The fish in a bamboo flask

It’s a cloudless day in April two degrees north of the equator. I’m floating in a turquoise lagoon off an island in Laamu Atoll, Maldives, breathing through my snorkel. Below, light zigzags over the reef, catches fish mid-turn, and makes corals glow an ethereal blue. The surge from waves breaking nearby is strong, and the fish and I pendulum back and forth with the water. I’m struck by the number of juvenile corals on this patch of reef. Their skeletons are young, pale green, sky blue, and healthy. Once—perhaps when I was about five years old—this reef might have cast longer shadows and thrived with the permanence of a forest. But that’s not the world I live in anymore. Today, the presence of these babies is joy enough. Scleractinian foliage. It means the reef is recovering.

I look up and find that I have drifted, so I begin a slow swim back towards the beach. A line of yellow and red umbrellas comes into view as I get closer. People recline on beach chairs under pools of shade in a desert of sand. Someone sips on a bright blue cocktail the colour of the ocean I am just wading out of. The irony of this scene is not lost on me. We stare out at the horizon, enjoying the view. Meanwhile, the sand is slipping out from under our feet. And I mean that quite literally—80% of the land area of the Maldives is barely a meter above sea level. But the history of these islands is one of resilience, not fragility. And central to this story is fish.

Contrary to its view in popular imagination as being a remote paradise, the Maldives has actually been at the centre of Indian Ocean trade and commerce for hundreds of years. In the 14th century, the famous explorer Ibn Battuta landed on these shores and stayed for four years. One of the first things he noted in his records (1) was the existing fishery at the time. People’s diets, he said, consisted of “a fish…which they call koulb al mâs. Its flesh is red, it has no grease. When caught at the fishery, each fish is cut up into four pieces, and then slightly cooked…it is eaten when perfectly dry.” Three hundred years after him, a French explorer, François Pyrard de Laval, was shipwrecked in this archipelago. He too noted (2) this fishery, writing with some surprise that the islanders “are daily dispatching cargoes of this to Achen in Sumatra and elsewhere.” The fish they were referring to was tuna. And perhaps Pyrard’s surprise was justified—tuna is not easy to fish, and yet these small islands were catching enough to ship around the world.

Since then, archaeological digs have found tuna remains dating back to the 9th century in the Maldives. References to tuna abound in local lore. A folktale from the islands tells how a famous navigator, Bodu Niyami Takurufanu, first captured the soul of one of these fish in a bamboo flask on a voyage in far-off waters. He released it when he returned to his home island, and ever since, it is said that skipjack tuna have been abundant in the Maldives.

While tuna has likely been eaten in these islands for a long time, it was old trade networks that cemented its place in the Indian Ocean world. The islands were an important port of trade for cowries, which were used as currency for almost a thousand years from the 9th to the 19th century. With cowries, tuna began to be exchanged too. Bags of dried tuna were transported to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, parts of India, and East Africa. The fish became so well known in the region that it was referred to as “Maldive fish” in Sri Lanka. Boats were specially constructed for tuna fishing in the
Maldives and veshi, or oral poems, communicated nautical directions that helped fishers navigate through dangerous passages in the ocean. This rich history of tuna fishing was part of the reason that, snorkeling over this reef in Laamu atoll, I felt hopeful for its recovery. Tuna had kept reef fishing historically light here. Now, a diverse and healthy population of reef fish was helping buffer these reefs from climatic disturbances, such as mass coral bleaching events.

Today, however, tourism is shifting this dynamic. Over 200 luxury resorts dot this archipelago. Built on islands without a human population, they offer palm trees and azure lagoons: picture postcard perfection. In 2019, over 1.5 million tourists visited the Maldives. The jobs this has created, and the development it has brought to the country cannot be overlooked. But on the other hand, its environmental impacts have been significant. Burning plastic piles high on Thilafushi island near Malé, where a permanent plume of grey smoke obscures the sky. Whale sharks, turtles, and mantas suffer regular propeller injuries from heavy boat traffic. Sewage runoff from land, the dredging of lagoons, and land reclamation have degraded once healthy habitats.

Tourism has also created a demand for fresh reef fish. Now, freshly caught snappers, emperors, and groupers sit on dinner plates in resorts and guest houses. People are fishing on reefs more than ever before. In the interviews that I conducted with residents last year, I found that reef fishes were becoming increasingly popular amongst locals. In fact, the majority of people I spoke to said they preferred to eat reef fish over tuna today. This reef fishery is currently unregulated. Parrotfish are the only species that are illegal to fish, but they are not uncommon in people’s catch. I asked a fisher who had just landed a catch of parrotfish whether he fished for them often. He said he did not. The only reason he had now was that the resort nearby had called, demanding fresh fish.

Why is unregulated reef fishing so worrisome? Unlike skipjack tunas that grow fast, mature early, and have a high population turnover, reef fish generally have longer life spans and are slow growing. This makes them easy to overexploit, as has happened in several places around the world. Importantly, reef fish play critical roles on coral reefs, helping them bounce back after major disturbances. Grazers, such as parrotfish, eat algae and keep substrates clean for young corals to settle and grow. Others slow the progression of coral disease, remove parasites, and prevent sand and sediment from accumulating on coral skeletons.

Until now, tuna has helped keep Maldives’ reefs underfished and relatively pristine. It’s these healthy reefs that have been monetised, appearing on t-shirts, postcards, and tourist brochures. It’s why glass-bottomed boats and dive charters can provide employment to so many people today. But unregulated reef fishing, a growing problem, has the potential to change all that.

Islands are mesocosms of the world. What happens here—how we manage these ecosystems, the pressures of development and tourism, and most importantly, how we define and prioritise the well-being of people who live here—can guide how we do this in larger continental systems. On small islands, these decisions can determine whether they continue to be inhabited into the future. The Maldives is an example of a place where an early form of globalization—trade— encouraged the growth of a sustainable fishery. This is now being threatened by a more recent globalization—tourism. Walking along the beach that day, the reef on one side and the resort on the other, it was easy to feel like these were two fundamentally irreconcilable entities. But as Barry Lopez recently wrote (3), it is “important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead”. History connects us, and sometimes, looking back is a good way to look forward.

Further reading

Litster, M. 2016. Cowry shell money and monsoon trade: the Maldives in past globalizations. PhD thesis, Australian National University.

Romero-Frias, X. 2012. Folk Tales of the Maldives. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Yadav, S., A. Abdulla, N. Bertz and A. Mawyer. 2019. “King Tuna: Indian Ocean Trade, Offshore Fishing, and Coral Reef
Resilience in the Maldives Archipelago.” ICES Journal of Marine Science, October 9.


(1)Gibb, H.A.R. 1953. Ibn Battuta Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, trans. by H. A. R Gibb, with an
Introduction and Notes. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, Abingdon and New York, paperback, 2011.

(2)Gray, A. & Bell, HCP. Eds. 2010. The Voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the
Maldives, the Moluccas, and Brazil, 1–3. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

(3)Lopez, Barry. 2020.Love in a time of terror.

This article is from issue


2021 Jun