Today, I caught a tuna.
It was the first fish I had ever caught in my life. And the first tuna that had to die because of me for a long time.
I haven’t eaten tuna for about three years. Not because I don’t like the taste of it – I actually love it – but because tuna stocks throughout the world’s oceans are either overfished or being overfished.
Why? Because the majority of the world’s skipjack tuna is caught by purse seine fishing boats that use fish aggregating devices (FADs).
Levels of by-catch, which includes untargeted fish species, sharks, turtles as well as juvenile tuna, are especially high in purse seine fisheries and long-line fisheries.
But there’s another way of catching tuna – and a sustainable and fair one. And that’s how I caught my first tuna.
I had arrived in the Maldives on the Rainbow Warrior to witness the world’s most sustainable fishing practice: pole and line. It’s a traditional fishing method, passed down through the generations, providing jobs and livelihoods for these small atolls with not many other forms of sustenance.
At 5:30 am we were picked up by the dhoni, a traditional Maldivian fishing boat.
The weather was rough and the sea became choppier as we left the protection of the atoll, but we soon reached the anchored FAD, which operates as a type of fish magnet.
FADs can increase the efficiency and safety of operations of pole and line fishing, but close monitoring is needed to ensure they do not increase the catch of non-target fish species, especially juvenile tuna.
Once there, I could see the unmistakable signs of a tuna shoal – sea birds were circling, the dark backs of dolphins were visible and several other dhoni boats were already hauling tuna from the waters.
Our fishermen soon gathered at the back of the dhoni and two of the crew started to throw live bait into the water to create a “feeding frenzy”. The hungry tuna will then bite anything that moves in the water – including a fisherman’s hook.
When the fish bite, the fishermen yank the poles up and throw the tuna over their shoulders on to the boat. The captain keeps a close watch and carefully positions the boat to maximise the catch.
The crew usually stays out for several hours, catching at times a few tonnes of fish every day, but without taking out the entire school of tuna or other creatures that swim with it. This is sustainability as tradition.
And there is much to protect here: fishing represents around 6 to 8 % of the country’s GDP and remains the country’s most important export commodity.
Tuna is revered by the Maldivian people and is eaten salted, dried or curried. It is the islands’ only plentiful source of animal protein, and along with coconut one of the few foods the country produces.
And even though the fishermen were muttering about women bringing bad luck to boats, I was given time to hold the pole in the water.
It was heavier than I imagined and without the help of two fishermen – one holding me and another one helping me holding the pole – I couldn’t even have stood there.
As soon as the live bait was in the water though, I saw the skipjack approach and the water looked like it was boiling, bubbling and splashing.
I was about to ask how I would know that a tuna had bitten the hook, when I felt a strong pull on the line. Two minutes later and the fish was pulled onto the dhoni by the fishermen. It was a big one – about 70 cm in length and around 6 kg in weight. A mature skipjack.
I felt sorry for it, but I also feel that by selecting pole and line tuna, consumers around the world will support one of the most sustainable and equitable tuna fisheries in the world. They will also be supporting the livelihoods of the people who depend on the ocean for their existence.
If consumers demand their tuna brands stop sourcing fish from purse seine nets that are used around destructive FADs they will further support the transformation of the fishing industry into a more sustainable and equitable one.
And as we headed back to shore, our day at and end, I thought again of my catch. It was perhaps not the biggest one, but certainly the fairest.
Andrea Rid is currently onboard the Rainbow Warrior in the Indian Ocean. She is based in Greenpeace Switzerland’s Zurich office.