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Maldives Fish-pert Shaa Talks Grouper Fishing, Island Life and Conservation

Shaina Abdulla
15 May 2018, MVT 01:24
Shaa, during one of her dive expeditions.
Shaina Abdulla
15 May 2018, MVT 01:24

Marine Biologist Shaa Hashim takes The Edition through life and protecting marine creatures in Laamu Atoll.

A typical day at work for Shaha "Shaa" Hashim was everything but ordinary. From working in the sea for research to engaging with local fishermen on land, Shaa’s work on BLUE’s project to protect the Maldivian groupers has given her a distinctive lifestyle.

Although Shaa was born and raised in the capital city Male’, it wasn’t in low spirits that she left the city life behind in order to work on the “Grouper Fishery and Conservation Project”. Shaa currently resides in the only resort in Laamu Atoll, Six Senses Laamu, to work on her project activities. She works to engage local fishermen, councils, communities and schools to generate appreciation of the marine environment and comprehend the threats it faces, while promoting improved fishery management to ensure grouper fishery remains sustainable.

However, Shaa admitted she wasn’t always very au fait with groupers. Before working with the BLUE’s project coordinator Vivienne Evans, Shaa had only known two facts about the grouper, that it is an extraordinary fish that plays a vital role in protecting reefs, and that it was popular amongst her friends as a delectable meal. Working alongside Evans opened her eyes to the dangers caused to the groupers by fishing in the Maldives and Asia Pacific region.

Shaa Hashim dissecting a grouper for research

Grouper fishery, existing first at a much smaller scale in the Maldives, soon developed into an export oriented business by the early 1990s due to high demand from Asian markets. High demand and market prices of approximately $100 for a single living grouper, led to an increasing interest in the fishery as it proved to be a substantial way of income for the fishermen in Maldives.

Statistics of 30 years have shown that the population of groupers, especially of higher export prices, have been decreasing along with its’ size.

“According to local fishermen, over a thousand groupers would be spotted together during spawning aggregations around 10-30 years ago. However, we have only observed aggregations of about a hundred groupers recently.” Shaa expressed with concern.

The Maldivian grouper fishery is responsible for the over-exploitation of premature groupers as 70% to 90% of groupers are caught before they reach sexual maturity and have a chance to reproduce which results in a decrease in the number of juveniles to repopulate the reefs.

Shaa (Bottom Right) and Evans (Top Right) after a grouper dissection session with students.

As an effort to save the grouper fishery in the Maldives and prevent the species from being endangered, The BLUE’s team has set an export size limit to the groupers and implemented marine reserves on five of the groupers’ spawning areas in the Maldives. However, Shaa and her team aim to propose revised size limits for the fishery and implement well managed marine reserves to protect groupers to the Maldivian government.

“The recent spread of coral bleaching in the Maldives can also be overcome if we can maintain an environment for the sustainability of groupers” said Shaa.

Shaa identified the highlight of her work as engaging with cooperative and honest fishermen, who provided data for their research. It had come as quite a shock to her to see that the fishermen did not hesitate to cooperate with the team and it had sparked all the more determination in her towards their work.

Looking back on her experiences, Shaa noted on the importance of working together with the fisherman for effective results.

One of Shaa’s most contented accomplishments was the chance to associate students on project activities. As the teams’ outreach effort to grow beyond teaching in a classroom environment, local students over the atoll and students of the Maldives National University were presented with the opportunity to partake in the practical fieldwork during grouper dissection sessions.

Together with Six Senses Laamu and the Manta Trust, the team has carried out island visits over the atoll to ensure that no communities were excluded from the programme and hold open community sessions for the Laamu atoll residents to learn about the ongoing research at Shaa and her team’s project site.

Shaa and Evans after an awareness session on grouper fishery.

However, of all her experiences in working on the BLUE project, Shaa’s most cherishable moments have been underwater.

Shaa first plunged into her love for the ocean at the age of 11, after her first snorkeling experience. Shaa’s first reward to herself once she joined the workforce, was to become a certified diver. She is grateful for the opportunity to work in the environment her heart feels at most ease.

“Born on the wrong island”, says Shaa referring to the lack of sea,sun and sand during her life spent in the capital city Mal’e.

“Male was always too hectic of a lifestyle for me. I miss my family and friends and wish I could bring them to enjoy island life as I do. Life in the city was never for me. The choice to move came easy for me as I had always wanted to move to an island and work where my love for the ocean is at home” said Shaa.

Sharing a passion for the ocean, Shaa found her ‘fish in the sea’ and finally settled with her husband in Laamu Atoll. Her husband’s support has helped her stay steadfast in her work, and she wishes to continue working on the project until it reaches targeted results. Shaa aspires to pursue a different project soon, whilst continuing to advance her experience as a divemaster.

Today, Shaa continues her working to ensure that the government sets the proposed regulations and further create awareness among the people of Maldives to bring a change, together.

Proud of all that she has achieved over the year, Shaa holds a strong power of purpose. It might also be why her conviction that her work to bring about a change has only just begun, is sure to leave everyone that knows her filled with anticipation to see what she will accomplish next!

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