Maldives introduced new measures to address the decline of wild grouper, a coral reef fish vital for reef health.
The Grouper Fishery Management Plan, introduced in December 2020, includes revising the minimum size limit imposed on the most highly valued grouper species, on the basis of data collected by the Maldives Marine Research Institute (MMRI) which was formerly known as the Marine Research Centre and Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE).
Landing size limits for Camouflage grouper and Squaretail coral grouper are now both set at 40 centimetres while the measurement for Roving coral grouper and Brown marbled grouper are 42 centimetres and 60 centimetres respectively. The revised size limits, introduced for four grouper species, are 20 cm greater than those stipulated in previous regulations in some cases.
Professor Callum Roberts of the United Kingdom's Exeter University, with over 25 years of experience studying coral reefs, stated that "minimum landing sizes must be bigger than the size of sexual maturity because newly mature fish are small and contribute very little to stock replenishment. Big fish are the engines of reproduction, producing far more eggs than many small fish combined. Fish need to be kept in the water longer to grow bigger and ensure that Maldivian groupers recover to more productive levels".
Although groupers are a diverse group of coral reef fish that are valued by divers and snorkellers due to their large size and impressive colours, South Asia's live reef fish trade is threatening their populations.
As per a report by the MMRI, grouper stocks started declining a mere five years after the commencement of the export fishery. In 2011, MMRI found that 70 percent of groupers caught for export were immature while research from 2020 reveals that 90 percent of the most highly valued grouper species landed are immature.
The aforementioned results were largely attributed to the vulnerability of grouper populations to overfishing. In addition to having long lifespans, groupers take a long time to reproduce and aggregate for breeding in the same locations at predictable times of the month, making them easy targets for fishermen.
Grouper populations across the world are globally threatened due to the trade and at least two species found in Maldives are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Several island nations, including Fiji and Seychelles, have prohibited grouper exports, leaving Maldives the only country in the Indian Ocean that continues to export live groupers.
The Grouper Fishery Management Plan also states that it is illegal to fish, keep on board, store, tranship, land, process, retain in a processing facility, export or attempt to export 23 species of groupers below the size limits.
Even though the Ministry of Fisheries, Marine Resources and Agriculture is allocated one year to enforce and implement the size limits, they are expected to come into force following the publication of the new Grouper Fishery Management Regulation in the government gazette.
Furthermore, the new plan also extends the protected status of five spawning aggregation sites by a further ten years and defined activities that are prohibited at these locations such as all types of fishing except trolling, diving and snorkelling, the use of motored vehicles for water sports activities and the use of lights between 23rd to 3rd day of the lunar period.
The publication of the new regulation will also mark the implementation of a total ban on the use of pressurized air, torches, lights, spears and gaffs to target grouper spawning aggregations.
Maldives Project Manager at BLUE Shaha Hashim stated that, "Spawning aggregations are the sole opportunity for groupers to reproduce. These spawning sites can be quickly eradicated due to fishing pressure, and once gone, they are not known to recover. Fishermen from across Maldives have reported that some aggregations have already disappeared. While it is encouraging to see the timeframe extension of the five sites previously protected on paper, there is an urgent need to effectively protect at least one spawning site from each atoll of Maldives, if we are serious about managing our wild grouper stocks".
The new measures will serve to safeguard the livelihoods of more than 700 grouper fishers in 31 islands across 13 atolls in Maldives.
"Groupers occupy a fundamental niche in the ecosystem and their fishery and trade are lucrative economic activities in the Maldives", stated Minister of Fisheries, Marine Resources and Agriculture Minister Zaha Waheed.
"In light of the increasing threats to reef and reef associated fishes such as groupers, we aimed to introduce effective and timely management measures to protect their spawning stock and safeguard the livelihoods of those who are dependent on this important resource. This new management plan has been formulated through a rigorous consultation process and encompasses the principles of equity, sustainability and Ecosystem Based Management".
Under the new Fisheries Act passed in September 2019, fisheries management was given recognition within Maldives' legislative framework.
Previously, the only fisheries management plans in the country pertained to livebait and grouper. The new management plan includes outlines for reef fish, billfish, lobster, sea cucumber, marine aquarium fish and diamondback squid.
Experts have urged the Maldivian government to exercise caution in response to the fisheries ministry revealing intentions to use aquaculture of groupers to create market opportunities and reduce pressure on wild stocks.
Professor Yvonne Sadovy, a Professor at the University of Hong Kong and co-Chair of the IUCN Groupers and Wrasses Specialist Group noted that, "wild capture and aquaculture are two different forms of production and both are practiced side by side. Therefore, aquaculture does not, in practice, reduce pressures on wild stocks. Indeed, if feed and seed are taken from the wild, culturing actually increases and worsens pressure on wild populations and on the marine ecosystem".