The Maldives is contemplating the reintroduction of longline fishing within its waters, a move advocated by Fisheries Minister Ahmed Shiyam to fully capitalise on the allocated yellowfin tuna quotas set by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). The IOTC, underpinned by scientific research, set the quotas to manage fishing efforts across the Indian Ocean, awarding the Maldives a substantial quota of 47,517 metric tons for 2022, second only to the European Union.

Minister Shiyam, speaking on Adhadhu’s “Etherefuh” programme, expressed concerns over the underutilisation of these quotas. According to him, the Maldives utilised only 61 percent of its 2022 quota, a shortfall attributed to an insufficient number of fishers. Shiyam suggests that by expanding the fleet or increasing fisher numbers, not only would the current quota be met, but it could also secure higher future quotas.

The proposal to reintroduce longline fishing is not without precedent. Initiated in 2010 under President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration, longlining began in earnest in 2012, targeting the lucrative yellowfin tuna within the 100 to 200-mile range of the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, by 2019, the EU’s Commission of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries raised concerns over illegal activities and the potential over-exploitation of tuna stocks, leading to a cessation of new longlining licences.

The economic implications of reviving longline fishing are substantial. In 2017 alone, the practice generated MVR 310 million from 28 licensed vessels. Yet, the sector faces challenges, notably the low uptake of longline fishing methods among Maldivians and the reliance on foreign crew members, which reached as high as 90 percent on some vessels. This has not only led to regulatory challenges but also a disconnect between the industry and local employment opportunities.

Environmentally, the reintroduction of longline fishing in Maldivian waters is fraught with challenges. The method is known for its high bycatch rates, which could endanger non-target species and disrupt marine ecosystems. Sustainable practices and stringent monitoring would be essential to mitigate these impacts.

Additionally, the geopolitical context is crucial. Five member states of the IOTC — Oman, India, Iran, Madagascar, and Indonesia — have opposed restrictions on fish catches. This opposition complicates regional conservation initiatives and could potentially strain diplomatic ties within the commission.

The economic benefits of longline fishing against environmental sustainability and regulatory challenges will require a delicate balance. The outcome will not only affect the nation’s fisheries sector but also its standing in international marine conservation circles.