Fish for thought

Georgia Coward

On a hot and humid morning in Malé City we ventured towards the  main fish market. We were greeted by a hive of activity, with dozens of colourful, traditional dhoni fishing boats with their fishers busy cleaning their decks and hauling enormous tuna onto carts. What first astounded me was the sheer size of some of these pelagic creatures, each requiring multiple people to move.  As we wandered through the market, we observed two tuna species, skipjack and yellowfin, and just a handful of reef fish being washed, chopped, weighed and sold.

The busy market reminded us just how significant the fishing industry is in the Maldives. Currently this sector is the second largest contributor to GDP and employs 20% of the nation’s total labour force. Fisheries provide the main source of protein to the Maldivians, where 181 kg of fish are consumed per person every year. This makes the Maldives one of the world’s biggest consumers of fish.

Skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) and yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacores) account for over 70% of the total annual fish catch. The fishing method is extraordinary to witness. Up to twenty fishers stand on a platform at the back of the dhoni, simultaneously catching the tuna using a pole and line. Live-bait is used to initially attract the schools, and the area is chummed during fishing to maintain the schools. Several tonnes of tuna can be caught in just a few hours! This fishing method is not destructive to the environment and because it is selective there is very little bycatch of unwanted species. These fisheries have been classified as sustainable by numerous certification bodies.

Skipjack tuna is the smallest and most abundant of the tuna species. These fish can live up to ten years, and often exceed 80cm in length. Skipjack is consumed with almost every meal in the Maldives, either salted, dried, curried or fried. It is the most sustainable tuna to eat and reassuringly it was definitely was the most common fish we saw for sale in the local market. The yellowfin tuna is much larger in size, reaching lengths of 2m and up to 200kg in weight! I have never seen yellowfin tuna whilst diving as they tend to occur in deep waters, so this gave me the chance to fully appreciate both their size and elegance.