In the 1980s, Maldivian fisheries represented the lion’s share of catches in the Indian Oceans, but today, while unsustainable practices have flourished, Maldivian fishermen have stayed true to their pole-and-line method, catching each fish one by one. Adley Ismail, CEO of Maldives Industrial Fisheries Co. Ltd, explains how this traditional way of fishing has created one of the world’s most eco-friendly fishing products.
Can you provide our readers a brief history of the Maldives Industrial Fisheries Co. Ltd (MIFCO)?
Set up as a Japanese joint venture in 1977, the company known as MIFCO today was originally a fish cannery. Since then, we have operated under various names, including as the export department of the State Trading Organization (STO). In 1986, the government acquired our factory from the Japanese, converting the 8-ton, fish-canning factory into a 50-ton cannery. During 2009, MIFCO was divided into three different companies: Felivaru Fisheries Maldives, our north factory; Kooddoo Fisheries Complex, our south factory; and our head office in Male. We suffered a lot because of this division, and later re-merged the company.
What makes the Maldives’ fisheries industry the most sustainable in the world?
We cherish the fact that Maldivian fishery is naturally sustainable by all means. Our method of pole-and-line fishing that was passed on from our forefathers is the reason why still more than 35,000 families get to earn income from this occupation, feed an entire nation from their catch and even share it with the world. Maldivians have always had a great respect for the ocean and environment. They catch only the target species and just the sufficient amount each trip. We believe it is this discipline that we have inherited that has preserved the tuna stock. Tuna is the main source of protein in our diet, which is present during all meals.
Today, the Maldives is the only MSC-certified country that’s exclusively pole and line. However, a big challenge for the Maldives is that pole and line is not a cheap method of fishing, although it is very environmentally friendly because there is no harm done to marine life and there is no bycatch. Our fishermen are like hunters, catching fish one by one, while seine fishermen just drag a net through the sea, scooping up all marine life indiscriminately. Another challenge is that our fishery is very small. About 30 years back, 80% of Indian Ocean catch was from the Maldives, and the remaining 20% came from other methods of fishing like trolling and drag net. Today, 20% of the Indian Ocean’s catch is from the Maldives and 80% is from seine fishing. The shift has been dramatic and towards the less sustainable side, but thanks to our presence in IOTC, we have been able to lobby for quota and sustainability issues.
What makes your brand of tuna special?
For us, it is the story behind the can; it is the story of the fishermen. MIFCO provides “naturally sustainable” fish products because our fishermen catch them in the most naturally sustainable manner. This is instinctual for us because our lives are so attached to the sea. We want to show the world that this is not just a can of tuna for us, and there is discussion to create a national brand that would be called “Maldives Tuna.” Promotion is important and that is why this will be our third year at the World Tuna Conference in Thailand, where MIFCO will be a platinum sponsor.
What are your major export markets and which brands carry your tuna?
The major two buyers of our tuna today are the UK and Germany. Initially, only the UK was truly receptive to the pole-and-line product. Our factory can now pack for any premium brand in the world. For example, we are packing for one of the most premium supermarket chains in the UK– Waitrose, who has one of the strictest audits.
How did the Maldives survive the shock of the pricing crash two years ago?
Two years ago, the price crashed to $900 per ton of fish; a comfortable price level is normally $1,800 dollars. The fisheries industry proved to be resilient because the government sustained prices throughout the downturn. One of the reasons why we remain under STO today is because during these crises we’ll have had the ability to tap government support. In the last two years, fishing has been good in the Maldives. We are proud to say that pole-and-line, MSC-certified tuna has become the gold standard, and major brands have been entertaining us.
Where does the majority of your catch come from?
The area around the southern city of Addu has been one of the best fishing grounds in the Maldives, so we’ve started work to open a factory there by mid-2018. We’ve also decided to build a freezing facility in Addu so that fishermen will have the capacity to buy 100 tons of fish per day. Usually, we get about 8,000 tons of fish per year in Addu alone.
Where do you believe the Maldives needs to build upon its in value chain?
Once we start packing fish more in the Maldives, the margins we will get will be much higher. However, I would not support a switch to 100% packing in the Maldives. Our major export product is canned tuna, and we will not have the capacity to compete with major producers. That’s why we should feed some countries a portion of our raw material, preferably Thailand, because that’s where the major canneries are. Our frozen tuna already goes to Thailand, where it is then exported to the UK. Our new Addu facility will allow more flexibility with buying fish, not processing, but we are also planning to invest in two more processing plants, which we will start construction on shortly. Those two plants would cover 75% of our collection, while the remaining 25% can continue to be sent as raw material exports
Why should brands looking to source sustainable products seek out MIFCO?
Sustainability is a highly trending topic in today’s business. However, it is not a new concept to us. For the Maldivian fishermen, preservation by all means is a natural instinct and is embedded in our culture. MIFCO is proud to deliver the products of responsible fisheries to growing eco-conscious economies where this hardship and dedication is appreciated. For retailers and hotel chain brands thriving to be relevant to responsible shoppers, I believe MIFCO’s products are a natural fit. We have a responsibility to our fishermen to create consumer appreciation for the legacy that is packed in each of our can along with the tuna. MIFCO and our partner fisheries are investing to develop the industry to cater to growing markets. Despite widened investments, the premium quality of our brand and its value will not be compromised. We do not believe in exploiting a sacred natural resource for a commercial advantage.
Why should Gulf buyers work with a premium Maldives tuna brand?
We already export a small amount of fresh tuna to the Middle East, and we are considering opening up a MIFCO store in the region. There are a lot of hotel chains and major brands that are looking for sustainable food products. These hotels often mention on their menus how their steaks are sourced from a sustainable farm; this could be done with our tuna, as well. MIFCO will match trends to offer just-in-time delivery, where hotels get their supplies at the doorstep every day so there is no need to keep stocks.
Why should international fish buyers consider working with MIFCO?
We are keen to work together with businesses to share our added-value brand. The concept has already been successfully implemented amongst European customers, and there is high potential in opening up exports to flourishing economies such as the Middle East. Taking the leadership would be wise choice and MIFCO is committed to extend marketing support to interested brands. The chilled yellow fin tuna products are processed within 48 hours of catch to be delivered fresh to our sushi- and shashimi-fond customers. For sandwiches and other delectable canned tuna recipes, we have a range of convenient packaging in cans and pouches that will suit different scale of businesses. Our customers can proudly enjoy the tasty meals made from a quality product while knowing that they have wholeheartedly contributed to the continuity of a responsible supply chain.