After two days of vigorous debate, parliament on Tuesday voted to accept legislation proposed by the government for a new fisheries law.
Speaker Mohamed Nasheed scheduled an extra sitting on Monday night to expedite the debate and send the bill to the economic affairs committee for review. Judging by critical views expressed by ruling party lawmakers, the bill is expected to undergo significant changes at the committee stage.
Divided into 12 chapters and 80 sections to replace the Fisheries Act of 1987, the bill proposes measures to control illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices. It would ban purse seine, gill net, troll net, spear fishing and the use of explosives and toxic chemicals.
The new law would introduce fines of up to MVR2 million (US$129,700) for engaging in illegal fishing. The penalty would be twenty times higher for a crew member of a foreign vessel.
Last month, the fisheries ministry discontinued issuing long line licenses after the European Union warned of a boycott of Maldivian fish exports due to illegal activities by long-lining vessels, which usually employ eight to ten crew members, only one of whom would be a Maldivian.
Under the proposed law, the ministry would be mandated with classifying different types of fishing, promoting sustainable aquaculture and formulating management plans. Selling catch to foreign vessels or establishing ice plants and offshore platforms without permission would be illegal and punishable with a fine of up to MVR400,000.
Along with the fisheries ministry, the coastguard, police and transport authority would be tasked with enforcing the law, which grants powers to board vessels or aqua farming facilities and processing plants, conduct searches, impound vessels or confiscate items, and arrest personnel without a court warrant.
The military’s coastguard would also be able to board and search foreign vessels in Maldivian waters and pursue vessels into international waters. Foreign vessels that enter the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone without prior permission would be deemed to have engaged in illegal fishing unless proven otherwise.
Maldivian boats would also require a permit to venture into international waters. The captain, operator and owner of a local vessel operating without a license or in violation of rules could face fines of up to MVR400,000. The fine would be up to MVR8 million for foreigners.
The fisheries ministry would also be authorised to set fines not exceeding MVR5,000 for other offences to be listed in rules and regulations to be drafted after the law comes into force.
Fines imposed by the ministry could be challenged at court within a 30-day period.
– Mixed reaction –
During the debate, lawmakers expressed concern over several provisions, including the proposed ban on spearfishing.
The ban would negatively impact local tourism as guesthouses offer sports or recreational fishing, warned Thoddoo MP Hassan Shiyan from the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, which controls a two-thirds majority in the 87-member house.
Spear fishing was as environment-friendly as the traditional pole-and-line method since fish are caught one at a time, Shiyan argued.
MP Abdulla Jabir, leader of the minority opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party, warned against “overregulation” and “protecting and preserving so much that we can’t profit from the industry.”
The resort owner repeated calls to allow long-lining and trawling.
MPs from the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives contended the bill was “outdated” as it was drafted during former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s administration. Fisheries Minister Zaha Waheed was nominated to cabinet by Gayoom, one of the partners of the MDP-led ruling coalition.
Naifaru MP Ahmed Shiyam called the bill an “insult” to both fishermen and parliament because it did not incorporate fisheries-related resolutions passed earlier this month. Parliament spent over 30 hours on the resolutions, including committee sessions, the PPM deputy leader noted.
The non-binding resolutions proposed by MDP MPs called on the government to set up offshore fishing platforms, authorise foreign vessels to purchase catch from local boats within Maldivian territorial waters, and to establish island-level fish processing plants through public-private partnerships initiated by local councils.
Factories for processing the high-value bigeye tuna in the north and south would be more beneficial than offshore platforms, suggested PPM MP Ahmed Thoriq.
MDP MP Hassan Latheef said the resolutions were reflected in the draft legislation.
“I’m happy because the bill has these concepts, in the form of articles. But since it’s not there as much as we want, I wish they are included as chapters during the committee stage and perfected, that all these are detailed in a chapter that includes the policy, framework and limits,” said the former MDP chairman.
Other MDP MPs praised parts of the bill but echoed calls for changes by the committee.
Hoarafushi MP Ahmed Saleem suggested adding provisions to protect the rights of fishing crews. “We don’t give any official recognition to the workers who get leave for work earliest and return from work the latest every day,” he said.
MP Eva Abdulla called for the introduction of a retirement pension scheme for fishermen.