The Republic of Maldives consists of 1 190 coral islands spread over 90 000 sq kilometres in the Indian Ocean, some 400 miles southwest of Sri Lanka. Two hundred of the islands are inhabited and have a total population of about 300 000. In recent decades, tourism has become the highest foreign exchange earner, but fisheries and related industries have always been the main source of employment and nutrition. The fisheries sector employs nearly 20 000 people, accounts for about 10 per cent of the country's GDP and 76 per cent of the exports.
The fishing waters of the Maldives are divided into two zones - the Coastal Fishery Zone and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Coastal Fishery Zone, extending to 75 miles offshore, is meant for the exclusive use of Maldivian fishermen. The EEZ has an area of about 1.2 million sq. km, and prior consent is required for the entry of fishing vessels to this zone.
The main fisheries in the Maldives are the tuna, large yellow fin
tuna, live bait, reef fish, grouper, aquarium and sea cucumber fisheries. The main tuna species caught are skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis), yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), and to a lesser extent bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus). These fish are caught in open waters, around fish aggregating devices (FADs), drifting flotsam and along the reef edge. Pole and line fishing for tuna takes place throughout
Since the early 1980s, Maldives has seen the emergence of a new fisheries that targets reef species. This includes the export-oriented grouper fishery, the marine aquarium fish trade, the beche-de-mer fishery and the giant clam fishery. High export demand and a small resource base have together caused severe pressure on these fisheries. Maldives has therefore initiated a Reef Resources Management Programme.
The total fish landings in Maldives have increased in recent years from some 104 000 metric tons to 123 000 metric tons between 1995 and 2000 with an average increase of 4 per cent per annum. Exports, comprising mainly of frozen tuna, chilled or fresh yellow fin tuna, chilled or live grouper, canned tuna, traditionally processed fish and others, totalled 70 800 mt during 1999.
Traditionally-processed fish in the Maldives falls into four broad categories based on processing: smoked - dried skipjack, salted-dried skipjack, salted-dried reef fish and reef-associated fish. Smoked-dried skipjack, also known as ‘Maldive Fish' is highly sought after in Sri Lanka where it is sold at a premium.
During 2000, a total of 5 187 fishing vessels were enumerated in the Republic. Mechanised masdhonis formed the bulk (2 009) of the fleet. A dramatic change has taken place in the design and construction of fishing vessels in the Maldives during the past three years. The change has primarily been an increase in vessel size, now 20-30 metres in length, with bigger engines. The fishing range has also extended, to over 75 miles offshore. There are 82 such vessels in operation, with about 30 more under construction.
The Ministry of Fisheries, Agriculture and Marine Resources is the nodal ministry for fisheries development in the country.
The Marine Research Centre under the Ministry is the nodal facility
for R&D activities in marine fisheries in the country. To ensure sustainable resource development, Maldives plans to strengthen its institutional capacity to monitor and enforce fisheries management, improve knowledge and ensure better utilization of tuna and pelagic resources in the EEZ area; and organise long-term scientific research.