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Fisheries: Where's the Bite Gone?

 

For the fisheries sector, 2001 started with a bang. On the New Year eve, the Government decided to open the hitherto closed tuna export market to the private sector. Next, in January, Fisheries Ministry revealed statistics showing a 1137 percent increase in yellow-fin tuna exports. By late January, experts were predicting a bright fishing season ahead for the Maldives. Then came the damper: In March, exporters revealed that importing countries were rejecting large quantities of Maldivian yellow-fin tuna. The writing on the wall was clear: Improve quality or sink.    

Exporters have known for some time that the quality of Maldive fish was becoming  crucial. But they were not particularly concerned since Sri Lanka, the main market for dried and salted fish, was still hooked on 'umbala kada'. This illusion of security was shattered dramatically during the year.

Traditional dhoni

For centuries Maldivians have been fishing in sailing boats like this 'dhoni'  and exporting dried fish to Ceylon.  Now, the dhoni has  disappeared and Ceylon has become Sri Lanka.

The Fisheries Ministry has for many years been aware of quality requirements, an issue it faced while trying to export canned tuna to the European Union (E.U). As a result of a lot of effort on the Ministryís part, today the Maldives is one of the 50 countries on the list of those who are fully approved for exporting fisheries products to the Common Market. The EU has taken a specific decision to this effect after a team of its inspectors visited the Maldives and satisfied itself that the local regulatory framework satisfied the requirements of its Directive 91/ 493/EEC. 

Even as this positive development was taking place on one front, rot had been creeping into quality on other fronts. The present imbroglio is the sad, but inevitable, culmination of this slow deterioration.

Fish Market

A customer visually inspects  quality at Male' fish market.  Organoleptic inspections like this form the backbone of quality control even in advanced markets.  

During mid 2001, exporters admitted that quality inspectors abroad were rejecting as much as 80% of Maldivian yellow-fin tuna. Some countries had even blacklisted the Maldives. Even then many importers were unwilling to face the truth. Some blamed climatic changes for the deterioration, alleging that tuna were already damaged by the time they were caught (Haveeru, 20th March, 2001). 

This is a line we find difficult to swallow. Itís not everyday that you see rotten fish swimming around. The deterioration starts when the fish are caught. It continues till they are frozen, chilled or processed. This underscores the importance of maintaining a cold chain from the time of harvesting to the time of final sale to the end consumer. In an interview, in January 2001, Trade Ministryís Director, Trade Licensing, Usman Shakir highlighted a number of factors including packing and flight schedules that need to be considered in exporting yellow-fin tuna to the Japanese sashimi market. 

Whatever the reason is, the deterioration of fish quality creates an anomalous situation that simply cannot continue. One canít be on the approved list of the most stringent market in the world and yet be on the blacklist of some third world markets at the same time. Sooner or later, something is bound to give. 

 

Felivaru cannery

Felivaru Tuna Caning Factory maintains quality standards consistent with the best in the world.  

The Fisheries Ministry has been working for sometime on formulating a national standard for quality control of fish. Speaking at a press conference in last year, Minister Abdul Rasheed Hussain declared that the Government would emphasize on the quality of tuna exports, saying that it was essential for market consolidation.


Fisheries may no longer be the main export earner for the Maldives. Even then it remains by far the biggest source of employment for rural islands, and unlike tourism income, fisheries income goes directly to the island folk. This makes it imperative that fisheries should be strengthened in the country.

On the bright side, the Maldives discovered several new markets including the USA and Canada last year. But unless we improve our quality we may find them disappearing before our very own eyes as rapidly as they appeared.