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From Scotland to Switzerland, European families regularly enjoy tuna caught in the Maldives, hooked by the centuries-old fishing method of pole and line. In the UK, for example, most of the tinned MSC certified tuna you find in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s is Maldivian skipjack. In the Maldives, fishing is not just an industry, it’s a way of life. After tourism, tuna is the country’s major source of income and its primary export.

Tuna fishing is…inspiring

I work for the International Pole & Line Foundation (IPNLF) and when I first tell people that I work with tuna fisheries it doesn’t sound very glam. However, this fishy-world is surprisingly inspiring and connects me to life-enriching places and people. In November 2013, I visited the Maldives and got a real feeling for what these fisheries mean to some of those people.

My stay was probably rather different to that of the other 250 passengers who shared my flight out of London. I’d been surrounded by couples, all heading for the picture-perfect beaches of the Maldives, but my route was to take me on a very different adventure. I was travelling to Mandhoo, in the south of the islands, to visit a tuna-canning factory and spend a day on a fishing boat.

Seasickness and night fishing

Pole-and-line fishing trips in the Maldives are each about 24 hours. For someone like me who gets horribly seasick that’s a daunting length of time! I boarded the boat about 3pm – armed with sea-sickness tablets, wristbands, ginger chews and a good dose of positive thinking – and we set off across the turquoise sea towards the fishing grounds.

Our first aim was to collect the bait. The Maldivians catch their bait (small schooling reef fish, often herring-type species) overnight within the sheltered waters of the atolls, using lights to attract the fish. The first fun bit of my trip was watching snorkelling crew members – buoyed by black rubber rings – jumping in the water to draw the net out and around the fish; quite an unusual sight in the middle of the night.

With the bait on board it was time for us to catch some sleep while our captain, Hussain, steered the boat – known locally as a dhoni – to the tuna grounds. This is where my experience began to change: the tuna is caught out on the open ocean and as we reached it, the weather turned and the wind and rain set in (yes, it rains in the Maldives. Just don’t tell the honeymooners!). I huddled under some shelter and, ignoring the building nausea, tried to get some sleep as the dhoni rolled across the swelling waves.

The joy of catching tuna

Around sunrise, we located some dhonis fishing a school of tuna and frenetic activity ensued on board. Two crew-members scattered our bait into the sea as water was sprayed from around the edges of the boat. This ‘chumming’ creates the illusion of a school of fish near the surface, sending the target tuna into a feeding frenzy, biting at anything shiny in the water. The crew got to work flicking their lines out into the blue and soon tuna was flying through the air and onto the deck.

The fishermen spend the majority of their time on this boat, they know it and the seas well and they moved deftly about the deck as a perfectly choreographed team. Stood side by side, fishing at the rear of the dhoni, the crew displayed a gritty determination yet also a sense of joy. As each tuna flew through the air there were big smiles from the fisherman at the end of the line as he watched it swing overhead. Meanwhile, I watched, huddled in the corner with a bucket as the Maldivian seas out-gunned my sea-sickness medication.

“Why doesn’t everyone eat tuna?”

After a couple of hours, the fishing ended, the tuna was stored away on ice, the weather eased and I began to distance myself from the bucket. One of the younger fishers Ali, approached and asked me: “Why doesn’t everyone eat tuna?” On a visit to India, Ali had met people who told him they didn’t eat any tuna and this had astounded him. In the Maldives they only naturally produce two main food products: tuna and coconuts. They usually eat tuna morning, noon and night….tuna-curry, -nuggets, -patties, -rotis, tuna and chilli… So the idea of people not eating tuna was pretty bamboozling for a Maldivian. As I’m a bit of a fish-geek I know that tuna is among the top five most popular fish that we eat in the UK. So I assured my new fisher friend, that in the UK we love tuna, though don’t have half as many fabulous recipes as the Maldivians! (Try our easy traditional Maldivian tuna and coconut recipe: mas huni.)

The economic importance of tuna in the Maldives

As I flew home a couple of days later, among the notably more bronzed couples, I thought back to Ali’s simple, honest questions and how important tuna is for so many different people. IPNLF really focus on how our work can advance the well-being of fishing communities. Pole-and-line fishing needs a lot of man-power and this opportunity for work is valuable in a world challenged by global issues of poverty alleviation and food security. The Maldives fishery currently supports some 30,000 people – 15% of the total Maldivian workforce, and at the fish factory which buys Hussain and Ali’s fish, over 70% of all salary payments return to the local economy. The fact that this fishery has now been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in recognition of its low environmental impact is a real boost, spotlighting these fishers’ work and creating a demand for pole-and-line tuna.


Increased demand and sustainable tuna for all

While hugely important for fishermen, I feel that responsibly caught tuna is equally important for consumers. In several regions, including the main tuna-buying areas of Europe, North America and Australia, demand for sustainable fish has increased dramatically in recent years. Of all the fish we hear about being good to eat for sustainability reasons, I don’t believe any is as widely enjoyed as tuna. It’s eaten by all ages and income levels. Even those notoriously picky eaters, children, love it.

Pole-and-line tuna is fish for everyone – by the people, for the people!

MSC met with Emily Howgate and heard about IPNLF’s work at the 2013 Annual Billingsgate Sustainable Seafood Awards, where Pole and Line Tuna was voted joint winner by the audience.

More information on the MSC certified Maldives pole and line skipjack tuna fishery.