Catching Tuna in the Maldives

November 5, 2012

Pole and line fishermen land skip jack tuna in the Maldives. Pole and line fishing is a selective, sustainable and equitable method of catching tuna. Greenpeace is on an expedition in the Indian Ocean to expose overfishing and to highlight the problems associated with excessive tuna fishing, unsustainable and illegal fishing practices.

© Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

Today, I caught a tuna. It was the first fish I had ever caught in my life. And the first tuna that had to die because of me for a long time. I havent eaten tuna for about three years. Not because I dont like the taste of it I actually love it but because tuna stocks throughout the worlds oceans are either overfished or being overfished. Why? Because the majority of the worlds skipjack tuna is caught by purse seine fishing boats that use fish aggregating devices (FADs). Levels of by-catch, which includes untargeted fish species, sharks, turtles as well as juvenile tuna, are especially high in purse seine fisheries and long-line fisheries. But theres another way of catching tuna and a sustainable and fair one. And thats how I caught my first tuna. I had arrived in the Maldives on the Rainbow Warrior to witness the worlds most sustainable fishing practice: pole and line. Its a traditional fishing method, passed down through the generations, providing jobs and livelihoods for these small atolls with not many other forms of sustenance. At 5:30 am we were picked up by the dhoni, a traditional Maldivian fishing boat. The weather was rough and the sea became choppier as we left the protection of the atoll, but we soon reached the anchored FAD, which operates as a type of fish magnet. FADs can increase the efficiency and safety of operations of pole and line fishing, but close monitoring is needed to ensure they do not increase the catch of non-target fish species, especially juvenile tuna. Once there, I could see the unmistakable signs of a tuna shoal sea birds were circling, the dark backs of dolphins were visible and several other dhoni boats were already hauling tuna from the waters. Our fishermen soon gathered at the back of the dhoni and two of the crew started to throw live bait into the water to create a "feeding frenzy". The hungry tuna will then bite anything that moves in the water including a fisherman's hook. When the tuna bites, the fishermen yank their poles up and throw the fish over their shoulders on to the dhoni.The captain keeps a close watch and carefully positions the boat to maximise the catch.

The crew usually stays out for several hours, catching at times a few tonnes of fish every day, but without taking out the entire school of tuna or other creatures that swim with it. This is sustainability as tradition. And there is much to protect here: fishing represents around 6 to 8% of the country's GDP and remains the country's most important export commodity. Later on the day when most of the tuna already had been caught, I was given time to hold the pole in the water. It was heavier than I imagined and without the help of two fishermen one holding me and another one helping me holding the pole I couldnt even have stood there. As soon as the live bait was in the water though, I saw the skipjack approach and the water looked like it was boiling, bubbling and splashing. I was about to ask how I would know that a tuna had bitten the hook, when I felt a strong pull on the line. Two minutes later and the fish was pulled onto the dhoni by the fishermen. It was a big one about 70 cm in length and around 6 kg in weight. A mature skipjack. I felt sorry for it, but I also feel that by selecting pole and line tuna, consumers around the world will support one of the most sustainable and equitable tuna fisheries in the world. They will also be supporting the livelihoods of the people who depend on the ocean for their existence. If consumers demand their tuna brands stop sourcing fish from purse seine nets that are used around destructive FADs they will further support the transformation of the fishing industry into a more sustainable and equitable one. And as we headed back to shore, our day at and end, I thought again of my catch. It was perhaps not the biggest one, but certainly the fairest. Andrea Rid is currently onboard the Rainbow Warrior in the Indian Ocean. She is based in Greenpeace Switzerland's Zurich office.

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