Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dispatch from the field_Maldives_ Michele Westmorland

It had been six years since I last visited the Maldives. This delicate island nation is located in the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lanka and may well not exist in 75 years due to global warming. As I arrived in country, I noticed signs placed throughout the capital of Male – “Vote for Change”. It seems they had an election that closely paralleled our own. The young new president is ready for the challenge of taking care of current issues and possibly moving his people to a new land.

Immediate concerns, however, are of the utmost importance.
The Maldives depends on the tourist industry and fishing to sustain them.
In the past, Maldivian fishermen were careful of their take.
Today, there are the typical external influences that are
taking a toll on the fish population.

During my 10 days of diving, I noticed a marked decline in shark species. They are the balance to all the rest of the species. In an interview with a very keen Maldivian divemaster, I questioned the current fishing practices. At his request, I will not use his name but know that his credentials as an expert in the area are solid. It is quite apparent that shark fining is a big industry. Although illegal, it is still secretly going on. “It’s like the drug trade” he remarked. The fins are shipped out any way possible with the authorities looking the other way. And here is the hardest of stories to hear. Unconfirmed but I believe it to be true – whale shark dorsal fins and manta ray wing tips are also appearing in the illegal exports. Whale shark fins are highly prized and bring a large dollar amount but are not necessarily used in the soup. They are just big trophies. Manta ray wing tips when dried, look just like shark fin. It is the old story of the need to have a replacement income for the villagers or eliminate the demand. The dive, surfing and other associations are trying to stop the carnage but until the new president gets the message, it will continue to be an uphill battle.

I asked the dive master what his other concern was regarding the marine environment and he said the next biggest problem was garbage. Some of the boat operations just dump their trash when the clients are asleep at night. Meetings are held and discussions go on but the behavior continues. It’s a serious problem with the plastics and the turtle population is being reduced. Turtles ingest the plastic thinking it is jellyfish and, of course, die. The Maldives does have designated islands for trash drop off. All is burned as recycling product from such a remote island nation is cost prohibitive. The resorts seem to do OK with their trash with a few operations such as Six Senses, are very environmentally sensitive about their operations. My congratulations to Six Senses for their continued concern and attention to our planet.

According to my source it was even disclosed that one major European dive publication refused to run an interview talking about these issues for fear of losing advertising!

As iLCP photographers, our travels give us the distinct privilege of speaking
with the locals and learning what is really
happening inside their borders.

- Michele

Check out Michele's website!

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