Supporting Reef Resilience in the Face of Changing Fishing Practices in the Lakshadweep Islands
Tropical coral reefs face an uncertain future because of the harmful effects of global climate change and other stressors such as overfishing. Understanding why some reefs are able to withstand these disturbances while others succumb to them is critical to managing the ecosystems in order to maximize their resilience. However, separating global impacts from more localized pressures such as fishing is difficult, because they often interact in complex ways. The Lakshadweep Archipelago in India offers an ideal situation to examine these factors, even though it is densely populated with humans. Before the 1970s, fishing communities in most of Lakshadweep depended almost exclusively on lagoon and reef resources, although fishermen with canoes would sometimes employ hook and line farther offshore. However, economic dependence on Lakshadweep reefs decreased with the initiation of a government-sponsored program to promote pelagic skipjack tuna fisheries in the 1970s and ’80s. For decades, Lakshadweep fishermen have focused on tuna rather than species that dwell in the reefs, resulting in an abundance of species such as parrot, grouper, and snapper fish. This incidental reduction in reef fishing pressure appears to have been critical to the resilience that Lakshadweep has shown to other harmful events. But as tuna populations decline, shifts in global markets and uncertainties in pelagic tuna stocks are making fishermen look again to reef fishing as an economic alternative.
In his Pew Fellows project, Rohan Arthur will seek to better understand the contribution of fish to reef resilience. The information he gathers will be used to support management options in light of changing resource and fishing pressures. Identifying and measuring fish abundance and function in the ecosystem, he will determine the role of fish in reef resistance and recovery from stress factors. He will also develop an archipelago-wide map of relative resilience and human-caused stressors. A key component to his project will be engaging with local fishing communities to discuss the short- and long-term costs and benefits of reef fishery choices. Additionally, because customs of regulating reef fisheries are poorly recorded for most of the Lakshadweep Archipelago, Arthur aims to document these practices by interviewing older reef fishermen and community members who are familiar with old laws practiced in the islands. He will then work to incorporate these practices into the modern institutions of reef management. Arthur hopes this work will result in fishing choices that are informed by an ecologically sound understanding of reef resilience.