The Maldives Thrives Because of its Global Reputation for Sustainability – Don’t Threaten this by Lifting the Shark Fishing Ban

Op-Ed by Sonu Shivdasani, Co-Founder and CEO of world renowned brand Soneva, which owns several luxury resorts.
Divers seen at ‘Tiger Zoo’ - a special Tiger Shark dive site located in Fuvahmulah City, Maldives Photo: Lonubreak

One can sympathise with Fisheries Minister Zaha Waheed, who recently told a parliamentary hearing that she would allow shark fishing in the Maldives, overturning a nationwide ban introduced by President Nasheed in 2009. 

The Maldives has been a proud fishing nation for a thousand years, and the industry employs some 17,000 Maldivians. Maldivian tuna is arguably the best, and most sustainable, in the world, while Maldivian culture is infused with references to fishing, from banknotes to passports. It is not surprising that the Fisheries Minister is looking out for ways to boost fishermen’s incomes. 

But overturning the shark fishing ban would be a terrible mistake. Shark fishing would no doubt bring a short-term income to a small number of fishermen (prior to the ban, only around 100 people were engaged in shark fishing), but it will sully the Maldives’ international reputation as one of the world’s most eco-friendly countries, damaging both tourism and the tuna fishery.

Undermining Maldivian tuna fisheries

President Solih recently announced strategies to diversify the economy away from tourism — and tuna exports are the poster child for this initiative. The Government’s goal is to improve revenues from the tuna fishery by increasing the value added, as well as commanding a premium for Maldivian tuna because of its world class sustainability credentials. Surely, a reactionary initiative such as shark fishing — taking the Maldives back to the polices of the beginning of this century — will damage the reputation of Maldivian fisheries as a whole, and therefore the Government’s prospects of generating a premium for the country’s tuna. 

Maldivian tuna exports were worth close to US$ 200 million in 2017, according to the FAO; the shark fishing industry prior to the 2009 ban generated a mere fraction of this. If lifting the ban on shark fishing damages the global reputation of Maldivian tuna and this, say, results in a 10% decrease in the price of exported tuna, the country would be far worse off and many more Maldivian fishermen would suffer compared to those who might gain from catching sharks.         

The benefits of tourism

Fishing has sustained Maldivians for centuries. But there is no doubting that tourism, not fishing, has made the country rich. In the 1980s, the Maldives was amongst the poorest 20 countries on earth, according to the World Bank. Today, after 40 years of tourism, the Maldives is a middle-income country with the highest per capita GDP in South Asia. Tourism is the lifeblood of the Maldivian economy, responsible directly or indirectly for some 90% of economic growth, providing 45,000 jobs, and contributing the lion’s share of tax revenues and foreign currency.

Diving and snorkelling are central to tourism’s success. According to a recent Ministry of Tourism survey, 60% of tourists said they chose to holiday in Maldives because of its “underwater beauty” and 30% said they visited specifically to dive and snorkel. I have noticed a similar trend at Soneva, where many of our guests are keen scuba divers. Ask any scuba diver about the highlight of their dive, and they will invariably mention spotting a shark.

A study from James Cook University in Australia found that a grey reef shark in the Maldives was worth USD 3,300 a year in tourism revenues but just USD 32 dollars when sold by a fisherman. In Palau, another tourism-dependent island nation, an individual reef shark was estimated to have a lifetime value of USD 1.9 million to the tourism industry compared with a market value of USD 108 if caught and killed. In short, sharks are far more valuable to the Maldives swimming in the sea, rather than floating in somebody’s soup. 

Economics aside, sharks also provide important ecological benefits. Apex predators, sharks keep in check the populations of mid-level predators such as skates and rays, allowing coral reefs ecosystems to flourish and increasing fish populations.

You might therefore ask, can’t we shark fish just a little bit, but leave most of them for tourism? Sadly, shark fishing is not like tuna fishing. You can’t fish sharks sustainably because they have such a long gestation period – usually a year but sometimes up to three. This means the species is prone to collapse if fishing is permitted, no matter how few people are involved in the trade. In many countries, shark fishing has resulted in shark populations crashing by 90% in just a few years. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists 14 species of shark as endangered, and 10 critically so. 

In a little over two years, President Solih’s administration has created a world-beating reputation for the Maldives as a beacon of sustainability. A slew of policies has created huge amounts of goodwill and positive news coverage: from a ban on single use plastics; to a commitment to net zero emissions; to a pledge to protect at least 20% of the Maldives’ marine environment. One cannot underscore the importance of such policies to ‘brand Maldives’, especially when consumers from our major European markets increasingly prize sustainability.

Likewise, the Government’s adept handling of the COVID crisis has directly resulted in the Maldives becoming one of the top performing tourism destinations in the world. In short, government policy matters. So, we must ask ourselves: do we want to allow a policy that will benefit so few, yet harm so many?