The Marine Stewardship Council, an international non-profit organisation that certifies sustainable fisheries products, has suspended its eco-label for the yellowfin component of the Maldives pole and line skipjack and yellowfin tuna fishery.
The suspension was based on by an assessment of yellowfin tuna stocks by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s scientific committee, which “showed significant declines as a result of overfishing and relatively low reproduction levels.”
Due to a substantial increase in longline, gillnet, handline and purse seine fishing by a large number of countries in the Indian Ocean, the IOTC reported that recent fishing has exceeded the ‘Maximum Sustainable Yield’ levels.
According to the MSC, a recent audit of the Maldives pole and line fishery also concluded that the stock no longer meets its requirements for stock health.
“We consider this suspension to be appropriate action in order to safeguard yellowfin tuna populations within the Indian Ocean and to support positive change in the way our oceans are managed. We encourage the IOTC to adopt measures needed to ensure effective management of all fisheries under its responsibility,” said Dr Adrian Gutteridge, Fisheries Assessment Manager at the MSC.
The IOTC, an intergovernmental organisation responsible for the management of tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean, will hold its annual meeting in La Reunion, France in May 2016.
The Maldives became a member of the regional body in July 2011.
Dr Gutteridge added: “Healthy tuna populations are essential for both the wider marine environment and fishing economies. The MSC Fisheries Standard therefore requires that MSC certified fisheries are targeting healthy or recovering stocks that are well-managed.”
The Maldives was awarded the MSC certification in November 2012, making it the first Indian Ocean tuna fishery to earn the coveted eco-label. The government at the time anticipated higher prices for tuna exports as a result of the certification.
The MSC label provides consumers with the assurance that a product is traceable back to a certified and sustainable source. The pole and line fishing method practiced in the Maldives for centuries is a low-impact technique where each wild fish is caught individually to reduce by-catch.
The suspension of the MSC certification took effect on April 15.
However, yellowfin tuna caught and harvested before the date of suspension will still be eligible to be as MSC-certified in accordance with the MSC chain of custody requirements.
The MSC has asked the Maldives to present a corrective action plan within 90 days to address the cause of the suspension.
“If this action plan is produced and is confirmed by the certifier, the yellowfin component of the fishery will then remain suspended until there is evidence for recovery in yellowfin stocks. If the fishery fails to produce an action plan in the time allowed, its MSC certificate will be withdrawn,” the organisation said.
Speaking to The Maldives Independent, Dr Shiham Adam, director of the Marine Research Centre, stressed that the decline in yellowfin tuna stocks was caused by large vessels from other countries using unsustainable and environmentally harmful methods of fishing.
The MSC suspension would not have a significant impact on the Maldivian fisheries industry, Shiham insisted.
“That’s nothing. Almost negligible. Yellowfin tuna fishing is done in two ways in Maldives. Pole and line fishing and hand-line fishing. The majority is from hand-line fishing,” he said.
The Maldives has not sought certification for hand-line fishing of yellowfin tuna, an official from the fisheries ministry told The Maldives Independent.
Fisheries records from 2013 however show that more than half of yellowfin tuna in the Maldives are caught from hand-line fishing while pole and line accounted for 40 percent.
Official statistics show that the Maldives exported over US$70 million worth of yellowfin tuna in 2013.
Annual income from yellowfin tuna exports from hand-line fishing stands at US$65 million, Shiham said, whereas the pole and line fishing was “almost negligible.”
As the majority of yellowfin tuna caught from pole and line are sold in canned form, the impacts of the suspension on exporters remains unclear. Shiham, however, brushed off such concerns.
“We already get the premium price of we fish from pole and line. I don’t think there’s much of an increase from MSC certification,” he said.
The volume of fish catch in the Maldives has been declining steadily in the past decade. While approximately 185,000 tonnes of fish were caught in 2006, the number dropped to about 70,000 tonnes in 2011.
In October 2011, The Maldives Independent reported that the mass harvesting of fish stocks by foreign vessels was threatening the viability of the country’s tuna fishing industry.