The ancient fishing practice Maldivians are keeping alive
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Pole-and-line fishing is one of only a dozen legal fishing practices in the Maldives. “We take one fish at a time and we only take the target species,” explains Dr M. Shiham Adam, director of science at the International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF). “Of the four main methods of catching tuna – purse seine, long line, gillnet and pole-and-line – pole-and-line is the only selective method.”
Also known as one-by-one fishing, pole-and-line is a traditional method of fishing that uses one hook, one line and one individual to catch one tuna fish at a time. It is a practice that results in minimal damage to marine creatures and reduces the incidental destruction of non-targeted species, from sea turtles entangled in nets, dolphins trapped inside large hauls, the fatal capture of critically-endangered Amsterdam albatross, and the collateral damage inflicted on soft corals, hard corals and sponges. Tuna fisheries in the Maldives have a bycatch rate (all non-tuna fish caught plus all tuna discards) of 0.65%, significantly lower than 33% bycatch rate attributed to gillnet tuna fishing industry.
Pole-and-line fishing results in minimal damage to marine creatures.png
Used by coastal communities across the world, the low-impact technique has long been a part of the culture of the Maldives. “We have a very long history of tuna fishing in the Maldives,” says Dr Adam. “There are written records that suggest pole-and-line fishing was happening here roughly 900 years ago.” Detailed records written by the famed Arab explorer Ibn Bhatuta describe the Maldivian fishing disciplines he encountered between 1343 and 1344. Later, in 1507, the Portuguese sea captain Valentine Fernandes gave an animated account of live-bait pole-and-line fishing in the Maldives. While shipwrecked, Frenchman Fraçois Pyrad de Laval left an impressive chronicle of his time within the tuna fishing community in 1602. “The boats would have been smaller than today and the sails would have been made from palm leaves but otherwise it is still done in the same way, using pole-and-line and live bait,” says Dr Adam.
Across the generations
It is a practice that has been passed down from generation to generation. “Pole-and-line fishing is a part of our culture and something we want to preserve,” says Afaaz Zahid, the son of a fisherman and resort research and fisheries officer at Six Senses Laamu, where he works in conjunction The Maldives Resilient Reefs Project. “It's a way for the community to bond with each other, whether it's making lead hooks, intricate feather baits or other fishing gear, it's something that's done together and allows the older generation to pass down their knowledge.”
Knowledge which covers more than just casting a line: other skills might include the most effective manner to catch bait fish; where to locate tuna fish; the best way to spray the water surface to create a feeding frenzy; your prime positions on the boat according to your dominant side and interactions with shipmates; the speed and direction of the vessel in relation to the shoals; and the singing of traditional Boduberu sea shanties. “These are skills that can really only be learned through industry experience,” says Zahid. “But my father's generation is getting older, we need the younger generation to be taking over now.”
Looking to the future
“I dropped out of school at the age of 15 and had two choices: fishing or tourism,” says 22-year-old Haasan Saajin, who comes from Hithadhooge Ga Gemanafushi, an island in the far south of the Maldives known for its skipjack tuna pole-and-line fishing. Saajin's father and grandfather were both fishermen and he grew up in a community steeped in fishing history, but, today, the profession is often maligned as being unattractive and low-skilled. “My friends wanted me to join them working in resorts but I wanted to be a fisherman. I could see potential in the fishing industry and knew that with a bit of hard work I could earn an attractive income.”
Written records suggest that pole-and-line fishing began in the Maldives.png
Fresh out of secondary school, Saajin initially struggled to find a permanent position onboard a fishing vessel. “There aren't many jobs for youths and I was rejected many times but I persevered, socialising with my elders and studying for my advanced diving license, which got me a spot on a fishing vessel,” says Saajin. Since that day in 2015, he's been a full-time pole-and-line fisherman roving the Maldives' 26 ring-shaped atolls while earning a highly-competitive salary. “Youths are the future of our fishing industry and I enjoy being a fisherman for many reasons: it gives me freedom over my lifestyle and I get to experience new things, spend time with my family, and enjoy the endless beauty of nature.”
A lifeline to the community for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, pole-and-line fishing remains a vital part of Maldivian life. Aside from being the country's single most important source of visible export earnings and providing employment to thousands of fishermen, it’s an essential part of the social tapestry, a source of great pride, a socially-conscious example to the broader fishing industry and a way for Maldivians to protect the unique environment they hold so dear.