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Tuna 'pole' fishing in the Maldives. The tunas come off the barbless hooks once the strain is off the line. The skill is in taking the strain off at exactly the right moment so the tunas land on deck.
Photo: Courtesy of the Maldives Marine Research Centre

February 13, 2003
Tuna Pole Fishery
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey as we sail off the northeastern coast of the Maldives.

While searching for sperm whales along the steep shelf only five miles from shore, the crew is always careful to keep an extra eye out for small tuna fishing boats or 'masdhonis', that work this approximate distance offshore in search of bonito also known as skipjack tuna.

The tuna fishery is the pillar of Maldivian society. It provides employment, food and export earnings. Recent annual fish catches have been around 100,000 tons, of which almost 90,000 tons consisted of tuna. The Maldivian tuna fishery is known to date as far back as the sixteenth century utilizing live bait, pole and line techniques that target the smaller species of surface swimming tunas.

Today, Maldives fisherman still employ the art of 'pole and line' to land their catch. Tuna pole fishing is carried out on day trips. Fishermen typically leave their islands around dawn and head for a nearby reef to collect live baitfish, 2-3 inch long fish used as bait. These fish are attracted with handfuls of paste - usually a tuna from yesterdays catch, and scooped onboard with a fine mesh net. Plugs are then removed from the bottom of the boat, which floods and acts as a live holding tank for the baitfish. Once sufficient bait is obtained and stored, the masdhonis move outside the lagoon in search of tuna. 90% of the time it is seabirds that lead the fisherman to the tuna schools.

Before they can fish for tuna, baitfish must be collected along the reefs of the lagoon.
Photo: Courtesy of the Maldives Marine Research Centre

Once a school is sighted, the boat will slowly pass the school while the chummer (en keyolhu) throws out the bait as the school follows. The baitfishes have the desirable characteristic of diving beneath the shadow of the boat when used as chum. The idea is for the baitfish to draw the tuna toward the stern and the poles of the fisherman. Fishing takes place from the stern platform, where about eight fisherman stand and face aft. Water is also sprayed from the stern in an effort to give the appearance of a larger school of baitfish, while also concealing the boat from the quarry. The unbaited hooks are swung into the spray; the fisherman use barbless hooks in the shape of the letter 'C', or a question mark ( ? ). The broad shank appears like a small silvery fish to the tuna and is effective as both a lure and hook. The hook is attached to the pole with nylon fishing line. Traditionally, poles were made of bamboo, but today glass fibre rods are the most popular among Maldivian fisherman.

Once the tuna are roused into a frenzy by the baitfish, they do not hesitate to bite the barbless hooks. When the fish are hooked they are hauled onboard. However, because the hooks are barbless there is an art to this type of fishery. The tunas come off the hook once the strain is off the line, so the skill is in taking the strain off at exactly the right moment. If the swing is perfectly controlled, fish come off the hook, fly forward and hit the wooden board set up behind the fisherman and aft of the mast. The entire operation is undertaken at great speed and there may be two or three fish in the air at once. The tunas then drop down into the fish well.

When fishing a school of tuna is complete, the captured fish are lifted out of the fish well and stacked belly up on shelves below deck, or on deck where they are covered with the bait net. Next, the boat moves off in search of the next tuna school. The catch is never counted until fishing ceases for the day, as it is considered unlucky to do so. The masdhonis usually return to their atolls late in the afternoon or evening where some fish will be sold to the cannery or freezer plants for export, some go to the Male market, or are taken back to local islands for processing.

Although the Maldivian tuna fishery has survived for centuries, the resources upon which it is based are now being exploited at a higher level than ever before. With the development of major tuna fisheries by other coastal countries that include large scale long lining by Japan, Taiwan and Korea as well as tuna purse seining on a massive scale by France and Spain, one can only speculate as to how long the Indian Ocean tuna fish stocks can continue to remain productive. The largest tuna fishery in the Indian Ocean and in fact the world, currently operates out of the Seychelles, where the canning industry in Mahe processes on average, a staggering 450 tonnes of tuna per day.

For the Indian Ocean as a whole, total recorded tuna catch trebled from 378,000 tons in 1984, to 1,107,000 tons in 1995. As a result of the rapid growth in the tuna industry - an industry that is showing no sign of slowing down, the Maldivian share of the total Indian Ocean catch has declined from an historical level in excess of 90% to roughly 10% today.

Two massive 'purse seiners' unload their catch of tuna to a freezer ship in Mahe, Seychelles.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Because the species targeted are highly migratory, there is a very real concern here that Maldivian tuna catches may be adversely affected. Indeed, according to the Maldives Marine Research Centre, there are already signs that this may be happening. Catches have stagnated and average sizes have declined. While poaching of tuna byforeign vessels fishing in Maldives waters is increasing. A collapse of the tuna fishery here would be disastrous. In an effort to protect their stocks, the first seventy-five miles from land within the Maldives Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), is reserved only for local fisherman.

According to the United States National Marine Fisheries Service, on average one Maldivian consumes 175.5 kilograms of tuna every year. This is a greater consumption per person than any other country in the world and almost twice as much as the worlds second largest consumer, Iceland - which consumes only 91.0 kilograms of tuna per person, per annum. It is clear that the tuna fishing methods employed in the Maldives for centuries is sustainable and perhaps most importantly is almost entirely without bycatch. The rate of bycatch - non target species, is exceptionally low when compared to the preferred tuna fishing methods of long lining and perse seining, where bycatch includes turtles, sharks, birds and small cetaceans.

There is a clear demand for a much greater understanding of the dynamics of tuna populations worldwide. In addition, there is an urgent need for consumers of tuna, to only support industries that are sustainable in the long term. Always be sure to ask where your tuna comes from and how it is caught.


  • How can you select you seafood wisely? Click here to find out more.
  • Learn about a sustainable rock lobster fishery in Australia.
  • What is the Patagonian Toothfish?Read more about this growing illegal trade.
  • What did the crew of the Odyssey report on one year ago in Australia? Two years ago in Kiribati?

    Written by Genevieve Johnson

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