By Daniel Bosley
This week’s travelogue comes from Faresmaathodaa, Gaafu Dhaalu’s two-for-one town, and what seems to be the home of fishing in the atoll. So, it makes sense to write about the 'lifeblood’ of the Maldives from here.
Despite coming from an island nation myself, the reality of life in fishing communities is still much of a mystery to me. Great Britain is a big island and most people don’t normally see the fish until it's next to the chips, the mushy peas and the 'curry’ sauce (whose presence may be the biggest mystery of all).
Having spent most of my time here in Male’ before starting this trip, fishing in the Maldives seemed almost like something from the past. Eclipsed by the tourism and then the construction industries, the capital’s famous fish market seemed almost a sideshow to the glitzy resorts and the grimy politics.
Our time in Addu and Fuvahmulah did little to change my impression of fishing as something that used to be important in the Maldives.
But after six weeks in Huvadhu, I’m starting to understand the crucial role the industry still has in atolls like Gaafu Alif and Gaafu Dhaalu. While resorts are gradually coalescing, particularly around the north of Gaafu Alif, it is fishermen who are honoured on the harbour fronts of places like Villingili and Kolamaafushi.
Yes, the fishing industry's contribution to GDP hovers around 1.5 percent while the resorts rack up around 30 percent. And, yes, the civil service and tourism sectors both employ around three times as many people as the officially registered 8000 fishermen, whose catch has also fallen by a third over the past decade.
But these statistics mean less at the level of the island economy, where one mas dhoni can still generate more income in two or three days than all local government jobs combined do in a month. Admittedly, my understanding of island economics may be a little anecdotal, but the earning power of fishermen is significantly greater than I'd realised.
We've regularly met young guys only too happy to explain that they've just pocketed MVR20-30k for three days’ work, while most of those in the council offices, the schools, the health center, etc, are lucky to take home MVR7k in a month. Faresmaathodaa’s fishermen work on almost a dozen boats - though not all are locally owned - and one new owner explained that he is on course to recoup his MVR4 million (US$260k) investment within a year.
With even the smaller boats carrying 15-20 crew members, and most islands not having any banking facilities, a couple of boats selling their catch to the state-owned MIFCO plant or its refrigerator ships basically are an island's cash economy. (Fact: Huvadhu atoll has more ice plants than banks).
This wash of fast money and young men has brought some unexpected consequences, not least the modern phenomenon of the heroin-addict fisherman, whom we've heard about on more than one island. While some have remarked that such fishermen are still functional, others recount stories of fatalities caused by users nodding off at 50ft down while undertaking the hazardous search for baitfish.
The financial independence of the fleet also seems to affect political affiliations, with pink painted harbours more often than not home to vessels flying yellow flags.
Elsewhere, the trickle-down effect of the fishermen's work can be seen on islands such as Gemanafushi and Rathafandhoo which usually purchase any fish not purchased by MIFCO before their local cottage industries dry and smoke them just as islanders always have. Gemanafushi's 'ratu raha’ brand of products are made by its pioneering co-operative society; - the only one of its kind, but symptomatic of the unity created within fishing communities.
For while many today may prefer the comfort of a shirt & tie or the comparative safety of a pair of linen shorts & name tag, the pole and line continue to represent the only real economic independence the islands have - and to keep money within the community. Government jobs are too often subject to the fickle politics of the capital, while too many tourism workers risk creating absentee communities, shorn of all their able-bodied workers.
If I were to spend ten years in the islands, I'm not sure I'd ever learn to flick a skipjack over my shoulder or wrestle yellowfin on the rolling seas, but I'm starting to fully appreciate how vital it still is that others do.
Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands.