In just a few days savvy investors will be able to put their money where there mouths are by investing in the world’s first investment fund devoted strictly to fish.
Amundi Japan (which manages a $35 billion fund) is hoping to raise at least $500 million in investment dollars on the back of a booming global appetite for fish. Its pitch is straightforward: As demand for fish grows, the richer those who engage in the industry of fishing become. That includes fishing boat and engine makers, processing plants, chains of seafood and sushi restaurants and, especially, aquaculture or fish farms.
Twinned with the fact that the most-populous countries on the planet – China, India and Brazil – are still growing and growing slightly wealthier, thus more desirous of healthy eating, and it’s looking bad for the planet’s dwindling fish stocks.
That’s not to say there’s not money to be made off fish and all if its ancillary businesses; Amundi’s managers are predicting investors will double their money within six years, as demand continues to grow.
Researchers at Amundi, a merger formed by French-based Credit Agricole and Societe-Generale’s asset management businesses, suggest global seafood consumption will grow from 110 million tons today to more than 132 million tons by 2030. Its public mutual fund will be available for investment beginning August 9 and begin operating on August 20.
The downside, of course, is that as demand for fish goes up the supply goes down. Contrary to some popular opinion, fish are not an infinite resource. Such cynics (realists?) as the World Wildlife Fund predict that at the current rate of taking the world’s bluefin tuna stocks, for example, could expire by 2012 and that all the fish we currently know will be gone by 2050, replaced by fish we currently refuse to take because they are hard to catch or have no taste or jellyfish, the cockroach of the sea.
Critics compare the investment opportunity to offering a rainforest depletion fund or a real estate development project in the middle of a panda refuge.
The so-called “themed investment” fund is the product of investment bankers watching the headlines. “There’s a reasonably good correlation between per capital GDP growth and consumption of fish in emerging markets, which are growing fast with huge populations, so we thought this could be an interesting investment story,” Amundi’s chief investment officer Masato Degawa told the WSJ.
Statistics bear him out: According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, global fish consumption per person has increased to more than 35 pounds a year in 2007 from 23 pounds in 1980. During the same period total production of fish around the globe increased from 72 million to 140 million tons. In China, for example, the average consumption of fish per person increased by nearly five pounds to 58 pounds per person between 2001 and 2007.
The world’s leaders in per-capita-fish-consumption are all in Asia: Despite its rapacious seafood appetite, Japan ranks fourth in the world, with each Japanese eating more than his/her bodyweight in fish, about 155 pounds a year.
The planet’s highest rate is in the Maldives, where each person eats 336 pounds a year! But don’t let those numbers confuse: Japan is still the world’s leader in fish eating. It’s 127 million people eat more than 20 billion pounds of seafood each year, while in the Maldives, its 1,200 islands boasting just 335,000 people, takes just 112 million pounds.
What about the bluefin tuna, which everyone but the Japanese seems to think, is endangered. Tuna fishers and processors are viable investments according to Amundi. “We are not the police,” said Degawa
Some of the news reports of the unique fund as reported in business journals around the globe caution that there may be one potential “sticking point” to the investment: Overfishing.
Hopefully the fund’s salesmen will caution potential investors that if there are no more fish in the sea there won’t be much need for fishing boats, fishing rods or even seafood markets. To that end, Amundi predicts that the bulk of its fish fund investments will be in fish farming, a booming industry, since levels of caught fish have evened off since 1990.
Reading the Times today I got very nostalgic. A trio of stories took me back to places I’ve traveled over the years and characters I’ve met, ironically while reporting for the Times.
I’m just back recently from the Maldives so read with great interest the Magazine’s profile of the country’s new president Mohamed Nasheed and his struggles with preparing his low-lying country for inevitable sea level rise. Or at least it seems inevitable; there are a couple voices in the story that suggest rising seas may not be an assured thing. I first visited the Maldives in 2005, on assignment for the Times, just weeks after tsunami waves killed eight hundred of its residents.
Jeffrey Gettleman’s profile of a Somali pirate leader, set on land rather than sea, is eye opening, especially on the heels of the series we ran last week about a passenger ship making its way up the coast, dodging pirates. The story paints a picture of battling forces within Somalia, debating the propriety of rebels wreaking havoc on the open seas. While pirate leaders continue to argue that over fishing by international fleets and the complete lack of government in Somalia has lead to the need for piracy, they’re having a hard time selling the argument even at home. The best part of the story was that its “hero” had already burned through several hundred thousand dollars in ransom he’d personally collected, claiming, “It’s not like three people split a million bucks. It’s more like 300.”
Closer to home there’s a fun profile of the coming 40th anniversary of Woodstock in the Style section … which prompted me to search and reread the story I wrote for the Times Magazine about Woodstock on its 25th anniversary. What hasn’t changed in the past fifteen years? The original organizers still don’t get along (though one of the original foursome – John Roberts – passed away in 2001). Will they be able to get their collective shit together and host some kind of 40th bash?
Saffah Faroog sips a mango juice and continues explaining the history of the Maldives oldest environmental group, Bluepeace, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. He is its communications director, a volunteer like the rest of its staff, and has a great story to share – the organization has a great web presence and a long history of doing the right thing in the Maldives by keeping environmental stories in the news. There’s no lack of subject matter with beach erosion, species loss, the impact of climate change and rising sea levels and the still lingering after effects of the 2004-tsunami, still daily stories.
“Perhaps the most impressive thing for us here in the Maldives,” he says, “is that just two years ago I would never had a conversation in public with you like this, not about these subjects. We had to be very careful about everything we wrote, anything we said in public or private, because almost anything could be construed as a potential criticism of the government, thus possibly resulting in recrimination.
“You have to remember that our new president was a journalist turned civil rights activist who was jailed and tortured and once held in solitary confinement for 18 months for criticizing the government. And that wasn’t so long ago.”
Saffah is from one of the southern atolls but has lived in Male most of his life. A writer and editor, he’s traveled outside of the Maldives a few times, has even seen snow, in Bhutan. He volunteered full-time for six months last year to help get the new president elected. His take on the new administration is “so far, so good,” but he admits that as well as a handful of serious environmental issues – which President Mohammed Nasheed has already taken on directly, especially in the court of world opinion – there are other serious issues that need immediate attention.
“Here where we sit, the capital island of Male is one of the most crowded places on earth. One hundred thousand people live on an island just one square mile. In the last few years we have serious problems of drugs and gangs. One third of everyone under twenty-five uses heroin; we have stabbings and murders on the street are frequent. The drugs manage to sneak through the airport or the seaport. It’s becoming a dangerous place to live and the president has to do something about that.” While hopeful, he says he has “mixed opinions about the new administration,” especially concerns that sizable projects are being begun without sufficient public consultation.
My experience in island nations is that it’s hard to talk with locals about long-term environmental issues like climate change and rising seas since their temperament is to look only as far as tomorrow or next week, not decades into the future, a kind of island version of manana. Faroog agrees that it can be tricky here too. “The impacts of climate change seem very far away to them, which I understand. But we have to keep having those conversations.
“In Male we are just one meter above the sea; they are already building a new island that is two meters above sea level, which should be sufficient in a doomsday scenario. I don’t see that as a solution for Male’s problems. But when those on the outer islands hear the new president talk about creating a fund from tourist revenues to use to buy land to move us one day from the islands … they are indifferent.
“Of course rising seas are our major concern. But so are warming seas, which impact our coral, lead to more erosion, harm the fish life and impact daily life. Everything here is simple … and everything is connected.”
THE PROBLEM WITH SAND
Intertwined with concerns about rising sea levels and the potential impact on this, the lowest-lying country in the world, are worries about beach erosion. One afternoon this past week I sat on a seemingly hot, calm day and watched as small tidal waves crashed onto the sand beach. Each wave seemed to climb higher up the beach, each washing a new swath of sand off the beach from beneath the mangroves and into the sea.
On some Maldivian islands it’s estimated that four out of eight homes have already been lost to beach erosion. Careful environmental planning has not been the watchword for development here; one concern is that as the population grows and prospers there is more demand for building of homes, work places and new ports. Development requires cement, which needs sand. While efforts have been made in recent years to limit how much of sand for construction can be taken locally and how much needs to be imported, it’s a fine line in the sand here.
Mohammed Jarrad and his four-man crew left the dock in their slow-chugging dhoni at five this morning. When I meet them unloading the day’s catch just as they sun disappears it means they’ve been at it for fourteen hours, a typical day for a Maldivian fishermen. The haul? About 150 kilos (330 pounds). Not bad, he says, about average. “Though sometimes we have days when we catch 500 kilos … but those are fewer and fewer.”
Photo: Fiona Stewart
As he and his team hand the fish up onto the dock from the back of the flat-decked boat they fill plastic crate after plastic crate with dorado, blue and yellow fin tuna, skipjack and one sizable barracuda. By law, every fish caught in Maldivian waters has to be caught by “pole and line.” No net fishing, no bottom trawling no seining. Which is a good thing for the health of the fishing grounds, which extend 200 miles off the edges of the Maldives 26 atolls. Yet there are still problems.
Sharks, which used to be prolific here, are largely gone due to over fishing (thanks, as in so many parts of the world, to China’s demand for shark fins). Sea cucumber numbers are quickly declining and the government stopped issuing export licenses for fishing for giant clams to prevent serious exhaustion and possible extinction. Tuna and the other popular edibles, while still abundant, have all diminished for a simple reason: Demand. The permanent population of the Maldives has boomed in the past decade, to nearly 400,000. Add to that the 600,000 tourists now coming every year and the pressure mounts.
“Unfortunately we see the pressure on the fish,” says marine biologist Anke Hofmeister, citing the lobster haul as example. “Sometimes the fishermen will bring in female lobsters with the eggs scraped off, hoping we won’t notice (taking female lobsters is illegal), and often they are smaller than the law permits. But the demand is high from the resorts, so too often some buyers are looking the other way.”
As a percentage of the country’s business, fishing has slipped as tourism has boomed. In the 1970s fishing provided thirty percent of the nation’s revenues; in the 1990s, fifteen percent, in 2000, just six percent. By comparison, tourism now provides over forty percent of the country’s GDP.
Watching these tuna fisherman do their job is one of the wildest fishing scenes I’ve ever seen. A commercial fishing boat here is rudimentary in comparison to much of the rest of the world. Twenty to twenty five feet long, wooden, with a long, flat deck interrupted only by a small, three-sided cabin, which is used mostly for shade during the long, hot days at sea. A long rudder, usually manipulated by the captain’s foot, does the steering.
Eight to ten fishermen (always men, never women) bait long poles and cast off the deck simultaneously, and have been known to reel in more than one thousand tuna in an hour. Boats with automated poles can be even more “productive.”
Half the catch in the Maldives is for local use, the other half is frozen or canned and exported to
Southeast Asia, a $50 million a year enterprise. Mohammed J. and his four-person crew go out six days a week, motoring at least two hours from home each morning. His take this day for the 150 kilos will be about $375, split among five men. On average, each man will earn around $350 a week.
As the setting sun turns the sky purple and orange I ask how often they see green turtles – illegal to catch, but once a mainstay of the local diet here – and he says “every day.”
“It is hard to watch them just swim by,” he says of the turtles, which can weight up to four hundred pounds. “But we do.”
I trust that he’s telling me the truth, though he looks away as he is answering. It’s hard in these communities for them to change their habits; certainly his father and grandfather and great-grandfather fed their families off green turtles often.
It has been several years in coming, but this morning the Maldives first waste-to-wealth environmental center opened on Kunfunadhoo Island. The brainchild of Soneva Fushi owner Sonu Shivadsani, the hands-on work of creating and overseeing the building the so-called Eco-Centro is credited to Wayne “Wadzy” Wadsworth, an Australian permaculturist and eco-engineer who’s been hatching the place in the heart of the jungle for many months.
If sustainability and treading lightly are the goals on this remote island Eco-Centro should go a long way to achieving that end. From the burning of fallen trees and those cleared to make paths, comes charcoal which is used for cooking on the island, saving $50,000 a year previously spent on … charcoal. Compost is turned into bio-gas which, among other things, helps power all those hot showers. Cardboard is composted, glass and coconut husks are shredded (by separate machines) and reused. Bamboo – a great carbon dioxide vacuum – has been planted to offset any carbon put into the blue sky above the island. Alongside the island’s organic gardens and drinking water filtering system, self-sufficiency is getting closer. Now they’ll just have to work on the organic wines. In casks, not bottles.
In the audience for the grand opening were the country’s vice president, a handful of local elected officials, journalists, students from nearby Eydhafushi and even a few ”spies” – employees from nearby resorts keen on potentially mimicking the enviro center … which would be the highest form of compliment.
Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva Malmström Shivdasani, respectively Founder/Chairman/CEO and Creative Director of the Six Senses resorts scattered mostly around Southeast Asia, hardly need another pat on the back. Virtually every travel magazine and association in the world has at some point during the past dozen years awarded them every “best of” award in the book and every “green” group in the world has lauded their sustainable approach to the resort business. What they do need – and nothing would make them happier – are imitators.
Photo: Fiona Stewart
I’ve been around the world and seen a variety of hoteliers trying very hard to reduce their property’s footprint as well as every bizarre stretch imaginable to claim “eco-resort” status … whatever that term has come to mean. In far too many cases resorts add “eco-resort” to their promotional literature based simply on having placed a card on the side table next to the bed that says if you hang your used towel on the back of the door rather than toss it on the floor, they won’t wash it … thus saving all that hot water and suds. Which is a start. But Sonu, Eva and their teams around the world go so much farther. If every hotelier and resort followed their model, carbon neutrality would quickly become the status quo among resorts of all stars.
Here in the Maldives, Soneva Fushi is nearest to Sonu and Eva’s hearts because it was their first hotel (today their portfolio boasts 26 resorts either open or under development and 41 spas they either own or manage). Sonu – born in London to an Indian family that made a fortune exporting oil and more from Nigeria – leased the jungled island in 1990, in the heart of the Baa atoll. Then in his late 20s, he intended it as a gift for his wife, a former Swedish fashion model.
His idea was to build a kind of Robinson Crusoe escape for the two of them. But … one thing led to another and five years later they opened their first hotel; today the 65-villa island hideaway has made all those lists of both the most luxurious and most green in the world. Which was the goal from the beginning. (Forty percent of their guests are returnees and have been labeled Slow-Lifers: Sustainable – Local – Organic – Wholesome Learning – Inspiring – Fun – Experiences.)
Photo: Fiona Stewart
So … what does qualify as a super-green resort these days? Here it includes a brand new, island-wide recycling eco-center. Air conditioning provided from a unique underwater system that delivers cold water from the depths of the ocean (a $1 million investment that Sonu anticipates will pay for itself in four years.) An organic garden. Recycled … everything, from jute garbage bags to elephant dung paper. A carbon offset program (two percent of every villa rental goes into a fund to offset pollution created by the international flights, float plane and boat rides necessary to get here.) A heat recovery system, which captures heat off the island’s generators for all those long hot showers. Filtered drinking water and sparkling water made on-site. And, by September, the whole operation will be entirely solar.
“We have committed to being completely carbon neutral by the end of next year (2010),” says Sonu, who I first met here in 2005, just weeks just after the tsunami waves raced across the Maldives and through his resort.
The country’s new president is following Soneva Fushi’s example closely. One week ago Mohammed Nasheed committed to making his country the first carbon neutral country in the world by 2020. Among the first persons he called was Sonu. “The minister of tourism and minister of environment have been here many times,” Soneva Fushi’s general manager Philippe Cavory says. “They are all very interested in how we actually do the things we say we’re going to do.”
Cavory points out that most hoteliers would look at Sonu’s way of doing business and scoff at its seemingly high cost, i.e. 400 local employees when 200 could do the job or the experimental air conditioning system that required $1 million up front. “Most people in the hotel business would see that as too much. But the thing about Sonu is that he’s not looking at what’s going to happen ten years from now, he’s looking at 200 years from now. He wants to keep this area clean and growing and he wants to keep the employees happy because he imagines their great-great-grandkids working as waiters here one day.”
Best of all, no luxury sacrificed due to all the green-ness. Sonu is not against fun either; Soneva Fushi boasts the only drive-in theater in the Maldives, though everyone arrives by bicycle rather than car.
Photo: Fiona Stewart
While I admire all of Sonu’s sustainability efforts, what I most admire is the resort’s commitment to the local community. Soneva Fushi recently paid for a new pre-school on the nearby island of Eydhafushi. Each year it hosts week-long Nature Trips bringing one hundred kids from the capital city of Male to the island to teach them about the wildlife here … and often how to swim. “It’s amazing,” says Anke Hofmeister, the resort’s fulltime marine biologist, “that many of these island kids have never learned to swim, nor know anything about their own backyard.”
In June Soneva Fushi – and its sister resort, Soneva Gili, water bungalows located just a 20-minute boat ride from the country’s lone airport in Male –will start promoting what they’re calling a “win-win” program. Come for 14 days and volunteer four days as a teacher, hospital worker, farming assistant or with the resorts’ waste-to-wealth project and they’ll give you fourteen more nights’ accommodation … free.
Photo: Fiona Stewart