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Environment News, Articles and Reports
 

Groupers overfished in Maldives waters, warns NGO Bluepeace

Thursday, 10 June 2004
By Hilath Rasheed and Hassan Amir (Haveeru)

MALE, June 10 (HNS) -- At Alfresco Café in Male on Saturday, two men were going around table by table distributing T-shirts. In the front of the white T-shirt, in stark red and yellow colors, a cartoon of a grouper spilling tears was crying out “Save Groupers.”

One of the said men is Ali Rilwan, executive director of local environmental NGO Blue Peace. And the T-shirts he and his assistant were distributing around the capital Male on World Environment Day were a strategic campaign Bluepeace launched appealing to Maldives authorities to protect dwindling grouper stocks.

“While grouper fisheries have expanded in Maldives, groupers have also become exploited. There are no measures taken by authorities to prevent overfishing of this important ecological species,” says Rilwan.

Two groupers (red color) lie among reef fishes waiting to be sold in the Fish Market in Male
Two groupers (red color) lie among reef fishes waiting
to be sold in the Fish Market in Male, 17 Feb 2004
Photo: Haveeru

There are about 40 species of groupers recorded in Maldives waters, according to Blue Peace’s official website, BluepeaceMaldives.org.

“Groupers are vital in maintaining a functional coral reef ecosystem…The Maldives is dependent on coral reefs for the maintenance of their land area, food, export earnings and foreign currency from tourism revenues more than any other nation except the countries of Western Pacific… What we do know about the current status of groupers, however, is not encouraging,” the website says.

While groupers were earlier a traditional and non-commercial species fished for local consumption, the past years have seen groupers “heavily fished” for export to East and Southeast Asia. “Like the Gold Rush, there was a wild rush towards this money-making businesses” which resulted in poor fishing island communities being able to build schools and mosques though the fishermen got just “a fraction of a fraction of the real value of the groupers” due to “middle-men and foreign buyers” who were mediating Maldives’ export of groupers, says Bluepeace.

Bluepeace had in fact started its campaign towards protecting groupers as early as 1990s.

An article which Bluepeace got published in a local daily on 19 October 1995 warned that groupers may face the same fate as the sea cucumber which are now hardly found in Maldives waters after being overfished. The article then said that fishermen were already reporting that the size of the groupers they caught were now “getting smaller and smaller”, meaning that more groupers were being caught before they reached the age of maturity.

While the Marine Research Center (MRC) of the Fisheries Ministry is presently undertaking a study into Maldives grouper fish stocks, evidence is already mounting that the grouper has already become a threatened species.

“Fishermen and divers are already reporting that there are fewer and fewer grouper sightings. We don’t have enough time for a scientific study to conclude. We need to take action right now,” stresses Rilwan.

Statistics also point to the fact that grouper fishery in Maldives have declined perhaps due to dwindling stocks as Bluepeace claims. According to “Rasainu” newsletter by the MRC, the number of frozen groupers exported from Maldives marked a 73 percent decline between 1997 and 1998.

Prices have also skyrocketed due to this decline in supply while the demand still remains high. A grouper which was sold for about Rf10 to Rf12 now sells for about Rf100, or about ten times the earlier price.

According to statistics of Maldives Customs Service, Maldives exported Rf15 million worth of groupers last year.

Fishermen have become so desperate that now, instead of angling groupers out of the water, they are donning diving gear, and going under water to hunt down the fish!

“Groupers are one easy catch: they take the bait easily,” says Rilwan.

You can put a baitfish on a hook and literally offer it by hand to a grouper which will immediately make a grab for it, he says.

Groupers’ vulnerability increases when the normally solitary fish gathered in “spawning congregations” during every full moon, normally between September and November.

“Local fishermen are now aware of the exact times and days when groupers gather for spawning which makes fishermen return to these areas every year,” says Rilwan.

“It is important that Maldives authorities make it illegal to fish groupers while they are spawning.

Otherwise soon there will be no groupers to reproduce and reach the age of maturity.”

The resulting decrease in numbers of groupers resulted in a reduction in baitfish numbers which subsequently results in a decline in tuna fishing as well. Bluepeace said that Mulee island in Meemu atoll, which had turned to grouper fishery, was already facing difficulties in getting a good tuna catch.
Maldives is also not the only country to report dwindling grouper stocks. Many Caribbean, South Pacific and Indian Ocean countries have made similar claims.

“Some countries have altogether banned grouper fishing. But this may be a too drastic measure. What we at Blue Peace are advocating is to take cautionary measures such as prohibiting fishing of groupers during their spawning period in order to give grouper stocks time and opportunity to rejuvenate,” says Rilwan, who terms groupers in Maldives as “endangered.”

“Earlier, it was a vulnerable species, but now it has become endangered, and it is important that the government immediately take rehabilitating measures,” he says.

Other countries have implemented institutional restrictions such as declaring grouper spawning grounds as protected marine sanctuaries, but Bluepeace is of the view that Maldives may need to take additional measures as well.

The NGO says that since reef fishes’ major markets like China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are growing markets, the demand for groupers is likely to increase as well, increasing pressure on Maldivian fishermen and exporters to fish and export more groupers.

“It is extremely important that Maldives slap an export quota on grouper exports. Limiting the number of groupers exported each year would decrease the pressure on local fishermen to fish for more groupers,” says Rilwan.

“We need to stock our groupers just like fixed deposits in a bank. Only then can we ensure that we have a comfortable reserve,” he quips.

Rilwan also referred to this year’s World Environment Day slogan “Wanted: Seas – Dead or Alive?” and replied that Bluepeace definitely wants Maldives waters to be brimming with life!

After distributing “Save Groupers” T-shirts and stickers around Alfresco Café, Rilwan gets ready to go to another venue where he and Bluepeace can distribute their campaign material.

“Right now I am off to Lonuziyaaraiy Kolhu Varunulaa Raalhugandu to distribute T-shirts among surfers there. Only through the education and awareness of the younger generation can we hope to bring about positive changes to Maldives environment for now and for the future,” he says.