, the other half is frozen or canned and exported to Southeast Asia, a $50 million a year enterprise. Mohammed J. and his four-person crew go out six days a week, motoring at least two hours from home each morning. His take this day for the 150 kilos will be about $375, split among five men. On average, each man will earn around $350 a week.

As the setting sun turns the sky purple and orange I ask how often they see green turtles – illegal to catch, but once a mainstay of the local diet here – and he says “every day.”

“It is hard to watch them just swim by,” he says of the turtles, which can weight up to four hundred pounds. “But we do.”

I trust that he’s telling me the truth, though he looks away as he is answering. It’s hard in these communities for them to change their habits; certainly his father and grandfather and great-grandfather fed their families off green turtles often.