While fisheries, the Maldives’ second largest industry, comprises between five and 10% of the country’s GDP, it accounts for 20% of employment and is particularly crucial to many communities of the outer islands, where tourism is not present.
Fisheries products make up more than 98% of Maldivian exports, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, while fish is the basic source of protein for the vast majority of the population. And though agricultural production in the Maldives is limited because of land shortage and soil salinity, it plays an important role in rural communities’ livelihoods, and presents opportunities for value addition in fruit and vegetable exports.
“The government is working to add value to all the fish caught in this area,” says minister of fisheries and agriculture Mohamed Shainee. The country previously exported skipjack and yellow fin tuna mainly in raw form to the likes of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Germany, the UK and Japan, meaning it lost out on the revenue and jobs generated by value addition. Now, following a rapid growth in production from the country’s fish-canning facilities thanks to increased investment, the industry is a vehicle for socioeconomic growth.
“Fisheries and agriculture are two very important sectors to diversify the economy, but also very important when it comes to development – more than 50% of registered farmers are women,” says Mr Shainee. “In the fish processing sector, women also play a major role. So the food sector is not only providing economic diversification and jobs but also female empowerment.”
The government also offers soft loans to local processors and producers at low interest rates.
“We are currently embarking on a very ambitious project of import substitution,” adds Mr Shainee, describing efforts to boost production of five select fruits and vegetables widely grown by Maldivian farmers. The government has given several island communities equipment for drying and packing produce – for instance, making chillies into powder and paste – enabling them to add value and prevent waste.
Green and clean fish
The state encourages foreign investment, especially in mariculture, which is the farming of fish. “We are trying to invite foreign partners in this specific area. That and agriculture are 100% open for foreign investments,” says Mr Shainee.
In 2013, the EU removed the Maldives from its Generalised Scheme of Preferences regime, which allowed discounted duty rates on exports, after the country failed to meet the EU’s conditions of legalising same-sex marriage and freedom of religion. This means that Maldivian fish exports to the EU now face an export tax of up to 36%. “So we are working to make this a resilient sector, not subjected to external shocks,” says Mr Shainee.
“The government has worked very hard to get recognition for our sustainable fisheries. The tagline for our tuna is ‘the greenest and cleanest fish in the world’. This is because not only are we MSC [Marine Stewardship Council]-certified, we have the first products in the world that carry both the MSC and Fair Trade logo. There is a huge effort to bring more fishermen into fair trade.”
This achievement came through a partnership with Maldivian company Horizon Fisheries as well as Fair Trade USA. Maldivian fish are caught singly with pole and line or handline, never by net, which eliminates waste and bycatching (where untargeted fish are unintentionally caught).
“We have done this to maintain a gold standard on fisheries, because that gives us a premium on the fish we sell, which helps counter the tax to the EU,” says Mr Shainee. “This has strengthened the sector, and we remain competitive in Europe, still our largest export market. So though we’re a small country, we have played a very big role promoting responsible and green fisheries.”
The Maldives has become a regional leader in this respect. “When we talk about fisheries we are talking about livelihoods, about the community,” says Mr Shainee. “For us, it’s not about how much you earn, but how many jobs you create, how much protein you provide people, the social aspect. We need to sustain this for future generations, because we don’t have any other choice.”