A first look at the Maldives tuna fishery

Fisheries Special Advisor, David Itano, visits Maldives to learn more about the pole-and-line industry, and takes IPNLF Staff Andy Harvey, Dr. Shiham Adam and Agus A. Budhiman along with him!
From left to right: Agus A Budhiman (IPNLF Indonesia Special Advisor), David Itano (IPNLF Fisheries Special Advisor), Andrew Harvey (IPNLF Indonesian Country Manager) & Dr. Shiham Adam (IPNLF Director for Science and Maldives)

I have just returned to Male, the capital city of the Maldives, after visiting the southern atolls. I am on the tail end of a fascinating look at the legendary skipjack fishery of this tiny but extremely important tuna fishing nation of the Indian Ocean. Having recently been recruited as a Hawaii-based Fisheries Special Advisor to the IPNLF, I have been provided a priceless opportunity to visit the country, meet the key players in the tuna industry and go out fishing on local pole-and-line vessels. The invitation came from IPNLF Chairman Mr John Burton and was realised through the coordination and insights of IPNLF Director for Science and the Maldives, Dr. Shiham Adam.

Dr. Adam and I shared an office some years ago when he joined us in Hawaii as a freshly minted post-doc at the University of Hawaii’s Pelagic Fishery Research Program. It’s good to be working together again. The objective of my visit to the Maldives was to gain an understanding of the fishery issues and technical aspects of the fishery that will be useful in the development of Skippers Guidebooks for best practices in pole and line fishing. These guidebooks are being developed collaboratively by the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation (ISSF) and IPNLF. The primary objective of these guidebooks is to inform pole-and-line fishermen on ways to conserve and make the best use of both baitfish and tuna resources. The guidebooks will also encourage and explain the importance of improved data collection and reporting of both baitfish and tuna catch and fishing effort data for management purposes. The idea is to improve survival and minimise wastage of live baitfish during fishing operations and use these precious baitfish resources to produce the highest quality fresh skipjack that is possible. Reducing the impact of wild baitfish harvest and developing premium markets for pole and line tuna are two of the main goals of the IPNLF.

Dr. Adam made sure I had a broad exposure to the many sectors that influence local skipjack production and those who can assist in the outreach and education component of the work. I was privileged to meet and discuss project objectives with the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, Dr. Mohamed Shainee and the Minister of Education, Dr. Aishath Shiham. Chairman, Mr. Maizan Ahmed Manik and staff of the Maldives Fishermen’s Association were very enthusiastic about the project and will be instrumental in disseminating the information to local fishermen. Further meetings with government and private fishing industry leaders impressed upon me the importance of skipjack to the local economy. A meeting with Marine Research Center and IPNLF staff based at MRC (Ms. Kelsey Miller) was very helpful to inform me on the main issues and challenges inherent in trying to effect changes to current baiting and catch handling procedures.

Shiham and I then headed out to Gaafu Alifu Atoll to the tuna receiving plant at Kooddoo on Ga Atoll, which is run by the government fishing company MIFCO. I am very familiar with the tuna pole-and-line fisheries of Japan, Hawaii, the USA, Indonesia and the Japanese-style operations of the south Pacific. This was my first exposure to skipjack fishing, Maldives style. We were kindly hosted by MIFCO Operations Manager Anwar Sadath and soon boarded the skipjack vessel Dheriya under the command of Captain Ibrahim Thakkan.

I was fascinated to see a highly effective style of night baiting that is not practiced in the Pacific as well as a way to shallow the bait for hauling that I had never seen. A decent load of silver sprat, blue sprat and anchovy were stored in the central bait-well and we headed out by dawn. The fishing was similar to Hawaiian-style, stern poling operations, as it should be as Hawaiian tuna captains were consulted in the design of the newer generation of Maldivian skipjack boats. However, many interesting differences were also noted. Successful fishing took place on an anchored FAD set specifically to assist the pole-and-line tuna fishery.

Staff from IPNLF’s Indonesia program, Andrew Harvey (Country Manager) and Senior Advisor Agus Budhiman joined Shiham and myself on a second fishing trip from Kadhdoo out of Laamu Atoll. This trip delivered catch to the Horizon Fisheries base and was made possible through the interest and enthusiasm of Horizon Fisheries’ Managing Director, Mr. Adnan Ali (a Trustee of the IPNLF). A tour of the facility confirmed what an impressive contribution Mr. Ali has made toward the Maldivian tuna industry. The self contained, self generated facility employs about 500, receives catch directly or through receiver vessels that is used to produce an impressive line of high quality, MSC certified canned and pouched tuna. Large yellowfin are also processed into vacuum-packed high value product, including Ultra Low Temperature (ULT) packages.

Back to fishing! All four of us headed out at 9 pm on the pole-and-line vessel Villa Vaali #6 with Captain Hussein. This baiting session was completely different from what we had seen on the FV Dheriya. Cardinalfishes were being targeted that night and the vessel anchored over rough bottom in a way that would minimize lateral movement. Cardinalfish are a very hardy and effective tuna baitfish and our Pacific fisheries make use of the same or similar species. However, once again, the actual capture techniques differed from the way we “do it” in he western Pacific. Five divers worked with crewmen on the vessel to deploy and raise a large lift net suspended a short distance above the coral. The operation ran for four consecutive hauls between 4 and 6 am, which produced ample bait supplies for the day.

The fishing day was very different compared to our first trip and no FADs were visited. A free school of large skipjack was located and fished throughout the day. The fishing was fast paced, sporadic and as always, was exciting, exhilarating and one fish at a time. The school was running just under the surface and metallic blue and magenta bullets could be seen surfing down waves and alongside the vessel. Another large skipjack school associated to a drifting log was also fished alongside several other boats on the same school. Seeing these free schools and large fish size suggested to me that this is a healthy, vibrant stock that is being sustainably harvested and managed. The size of the skipjack, well above size at maturity, was also a reassuring sign. However, I also noted that improvements in baitfish handling and steps to improve tuna quality could be made. On the way home, Shiham and I demonstrated the cutting and preparation of sashimi and Hawaiian style “poke”, which is a raw dish with spices and seasoning. None of the crewmen were willing to give it a try, but this may also change with time. Promoting delivery of the highest quality tuna possible will be an important step toward developing higher value, sashimi grade markets and products.

Whenever I go to sea with professional fishermen, I am always impressed with their innovation, hard work and cooperative nature. A good crew works together seamlessly to resemble a single organism rather than a group of individuals. I am also reminded that we have much to learn from each other: scientists learning from fishermen and hopefully we have something to offer the fishermen. I look forward to this project that I hope will help to improve the sustainability and health of the baitfish and tuna resources of the Maldives.  Thank you to all who assisted us during my visit.   

Aloha, Dave.